Holding Security Contractors Accountable

From the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire today:

Democrats push to hold security contractors responsible for abuses in Iraq. House legislation, attached to defense-authorization bill, would create a database and rules of engagement for contractors in war zone.

Presidential rivals Obama and Clinton back similar legislation in Senate, while other Democrats seek new FBI unit on contractor crimes.

A good start for accountability and better than the meaningless change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), but it still both short of the mark and not in the best direction. There is an underlying assumption that contractors, security or otherwise, are part of a functioning principal-agent relationship. Too often this is not the case and the agent does not see itself as an auxiliary of the principal (the US / Coalition) but as some kind of affiliate with an increased independence than should be permitted. There is not enough incentive, positive or otherwise, to compel or encourage the contractor to fully and wholly support the principal’s mission.

The case of Custer Battles is just one example, the Aegis “Trophy Video” and even Abu Ghraib are others. None of this can directly be blamed on the contractors, as authors like Scahill would have you believe. Contracts are negotiated, signed, renewed, and paid with some amount of consideration for the services, including personnel, rendered. Looked at form this angle, it is the principal — the United States — that has failed and some contractors, not all, have “gone off the reservation” (albeit the “reservation” was often ill-defined by the Coalition).

The database is a good start, but better would be to have more contracting officers fully engaged on the contracts and in contact with local ground commanders. Often, as the case of Custer Battles demonstrated, the ground commanders either do no know there is a contract officer or how to get in touch with. Custer Battles is not the exception. Base commanders often do not know how many contractors are operating on his base and has little if any control over them. 

The Aegis “Trophy Video” is an example of how using smart and complete contracting language would increase transparency, and thus accountability (remember Aegis is the company headed by Tim Spicer, the company that left everyone in bewilderment when it was awarded the largest contract ever given by the Pentagon). The investigation into the shooting resulted in a 200-page report. The Pentagon said the report found no wrong-doing but wouldn’t release it because it was the proprietary property of Aegis. Aegis would not release the report because it contained corporate secrets. Both said the men who did the shooting could not be identified despite the fact each man wore an Aegis supplied and monitored blue-force tracker. South Africa apparently find out one of the shooters was one of theirs and hence put him on trial in violation of their anti-mercenary laws. 

A better course of action than the database would be require better integration with military chains of command, financial penalties (or bonuses) for poor (or satisfactory) performance.

Even better yet would be to bring back the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) that was dismissed in the “spirit” of expediency (throwing out FAR is what gave Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale a story line).  

As far as the FBI, this is terrible idea. Inserting another layer is largely if not completely unworkable in an environment such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Philippines. A better solution, but not a great solution, is to work on legislation and contracting language that creates a special civil-military “bridge” office based in the military. This would have the effect of reducing civil-military conflicts that will invariably come from FBI intervention into military affairs and bring the weight of military brass behind certain investigations.  

Band-aids only hide the infection. Go for a real change, which includes bringing back the safe-guards put in place when the public was pissed off over $900 hammers. What will it take today?

(H/T to CS for wire report)

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