Tester takes on war contracting
Great Falls Tribune
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."