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David Isenberg

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Good Luck to the U.S. State Department: You're Going to Need It

Posted: 11/02/11 01:45 PM ET

Given the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the transition to a State-Department-led mission for all remaining U.S. personnel in Iraq, this is a good time to focus more closely on what exactly is happening. The big fear, of course, is that despite years of preparation the U.S. State Department is not up to the job.

So let's consider a hearing held October 12. This was a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations, chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

I think some of what the subcommittee members said is pretty revelatory in its own right, so let's cut right to it.

From Rep. Chaffetz's opening statement:

So as the defense department winds down, the state department is ramping up of what (inaudible) be more of a political shell game than a draw down of forces. When President Obama tells the American people the forces will be out of Iraq, I'm not sure the average American understands that the troops will be replaced with a private army of security contractors.

Nevertheless, the state department faces a daunting and unprecedented challenge. Many have expressed doubts as to whether the state department will meet the December 31 deadline and whether it can oversee the administration's surge in private contracting. According to the GAO, the state department, quote, "Has acknowledged that it does not have the capacity to independently acquire and oversee the scale and nature of contracted services needed," end quote.

The Commission on Wartime Contracting has also expressed tremendous concern. Last July, it wrote that despite interdepartmental efforts, quote, "The current planning for the defense to state transition of vital functions in Iraq is not yet adequate," end quote. March 1, Commissioners Grant Green and Michael Tebo (ph) to testify before this subcommittee. When asked whether the state department is ready, they answered no. They explained that it has neither the funds to pay nor the resources to manage the thousands of additional contracted employees.

Last week, six of the eight commissioners testified before the full committee about billions of waste, fraud and abuse in contracting, something in the range of $30 to $60 billion. They wanted -- the state department is struggling to prepare -- to prepare requirements for contractors and effectively oversee them. In other words, it appears the state department has not made enough progress to ensure a smooth transition, and I hope that has a different message to convey this morning. A commemorative from Ambassador Kennedy that the state department will be fully capable on January 1 would be a great start.

From Rep. Tierney:

I'd like to address one ongoing concern that I have about the continued use of private contractors in war zones. Just last week, the full committee held a hearing on the Commission of Wartime Contracting's final report to Congress. At that hearing, the commission raised significant concerns about the future role of private security contractors who will be employed by the state department after the military leaves Iraq.

At the hearing, Commissioner Robin Hankey highlighted a recently adopted Office of Management and Budget Policy memo that, for the first time, addresses the proper role of security contractors in combat zones. The policy memo embraced a risk-based analysis to determine what functions are inherently governmental and what functions can properly be delegated to a contractor, an important step in the right direction.

The memo continues by defining specific examples of inherently governmental functions that should never be performed by a private contractor. Notably, it found, and I quote, "Security operations performed in environments where, in the judgment of the responsible federal official, there is significant potential for the security operations to evolve into combat," close quote, should be considered in inherently governmental function.

So I'd like to hear from our witnesses today, and specifically Ambassador Kennedy, about the intended role of security contractors in Iraq after the transition. And I'd like you to specifically address the OMB's guidance that was cited by Commissioner Hankey. In his written statement today, Ambassador Kennedy said that the department of state will employ approximately 5,000 private security contract employees in Iraq. I agree with his assessment that this is a significant number.

But beyond the number of security contractors that will be employed in Iraq, I'm concerned about the specific functions these contractors will be expected to perform. For example, I understand the department will employ a number of contractors who will be responsible for rapid response to security situations in the field in addition to the stationary security forces, who will be responsible for our protecting the embassy. These rapid response forces will be responsible for emergency response, including security state department employees in the case of an attack.

In my mind, this situation would almost certainly require the private security contractors to engage in combat. I think any reasonable person would see that, to be in direct with conflict with the OMB policy member, and therefore an improper use of private security contractors under that guidance.

How dependent on private security contractors will State Dept. operations in Iraq be? Consider this Q&A with Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management at the Department of State:

TIERNEY: What contingency plan does the state department have if facts on the ground change substantially enough that it's no longer feasible to have private security contractors in use?

KENNEDY: I think they are -- that's an option that I have thought about. I can't speak to my colleagues. I think, though, that I would have to report to the secretary that we would have to severely scale down our operations in Iraq. I've even done an analysis based upon an old general accountability office study on the number of federal law enforcement personnel in the entire federal service, and even if I took 10 percent of the bureau of prison guards, I would not have enough static officers there and the bureau of prison guards -- bureau of prisons might have some comment on that.

 
 
 

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