Commentary

Epistemology and PMC

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on March 25, 2010.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and origin of knowledge. It asks the question “How do we know what we know?”

Epistemology is useful to keep in mind when considering private military and security contractors (PMC) because so much of what passes for common wisdom or orthodoxy is based on assertions and generalizations instead of verified facts.

For example, PMC critics revile them as mercenaries, when spending just a second looking at the definition spelled out in the Geneva Conventions confirms that they clearly are not. While PMC supporters have been casually asserting for decades that PMC are always more effective than their public sectors counterparts, without providing any empirically sound data to back up their claims.

Even more disturbing is the reality that the government still can’t get its act together to produce even the most basic facts about the PMC it does business with.

A case in point is the testimony released yesterday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Appearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, House Committee on Armed Services John P. Hutton, director, acquisition and sourcing management, spoke on “Iraq and Afghanistan: Agencies Face Challenges in Tracking Contracts, Grants, Cooperative Agreements, and Associated Personnel.”

The background to this is that to help increase oversight of activities supporting DOD, State, and USAID’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, required the agencies to identify common databases of information on their contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, and associated personnel. In their July 2008 memorandum of understanding the three agencies designated the Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT) as their system for tracking the required information.

Before SPOT the systems for tracking PMC in Iraq and Afghanistan were widely seen as inadequate.

The Pentagon released a report in 2005, required by the FY 2005 Defense Authorization Act, which noted that there was no single-source collection point for information on incidents in which contractor employees supporting deployed forces and reconstruction efforts in Iraq have been engaged in hostile fire or other incidents of note.

At that time, the only existing databases for collecting data on individual contractors were the Army Material Command Contractor Coordination Cell (CCC) and Civilian Tracking System (CIVTRACKS).

The CCC was a manual system dependent on information supplied to it by contractors. It identified contractors entering and leaving the theater, companies in the area of responsibility (AOR),and local contracting officer representatives (CORs) and enabled local authorities/CORs to report contractor status, providing a means of liaison among the local COR and the assigned airport point of debarkation and helping to reconcile contractors with companies.

CIVTRACKS answered the “who, when, and where” of civilian deployments. It accounted for civilians (Department of the Army civilians, contractor personnel, and other civilians deployed outside the continental United States in an operational theater).

It was not until May 2006 that the Army Central Command and MultiNational Force-Iraq (MNF-I) undertook a new effort to develop a full accounting of government contractors living or working in Iraq, seeking to fill an information gap that remains despite previous efforts. A memorandum issued by the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy asked military services and federal agencies to assist Central Command and MNF-I by providing information by June 1, 2006.

The request sought data for contractors, including the companies and agreements they worked under, the camps or bases at which they were located, the services — such as mail, emergency medical care, or meals — they obtained from the military, their specialty areas, whether they carried weapons, and government contracting personnel associated with them.

In October 2006 it was reported that an Army effort to count the number of contractors working or living in Iraq, pursuant to a call from the Office of Management and Budget, had foundered.

The truth is, for most of the time since the United States went to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon simply didn’t know how many contractors worked in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, which includes both countries.

In summer 2007, the Pentagon kept tabs on about 60,000 contractors with SPOT. By the end of the year, it planned to use SPOT to register all contractors who work in the Central Command’s area of responsibility.

Yet according to Hutton SPOT still has a long way to go. And that hurts both the military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. taxpayers.

For example, GAO reported last year that by not having insight into contractor provided services, DOD may lack needed information to efficiently allocate contracted services to support remaining U.S. forces in Iraq. GAO also previously determined that by not considering contractor and grantee resources in developing an Afghan assistance strategy, USAID’s ability to make resource allocation decisions was impaired.

Although the agencies have made progress in implementing SPOT, the database falls short of providing information to facilitate oversight and fulfill statutory requirements. GAO reported in October 2009 that the criteria used to determine which personnel are entered into SPOT varied and not all personnel were being entered as required. In particular, the agencies cited the need for a SPOT-generated letter of authorization as the primary factor for deciding whether personnel were entered, but not all personnel, particularly local nationals, need this authorization. As a result, officials from the three agencies acknowledge that SPOT data are incomplete, with some questioning the need for detailed data on all contractors. Because of SPOT’s limitations, the agencies have relied on other sources, such as periodic surveys, for data on contractor personnel, but we have found these sources to be unreliable. Although contract information is being entered into SPOT, the system continues to lack the capability to accurately import information from other sources as agreed to in the MOU. For example, because SPOT does not require users to enter contract information in a standardized manner, our work has shown that there will be challenges in identifying which contracts’ dollar values and competition information should be imported. While our prior findings are specific to contracts and their personnel, together with our ongoing work they point to challenges the agencies will face in using SPOT to track similar data on grants, cooperative agreements, and their personnel.

And while the GAO recently issued a report noting the cases in which the use of private security contractors was more cost effective than using regular military forces Hutton also said, “As we reported in July 2005, despite the significant role of private security providers in enabling Iraqi reconstruction efforts, neither DOD, State, nor USAID had complete data on the costs associated with using private security providers. Agency officials acknowledged such data could help them identify security cost trends and their impact on the reconstruction projects, as increased security costs resulted in the reduction or cancellation of some projects.”

Another example was the hearing held last September 29 by the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. In her opening statement Chairwoman Senator Clair McCaskill (D-MO) said:

Electronic systems and databases are used in every phase of the contracting process. Government employees use these systems to solicit requirements, review offers, evaluate vendors, and create and administer contracts. Companies use the systems to find and register for opportunities, track when and how and what the government is acquiring, and view their own performance. And, the public should use these systems to understand what the government is doing with their money.

There are now more than a dozen Federal databases and systems with information relevant to Federal contracting. They are managed by at least five different agencies and supported by at least eight different contractors.

In recent years, these systems have been the subject of criticism from Federal auditors, members of the public and Congress for being difficult to use, containing incomplete records, for not being available or accessible to the public and for not containing the timely, accurate information necessary to both the government, vendors and the people who are paying the bills.

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.