The U.S. Government Accountability Office on Friday released the first two federal reports on problems associated with the government's soaring use of private military contractors.
The reports were prompted by a letter last May written by U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, and signed by more than 100 members of Congress. They asked for stronger government oversight of the industry, said David Cooper, who oversaw the studies for the GAO.
One report said federal record-keeping on the contracts was so poor that there were not enough data to determine how many contractors are working in Iraq or how many had been killed there.
"If we're going to continue to rely on contractors to such a degree, someone needs to make a more comprehensive effort to understand the costs so that we can make proper decisions about their use," Cooper said.
The report says that it's impossible to check for problems with the expensive workers' compensation insurance that the U.S. government has to fund for the tens of thousands of contractors working on the multibillion-dollar U.S.-led reconstruction because the records are so poor.
Price said Friday that he received a briefing on the reports Thursday by members of the GAO staff, and he called the findings troubling.
"It's very puzzling and distressing that they don't even have the basic information on these contracts," he said.
Shortly after the briefing, Price and several co-sponsors filed a bill to force the government to set tighter standards for contracting and to gather such basic information for each contract as the estimated cost, number of workers required and the amount of training necessary for them. Price said that his staff had worked with contractors, including Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater USA, on the bill.
The head of a trade group that includes private security companies said Friday that his members had no problem with the contents of Price's bill or a similar one expected to be introduced soon by Republicans.
The companies understand that accountability is important, said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association.
Two more GAO reports in the series will be released in the summer, Cooper said. Those will focus on private security contractors, who are hired by the government and its contractors for tasks such as guarding supply shipments, government buildings and diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One will examine how such companies win their government contracts. The other will look into issues such as whether military commanders have enough control over the civilians when the contractors operate in combat zones.
That's a question that arose in the wake of an insurgent ambush March 31, 2004, in Fallujah. Four Blackwater security contractors were killed, and TV images of a crowd mutilating their bodies helped trigger an uprising across Iraq. Marines responsible for security there were forced to assault the city and change their strategy for the entire region. Commanders later said they hadn't been told of the contractors' plans that day.
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