WASHINGTON, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- Defense contractors are playing an unprecedented role in Iraq and Afghanistan as they take on more duties traditionally performed by the military, but Pentagon officials say they don't have the manpower and expertise to conduct effective oversight.
"Balancing these two missions has further stressed the already downsized (Pentagon oversight) workforce and presents risks to both missions," Defense Contract Management Agency Director Charlie Williams Jr. told lawmakers last week. His agency oversees the Pentagon's contracts.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 200,000 employees of private firms hired by the Pentagon do everything from building facilities and transporting food, fuel and other supplies to guarding senior officials, military facilities and supply convoys.
"Contractors are responsible for more things over there than they ever were in the past," said Defense Contract Management Agency spokesman Dick Cole.
Contractors are not only doing more jobs, they are doing more critical ones. The Pentagon has said it would need nine new army brigades to replace the 11,000 private security workers employed by the military and the State Department in Iraq, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The Pentagon's oversight process has come under renewed scrutiny following several high-profile incidents, including the death of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, who was electrocuted by a faulty water pump in his shower in Iraq on Jan. 2.
Maseth is just one of several troops whose deaths have been blamed on shoddy electrical work at military facilities. A preliminary report from the Pentagon's inspector general found "no credible evidence" that the military or KBR Inc., the Houston-based contractor responsible for electrical work on the building, knew of prior problems with Maseth's shower.
But an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed that KBR knew as early as February 2007 about unsafe conditions at the complex where Maseth died and that another soldier had filed multiple reports complaining of shocks in Maseth's shower.
At a hearing last week examining Maseth's death, Pentagon officials told lawmakers that those Pentagon officials responsible for overseeing KBR's electrical work do not have the skills or expertise to do so.
The task of overseeing contractors has been complicated by a sharp increase in the amount of work the Pentagon outsources and a simultaneous decrease in the number of oversight personnel.
The number of Defense Department contracts has nearly quadrupled since 2000, and the Defense Contract Management Agency now manages more than 300,000 active contracts.
In the same eight years, budget cuts and a department-wide reduction in acquisition staff reduced the agency's staff from 20,000 to about 9,600, Cole said.
Although its staff is smaller, the agency has taken on an expanded role in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it is responsible for technical inspections of contractors' work -- a task it does not perform elsewhere.
"Typically the military services run their own contracting," Cole said, including selecting which companies get contracts, issuing payments and conducting inspections. The contract agency mainly focuses on quality assurance at plants that produce supplies and works with companies to improve efficiency and cut costs.
As a result, the agency "does not have a corps of personnel with extensive technical knowledge in the areas of potable water, waste treatment, dining facilities, security contracts, or facility construction and maintenance," Keith Ernst, the contract agency's former director, told lawmakers at last week's hearing.
Instead, oversight staff relies on members of military units who have the relevant technical skills, he said.
The agency is planning to increase its Iraq staff, currently 139 people, by the end of the year. But that means taking them away from other areas, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report on oversight of private security contractors.
"During our visit to Iraq, (Defense Contract Management Agency) officials expressed concerns about maintaining the increase in the number of oversight personnel in Iraq over the long term," the report said.
The GAO found that while the State Department and Pentagon have improved oversight of private security contractors in Iraq, gaps remain in staffing and training.
(Medill News Service)