Commentary

What We Don’t Know on Contractors and Why We Don’t Know It

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on December 30, 2009.

It is an axiom of all government contracts, regardless of the industry, that when trying to calculate their overall effectiveness one must have up to date, accurate information.

When it comes to private military and security contractors this has been very difficult for various reasons.

First, the U.S. government is not particularly transparent on this subject. Far too often it slaps a classified label on the contracts it awards. Try filing a FOIA request for a contract and you will see what I mean.

The U.S. government is reluctant to make information available to the public. From the viewpoint of some in the industry, this is by design. According to Doug Brooks, the President of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for private contractors:

“Oftentimes, the clients, which is [to say] the state governments, like to control the message going out, and they will tell the company, essentially, you know, ‘If there is a media contact or something, it should come through us’ — which would be the State Department, or [the] Department of Defense.”

Second, companies also frequently claim that information in the contracts is proprietary and would harm their competitive edge if it were released. Sometimes this is a legitimate reason but often it is not.

Third, up until the recently, the U.S. government simply had no accurate count of the numbers of contractors involved or the amounts of money involved.

For the first three years of the Iraq War 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. CIVTRACKS 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 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.

Independent commissions such as the Iraq Study Group and media organizations explored the number of private security firms working in Iraq and Afghanistan. They attempted to identify the number of people employed by these firms and the number who have been wounded or killed.

The estimates varied widely. In December 2006 the Iraq Study Group issued a laughably low estimate that only 5,000 civilian contractors worked in Iraq. The same month, however, the U.S. Central Command issued the results of its own internal review. It concluded that about 100,000 government contractors, not counting subcontractors, were operating in Iraq.

Reporting a major milestone, the Los Angeles Times wrote in July 2007 that the number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq exceeded that of American combat troops. In May 2009 the Pentagon reported that approximately 242,657 contractor personnel were working in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

Of course, even with all these data collection efforts, keeping track of contractors is a challenge because contractors rotate in and out of theater more often than soldiers do.

Counting the numbers of contractors wounded and killed is equally difficult. Life in conflict zones is dangerous and foreign contractors, especially security contractors, are especially at risk. If they get killed, their dependents can get insurance, but there will be no letters from a military commander or the president commending them for their service to the country. No chaplain shows up at their door to offer consolation.

As of June 2008 more than 1,350 civilian contractor personnel had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 29,000 contractors had been injured, more than 8,300 seriously.

Those statistics suggest that for every four American soldiers who die in Iraq, a contractor is killed. But these numbers were likely understated, for the data only showed the number of cases reported to the Labor Department, not the total number of injuries or deaths that occurred.

Financial costs are equally imprecise. According to an August 2008 Congressional Budget Office report, U.S. agencies awarded $85 billion in contracts for work to be principally performed in the Iraqi theater, accounting for almost 20 percent of funding for operations in Iraq. Notably, however, the report did not capture the total share of U.S. spending on Iraq that goes to contractors. It did not include any contracts performed in countries outside the Iraqi theater, so it excluded contracts for weapons manufactured and maintained outside Iraq and its immediate neighbors. It also neglects contracts in the classified intelligence budget of which contractors claim a significant portion.

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.