Dogs of War: No stinkin' oversight needed

By DAVID ISENBERG  |  Feb. 29, 2008 at 11:59 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- Talk about not getting it. When it comes to issues of accountability, oversight and transparency in the private military and security industry -- once you get past the casually uninformed rhetoric of pundits and bloggers with too little knowledge -- there is actually a fair degree of consensus that, yes, there should actually be such a thing: not just in words, but deeds as well.

The companies themselves, industry trade associations, and even various governments, are working together to try and hammer out standards that would apply to the industry globally.

For example, in 2006 Switzerland committed to ensuring that private military and security companies, known as PMCs, operating in areas of conflict show greater respect for international law and human rights. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to confirm existing legal obligations of PMCs and develop non-binding good practices.

The Swiss initiative has the following specific objectives:

-- to contribute to the intergovernmental discussion on the issues raised by the use of private military and security companies;

-- to reaffirm and clarify the existing obligations of states and other actors under international law, in particular under international humanitarian law and human rights law;

-- to study and develop good practices, regulatory models and other appropriate measures at the national, possibly regional or international level, to assist states in respecting and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law.

But there is one government that should be in the lead on this issue, considering it is both the largest user of such firms and the country where the majority of them are based. Guess who it is. That's right, the United States.

But in reality, the U.S. government seems to regard a blind eye to graft as a cost of doing business.

A case in point is a fascinating court case in Illinois that is pulling the lid off the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program, the multibillion-dollar Army support contract held by KBR, the former Halliburton subsidiary.

Recently unsealed court records reported recently by the Chicago Tribune detail how kickbacks shaped the largest ever troop support contract months before the first wave of U.S. soldiers invaded Iraq. The massive fraud endangered the health of American soldiers even as it lined contractors' pockets, records show.

According to the Tribune, a common thread running through these cases and other KBR scandals in Iraq -- from allegations the firm failed to protect employees sexually assaulted by co-workers to findings that it charged $45 per can of soda -- is that the Pentagon outsourced crucial troop support jobs while slashing the number of government officials tasked with watch-dogging the contracts.

The dollar value of Army contracts quadrupled from $23.3 billion in 1992 to $100.6 billion in 2006, according to a recent report by a Pentagon panel. But the number of Army contract supervisors was cut from 10,000 in 1990 to 5,500 currently.

And one can bet that the contract supervisors who are left vividly remember the case of Bunnatine H. "Bunny" Greenhouse. She was the senior contracting officer for the Army Corps of Engineers who objected -- first, internally, and then publicly -- to a multibillion-dollar, no-bid contract with Halliburton for work in Iraq. She was then removed from the senior executive service, the top rank of civilian government employees, allegedly because of poor performance reviews.

Not that this had any impact on KBR. It just reported Tuesday that fourth-quarter profit rose 65 percent, lifted, in part, by work in Iraq.

Not having provided the oversight that any half-wit would know is necessary when dealing with tens of billions of dollars in contracts is bad enough.

But turning a blind eye to possible criminal behavior is far worse. And yet that is what the Bush administration is doing.

Earlier this month Jurist, a legal research service at the University of Pittsburgh, reported that U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey had publicly formalized what has been the Bush administration's functional program of impunity for alleged war crimes and other international crimes committed by civilians during the administration's unlawful program of secret detention and "coercive interrogation." For the next year, Mukasey assured, there will be no investigations and no prosecutions.

Remember that civilian contractors, such as Steven Stefanowicz of CACI, named in Gen. Antonio Taguba's report, were implicated in the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib.

But wait, there's more. Just last week the Associated Press reported on a multibillion-dollar loophole slipped into a proposed crackdown on contract fraud. The loophole would allow companies performing government work overseas to avoid having to report contract abuse. A review of documents shows it was added by Bush administration policy-writers after they received a draft of the proposed rule from the Justice Department.

Naturally, officials at the White House and the president's Office of Management and Budget, which oversees federal procurement policy, have declined repeated requests for information about the exemption for overseas contracts.

Finally, as recently reported in the National Journal there was this head-scratching revelation. When President Bush signed the 2008 National Defense Authorization in January his approval support came with a catch: a signing statement in which he wrote that various provisions of the act, including language that would create a commission to examine "waste, fraud, and abuse" in wartime contracting in Iraq and elsewhere, "impose requirements that could inhibit" his "ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and execute his authority as Commander in Chief."

Only in Bush-World can protecting the American taxpayer against graft and fraud be seen as endangering national security.

So the bottom line is this. The next time the private military and security industry wonders why it has a bad image, it should stop complaining about biased media or ignorant liberal activists. Instead, it should look to the executive branch. As the saying goes, with friends like those, who needs enemies?

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