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The Boss Contractors Need

Dallas Morning News (2007-11-06)

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06:36 AM CST on Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The State Department's mismanagement of security contractors in Iraq has had deadly consequences, and thankfully the Pentagon is taking over a job it should have had from the beginning.

Protecting diplomats outside war zones should be the job of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. But in cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, where government convoys require helicopter escorts, armor, platoons of body guards and tailgate gunners swiveling .50-caliber machine guns, the term "diplomatic" seemed absurdly out of place.

These are military operations, and the State Department has been out of its depth, as was obvious on Sept. 16 when hired gunmen from Blackwater USA fired on civilians in Baghdad. Seventeen Iraqis died so U.S. diplomats could conduct a meeting. But the problem didn't begin there. Such contractors have repeatedly engaged in controversial behavior in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Typically, companies like Blackwater employ retired soldiers and Marines steeped in a culture of military discipline. Once free of that structure, they tend to set their own agenda and rules, often with disastrous results. Rather than bring them to heel, the State Department has defended their behavior.

The department's oversight procedures for security contractors have been deficient for years. It bungled part of the Blackwater investigation by offering immunity to the gunmen involved, though it had no authority to do so.

The department's security contracting has grown from $1 billion four years ago to $4 billion today. Yet department accounting procedures have failed to keep pace. A recent audit identified serious lapses in oversight of a major police-training contract held by Dyn Corp International.

Lax accounting created "an environment vulnerable to waste and fraud," the audit report said, adding that the State Department "does not know specifically what it received for most of the $1.2 billion in expenditures under its Dyn Corp contract."

These troubling signs suggest that a broader realignment of responsibilities is in order. It's time for the State Department to stop protecting its contractors and start defending the interests of American taxpayers. If its mismanagement continues, Congress should consider removing the department from the contracting business altogether.
Topic revision: r1 - 06 Nov 2007, CathyMiller
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