TOPICS: Contractors bag a fifth of Iraq funds

William Fisher

As a new report forecasts that the 190,000 private contractors in Iraq and neighbouring countries will cost US taxpayers more than $100 billion by the end of 2008, an under-the-radar Florida court case suggests that US President George W. Bush is preparing to throw security contractors such as Blackwater under the political bus.

In the Florida case, relatives of three American servicemen killed in the 2004 crash of an aircraft owned by Blackwater Aviation in Afghanistan are suing the company for damages, based in part on US government reviews that concluded that errors committed by Blackwater staff were responsible for the deaths. This week, his administration failed to meet a deadline for presenting the court with any defence of Blackwater.The administration’s silence has caused consternation for Blackwater and its supporters. Erik Prince, Blackwater’s chairman, said, “After the president has said that, as commander-in-chief, he is responsible for contractors on the battlefield it is disappointing that his administration has been unwilling to make that interest clear before the courts.”

Some observers have speculated that the Administration’s silence can be attributed to the controversial nature of the contractor issue and a reluctance to address it during presidential election year.As the Florida case made its way through the US legal system, a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) contends that the cost of having military personnel provide security services in Iraq might be little different from the prices charged by private security contactors. The report said that $6-10 billion has been spent on security contactors thus far in 2008 and estimated that about 25,000-30,000 employees of security firms were in Iraq as of early this year. It estimates that, if spending for contractors continues

at about the current rate, $100 billion will have been paid to military contractors for operations in Iraq.

The CBO report revealed that about 20% of funding for operations in Iraq has gone to contractors. Currently, it said, there are at least 190,000 contractors in Iraq and neighbouring countries — a ratio of about one contractor per US service member. It noted that the US has relied more heavily on contractors in Iraq than in any other war for functions ranging from food service to guarding diplomats.The report also noted that the legal status of contractor personnel is a grey area of US law. It said that military commanders have less direct authority over contractors because a government contracting officer rather than a military commander manages their contracts.

The CBO review was requested by Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. In a statement, Conrad said the Bush administration’s reliance on military contractors has set a dangerous precedent. The use of contractors “restricts accountability; opens the door to corruption and abuse; and, in some instances, may significantly increase the cost to American taxpayers,” he said.