Commentary

When a Contractor Just Isn’t Good Enough

The State Department has outsourced henhouse security to a fox, giving a U.S. security contractor the job of investigating possible crimes committed by other security contractors working for the United States in Iraq.

And not just any fox. According to a report by ABC News earlier this month, the company contracted to provide investigators for the newly created Force Investigation Unit is U.S. Investigations Services, a company created in 1996 by the privatization of the Office of Federal Investigations, the agency that conducted background investigations for civil service personnel.

The Force Investigation Unit was set up by the State Department to investigate alleged use of force by U.S. contractors following the outcry over the fatal shootings of Iraqi civilians and police by Blackwater Worldwide personnel in September 2007 during an incident in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square.

Earlier this year the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security hired USIS to fill positions in the newly created unit. The contract investigators have been in Iraq since this summer.

However, the eight USIS contractors hired for the team represent the majority of the full-time team, an apparent violation of federal regulations that prohibit such work by contractors.

According to the Federal Acquisition Regulations, it is not permissible to hire contractors for jobs “considered to be inherently governmental functions,” including “the direct conduct of criminal investigations.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the U.S. government has asked industry to assist it in investigating itself.

For example, until it became apparent that it was a public relations farce, the FBI team traveling to Iraq after the Nisoor Square shootings to assist in the investigation was supposed to be guarded by Blackwater. However, the State Department realized that the ensuing conflict of interest would be too egregious and said that security for the team would be handled by the department’s Diplomatic Security Service.

Or recall when an alleged “trophy” video was posted online in fall 2005 that appeared to show Aegis Defense security guards in Baghdad randomly shooting Iraqi civilians. The results of an investigation by Aegis released June 10, 2006, although not to the public, determined that no one involved would be charged with a crime.

Requests to see the report that Aegis shared with the Department of Defense were denied. Why? The Pentagon said it wasn’t its report to share. Aegis said it was corporate data and therefore not public. Essentially, the contractor investigated itself.

The Project on Government Oversight has posted the full and unedited USIS contract online. It states that USIS is to assist the Regional Security Office in Baghdad by “investigating incident scenes; interviewing witnesses, collecting and analyzing evidence; preparing detailed, accurate and concise written reports; testifying in judicial and administrative proceedings; analyzing incidents for compliance with policy, laws and regulations; reviewing incidents for identifiable patterns or notable deficiencies in policy, training or procedures; maintaining case files and tracking the status of investigations; preparing statistical reports and providing other investigative-related services.”

Some legislators believe the contract could violate the law that prohibits certain “inherently governmental” functions from being outsourced to the private sector. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month, urging her to cancel the contract because, according to the law, the direct conduct of criminal investigations is an inherently governmental function.

That may be harder to prove than most people think, if for no other reason than the U.S. government, as discussed in a previous “Dogs of War” column, has multiple definitions of what constitutes “inherently governmental.”

On the other hand, a little rudimentary checking should have told the State Department that USIS was not the best choice for this particular contract.

First, USIS was formerly a federal agency, the Office of Federal Investigations, which conducted background investigations for civil service personnel. That does not make it a particularly good choice for assisting in potentially criminal investigations. Indeed, USIS’ own Web site says, “USIS is the industry leader in employment background and drug screening services.”

In 1996 OFI was privatized and its employees became employee-owners as part of USIS. For the first 11 years of its existence as a private company USIS was owned by the Carlyle Group, the powerful private equity firm whose investors formerly included George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

More importantly, USIS was linked to the death, in June 2005, of 44-year-old Col. Ted Westhusing, who was found dead in his trailer in Baghdad due to a gunshot to the head, said to be a suicide.

Westhusing was director, counter-terrorism/special operations, Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. He worked with USIS contractors who had contracts worth $79 million to help train Iraqi police units that were conducting special operations.

Westhusing so impressed Gen. David Petraeus that he was promoted to full colonel. But Westhusing began having increasingly bitter conflicts with USIS contractors. There were ongoing problems with USIS’ expenses, and Westhusing was forced to deal with allegations that USIS had seen or participated in the killing of Iraqis. He received an anonymous letter that claimed USIS was cheating the military at every opportunity, that several hundred weapons that had been assigned to the counter-terrorism training program had disappeared, and that a number of radios, each of which cost $4,000, also had disappeared. The letter concluded that USIS was “not providing what you are paying for” and that the entire training operation was “a total failure.”

Near his body was a note addressed to his commanders. It read in part: “I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors.”

Last year CorpWatch reported on Iraqi Emergency Response Units controlled by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior.

This early ERU training was conducted under a $64.5 million no-bid contract issued in 2004 to U.S. Investigations Services. The contract to provide commando training in Iraq was a departure for USIS, which had no previous involvement in security training.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of a forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq