Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

The candidates’ silence on contractor oversight

Posted by David Kassel on January 7, 2008

None of the presidential candidates seems to want to address one of the most critical accountability issues we face—our inability to monitor our contractors in Iraq. 

This past Saturday night’s marathon debate in New Hampshire is an example.  Iraq was a major focus, but the candidates stayed clear of issues of economic accountability there, particularly the area of corporate oversight.  They (the Democrats at least) talked about the failure of the troop surge to bring about political reconciliation in Iraq, but they never mentioned our increasingly privatized miltiary operations and our inability to oversee or control it.  Neither Blackwater nor Halliburton were ever mentioned. 

Among the Republicans, only Ron Paul was critical of our occupation of Iraq (although McCain has been critical of management of the war); but Paul, an avid free-marketeer, was only talking about the military invasion, not the economic one that has accompanied it.

In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the ineffectiveness of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government that the U.S. set up to govern Iraq under Paul Bremmer.  The CPA was far too understaffed, Klein noted, to monitor the contractors.   Halliburton, by contrast, had 50,000 workers in the region.  Bremer’s staff was a mere 1,500 government employees.  As a result, firms such as CH2M Hill in a joint venture with Parsons Brinckerhoff were paid tens of millions of dollars to monitor other contractors. 

Klein describes a morass of mismanagement in which contractors endlessly subcontracted cost-plus contracts to other contractors.  She visited the Baghdad Central Children’s Hospital, which had supposedly been rebuilt by a U.S. contractor.  There was raw sewage in the hallways and none of the toilets worked.  The engineering firm, Parsons, was “handed” $186 million to build 142 health clinics, and only completed six.   Iraq’s power grid was producing significantly less electricity in 2007 than it did in 2006.

Then there’s the issue of the interrogators the U.S. has used in Iraq to root out the insurgency.  Klein contends the U.S. military’s own investigation into the Abu Ghraib scandal found that government officials in charge of overseeing the interrogators’ performance were not even in Iraq, “making it ‘very difficult, if not impossible, to effectively administer a contract.'”

 Klein concludes that:

Iraq under Bremer was the logical conclusion of Chicago School (of economics) theory: a public sector reduced to a minimal number of employees, mostly contract workers, living in a Halliburton city state, tasked with signing corporate friendly laws drafted by KPMG and handing out duffle bags of cash to Western contractors protected by mercenary soldiers, themselves shielded by full legal immunity.  All around them were furious people, increasingly turning to religious fundamentalism because it’s the only source of power in a hollowed-out state. 

 During the debate, Edwards, Clinton, Obama, and Richardson talked eloquently about the unacceptable toll in blood and treasure that the war has cost us.  But one of the key causes of this toll has gone undiscussed—the failure of our government to exercise planning and control over the economic aspect of our presence there. 

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