Tester questions cost of private security forces in Iraq

Senator demands reasons for paying contractors $445,000 per year

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Senator Jon Tester says the Bush Administration has some explaining to do about why it relies so heavily on expensive private security contractors in Iraq, where it spends a half-billion dollars every day.

Tester had tough questions for top leaders in the U.S. Defense and State Departments during a hearing this morning on Capitol Hill—specifically about billions of wasted dollars and a lack of transparency in Iraq.

"Any time a taxpayer dollar ends up unnecessarily in the hands of a contractor rather than going to buy body armor, bullets or other equipment for our troops, it is a travesty," Tester said.  "And we have a duty to try and prevent waste and fraud, and come down hard on those who engage in it."

That's why Tester had a lead role in establishing the Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan, independent panel designed to hold government contractors accountable and to save taxpayer money.

Today Tester said the Bush Administration isn't interested in getting to the bottom of waste, fraud and abuse by wartime contractors.  In fact, although the Commission on Wartime Spending passed the Senate unanimously, President Bush indicated he may block it.

About 11,000 private security contractors are now working in Iraq and Afghanistan—many of them foreign-born.  Tester has several concerns about the government's use of these private, armed contractors, including:

  • Transparency: The government has a lack of information about the terms of private contracts, especially costs.  Tester is also worried about a lack of standards for private contractors.
  • Accountability: Many contractors aren't subject to U.S. law, yet their actions—such as shootings—are often attributable to the U.S.  Tester worries U.S. troops are in danger of retaliation if private contractors get involved in hostile situations.
  • Cost: The largest contractor in Iraq, Blackwater U.S.A., charges the government more than $1,200 per day for its private security officers. That amounts to a salary of about $445,000 per year—over six times more than what a typical U.S. soldier is paid.

"One of the things I think that the American public doesn't understand and why red flags go up around contractors is because we think we've got 150 or 170 thousand troops in Iraq, but we're paying for twice that many, " Tester said, noting that only 17 percent of contractors are American-born.

Today's hearing to improve oversight of wartime contracting was held by the Senate Homeland Security Committee.  Witnesses included Patrick F. Kennedy, the Undersecretary of State for Management, and P. Jackson Bell, the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Logistics and Material Readiness.