Defense chief questions use of contractors for training
Virginian Pilot (2008-07-22) Dale Eisman, Louis Hansen
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By Dale Eisman
© July 22, 2008
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a top-level review of the Pentagon’s use of private security contractors, including the controversial Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater Worldwide, to train American troops.
“Why have we come to rely on contractors to provide combat or combat-related security training … Are we comfortable with this practice?” Gates asked in a July 10 memo to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The defense boss also requested more detail on how much each of the military branches is spending on contractor-supplied training and whether the services have established “appropriate red lines” governing “what types of security training are permitted to be contracted out.”
He expects initial answers sometime this week, Gates said in a letter Friday to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. A Mullen spokesman confirmed that a response is in the works.
Blackwater’s security services to the State Department in Iraq – its employees have been implicated in several incidents that resulted in the deaths of Iraqi civilians – have made the firm a lightning rod for critics of the Bush administration’s management of the war.
But training was the firm’s original business. In Moyock, company instructors train military and law enforcement personnel in tactics and procedures. Navy sailors, for example, are taught how to protect themselves and their ships on a simulated vessel, company spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said Monday.
Gates’ inquiry comes in the wake of months of similar questioning by Webb, a freshman Democrat. Unhappy with the Pentagon’s initial response to his queries, Webb has been blocking Senate action on President Bush’s nominations of four civilian defense officials.
That “hold” has now been lifted, Webb said in a letter sent to Gates on Monday.
Largely at Webb’s urging, Congress agreed last year to create a Commission on Wartime Contracting to examine the use in Iraq and Afghanistan of private firms by the military and a variety of other government agencies.
Webb’s letter to Gates on Monday asserted that the Pentagon needs “more rigorous, senior-level oversight” of its outsourcing activities. Webb wrote that Navy briefers have told him that until an individual contract exceeds $78.5 million, it need not be reviewed by the secretary of the Navy.
Webb said he recently learned of a Blackwater training contract with the Navy for a facility in San Diego, Calif., that originally was valued at just under $36 million but has a “ceiling price” of nearly $64 million. To date, more than $52 million has been spent on the deal, he wrote.
The contract “was reviewed and approved only one level above the person responsible for the negotiations,” Webb added. The size and “the relatively low level” at which such deals can be approved, “should give all us pause,” he suggested.
The questions about training contracts come as Blackwater executives say they expect training to remain one of the company’s main missions.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Blackwater’s top executives said they plan to scale back their security work, claiming they have unfairly become a symbol for all contractors in Iraq and thus a target for those opposed to the war. The company plans to focus on training, aviation and logistics.
The AP reported that the executives said that negative media coverage and intense government scrutiny have made the cost of providing security services too high.
“The experience we’ve had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk,” company founder and CEO Erik Prince told the news service during a daylong visit to the company’s North Carolina compound.
In 2005 and 2006, security jobs, such as guarding U.S. diplomats in Iraq and helping secure New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, represented more than 50 percent of the company’s business.
It is down to about 30 percent now, said company president Gary Jackson, adding, “If I could get it down to 2 percent or 1 percent, I would go there.”
Following that interview, spokeswoman Tyrrell said the company has no immediate plans to exit the security business.
“As long as we’re asked, we’ll do it,” she said, adding that Blackwater is not pulling out of Iraq.
Dale Eisman, (703) 913-9872, firstname.lastname@example.org
Louis Hansen, (757) 446-2322, email@example.com