Tester takes on war contracting

Great Falls Tribune

by Faith Bremner

WASHINGTON — Montana Sen. Jon Tester raised questions Wednesday about the U.S. gov­ernment's widespread use of pri­vate contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan and expressed amazement at how much taxpay­ers are spending on contractors to protect American officials and guard facilities.

The North Carolina based Blackwater USA charges the fed­eral government $1,222 a day for every security contractor it pro­vides, Tester pointed out in an oversight hearing concerning Defense Department and State Department contractors.

The Defense Department has 163,590 contractors in Iraq and 36,520 in Afghanistan, 9,200 of whom provide personal security. Most of the contractors provide support services, like preparing meals, and operating and main­taining high-tech weapons sys­tems. The State Department has 1,518 contractors, 792 of which provide personal security.

"This is well above what we pay our soldiers in the field," Tester, D-Mont., said during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. "That's pretty incredible from my perspective, it's truly incredible."

Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy said the cost includes housing, meals and trans­portation for the workers and is the best value for the taxpayers.

On a recent trip to Iraq, Kennedy said he asked top mili­tary officers if they had enough uniformed personnel to protect diplomatic staff and facilities.

"The answer was 100 percent uniformly 'no,' " Kennedy said.

The cost of using military con­tractors in Afghanistan and Iraq wasn't the only issue of concern among lawmakers.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted that the Army field manual, which sets forth the standards by which contractors may be hired, was written by a contractor.
  "It seems to me, (writing the manual) is an inherent govern­mental function," Collins said. "At least, it's an inherent conflict of interest."

Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said Congress should consider creating a licens­ing authority for security contrac­tors and setting training stan­dards and holding them account­able for their actions in the field. The FBI and the Justice Depart­ment are investigating a shooting by Blackwater security guards in Iraq in September in which 17 unarmed civilians were killed.

Tester said he's not sure con­tractors should be replacing uni­formed military personnel.

"One of the things the Ameri­can public doesn't understand, we think we've got 150,000 or 170,000 troops in Iraq," he said. "We're paying for twice that."