Commentary

Shifting the Blame, Just Plain Whining, or Both?

Does the king’s errand boy have the right to complain when it does the king’s bidding? It does when the king says not so nice thing about him, according to the International Peace Operations Association, a leading trade group for private military and security contractors.

The latest issue (May-June) of IPOA’s in-house magazine, the semi-pretentiously named Journal of International Peace Operations (JIPO) is devoted to the role private contractors are playing in Haiti’s reconstruction in the aftermath of the devastating January 12 earthquake.

Let’s acknowledge up front that contractors have been doing great things there. Without them doing such elementary things as providing food, clean water, housing, medical care, and basic life support would be far, far more difficult. One wonders where all the critics, who were busy comparing contractors to vultures coming to “grab the loot” have to say now? If they had any sense of humility they would be bowing their heads in shame. But, of course, they don’t, so there is no use dwelling on it.

So contractors heard the call for help, responded, and are doing genuinely good work. And, oh yes, presumably making some profit as well; as would a non-profit group doing the same thing, one might note.

But the new issue of JIP has a message from its president, Doug Brooks. In his regular column, titled Shifting the Blame: Are Government Clients Giving Contractors a Bad Name, he indulges in some self-pity and whining. He writes:

Despite inherent dangerous and difficult conditions the vast majority of contracts are successfully accomplished but we hear little about the contracting community except when they are catching the blame for problems or allegations. We should not expect the New York Times to print a headline declaring that despite war, abysmal infrastructure and countless other hindrances the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are the best supported and supplied in history. You are far more likely to read of a contractor accidentally running over someone’s goat.

Putting aide the fact, as I have noted previously noted, that the “the best supported and supplied in history” line is one of Mr. Brook’s ubiquitous, and best known, sound bites, and it is not always true, there are a couple of problems with his statement.

But first, let’s acknowledge that he has a point. For far too many years private contractors have been reviled, castigated, demonized, and depicted as heartless, run amuck, money grubbing, mercenaries, subject to no rules or accountability. This is grossly defamatory, not to mention unjust.

That said when it comes to news coverage the media always focuses on problems first. That is its function. While it also reports on good things that are done the negative always gets top billing. That is just the way it is. If private contractors are often in the news in the context of something wrong happening perhaps it is because something wrong is happening. To ask the media to do otherwise is to ask the press to make an except for PMC that nobody else gets. Or, to paraphrase as Dana Carvey, portraying the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, aren’t PMC special?

If IPOA or various PMC take issue with the facts in a GAO or SIGIR or SIGAR, or DoD IG report they should; just like anyone else can, but don’t ask to be treated like saints because you are doing the job you are being paid for.

Mr. Brooks is on better ground when he writes, “Being a ‘fall guy’ for the government comes with being a contractor. This reality been demonstrated time and again in investigations by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, CWC and other bodies who have revealed numerous examples of poor government planning, overwhelmed contract oversight capabilities and chaotic and sloppy contract management. Contractors err as well of course, but properly attributing blame is problematic at best when companies themselves refuse to point the finger at the real culprits — for good reason.”

The use of “fall guys” is interesting, as it suggests that PMC are just regular guys and gals being unfairly scapegoated. If Mr. Brooks wants to see real fall guys he should try talking with some of the people who used to work for ArmorGroup, one of IPOA’s member companies by the way, who tried complaining about the drunken party antics and security deficiencies on the part of those guarding the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, that came to light last year

Still, as he noted in the beginning of his article:

No one would be hiring contractors if they usually failed. In fact we generally hire them because they tend to be remarkably successful. However, it would be hard to comprehend this level of success based on what we read from pundits and in the media. And part of the reason for a negative narrative is because companies cannot be openly critical of their biggest clients: governments.

Blaming contractors is not a bad idea from a government perspective since contractors are unlikely to fault their biggest clients. Blaming government clients can cost existing and future contracts; it could trigger all sorts of subtle retaliation including additional audits, expensive project modifications or simply harmful reports — harassments that seldom find their way into public discourse. Thus from a policy perspective we are too often only hearing half the story which can undermine wider understandings of the potentials and capabilities of contingency contractors.

It is true that contractors are often screwed by their clients. Sometimes it is unwitting as the government does not have sufficiently experiences and trained people in its acquisition workforce to either properly write or implement a contract and sometimes it is far more deliberate, as in, shut your pie hole and if you get any press queries refer them to the client’s public affairs office. That is a standard clause in many contracts as I noted last month.

On the other hand PMC are all run by adults. They, and their lawyers, read the contracts before they sign them, and see those conditions. Nobody twists their arms and forces them to sign. If they don’t like the conditions they could refuse the contract. Of course, in reality, they are not going to do that, as the government is the only client worth having.

So what should contractors do? Instead of crying pity me, pity me, companies and their advocates should spend a lot more time factually rebutting inaccurate coverage. Back in the day, nearly twenty years ago, when Executive Outcomes of South Africa was in the news it did this quite successfully. Perhaps they should consider paying their lawyers to launch a few libel and slander suits.

That would be a lot better than complaining about clients blaming contractors. After all, let’s face facts, when you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding. Those who complain about it don’t generally receive much sympathy.

By the way, since Mr. Brooks frequently criticizes reporters for not getting their facts right regarding PMC could he please provide an example of when the New York Times or other paper ran an article about “a contractor accidentally running over someone’s goat.”

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.