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The Unknown Contractor

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In my March 25 post I mentioned how difficult it still is, despite years of trying, to collect accurate data on basic private military and security contractor (PMSC) facts (such as how many are there). I also noted that to help increase oversight of activities supporting the Defense and State departments and USAID's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the three agencies designated the Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT) as their system for tracking the required information. That information, required for each contract that involves work performed in Iraq or Afghanistan for more than 14 days, includes:

* a brief description of the contract,

* its total value, and

* whether it was awarded competitively; and

* for contractor personnel working under contracts in Iraq or Afghanistan,

* total number employed,

* total number performing security functions, and

* total number killed or wounded.

Now, despite years of effort, SPOT still has problems in terms of collecting and saving information. Some reasons are disappointing but understandable, given differing methodologies for collecting and saving information across different departments and agencies.

But one truly disappointing thing it does not do well is to keep track of contractors who are killed or wounded. According to John Hutton, Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management, U.S. Government Accountability Office, who on March 23 testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations regarding "Interagency Coordination of Grants and Contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan: Progress, Obstacles, and Plans":

In addition to agreeing to use SPOT to track contractor personnel numbers, the agencies agreed to use SPOT to track information on contractor personnel killed or wounded.

Although SPOT was upgraded in January 2009 to track casualties, officials from the three agencies informed us they are not relying on the database for this information because contractors are generally not updating the status of their personnel to indicate whether any of their employees were killed, wounded, or are missing. In the absence of using SPOT to identify the number of contractor personnel killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the agencies obtain these data from other sources. Specifically, in response to requests made as part of our ongoing review, State and USAID provided us with manually compiled lists of the number of personnel killed or wounded, whereas DOD provided us with casualty data for U.S citizens, but could not differentiate whether the individuals identified were DOD civilian employees or contractors.

While contractors are not active duty military -- although they may very well have been not that long ago -- they don't deserve to be treated like the Unknown Soldier either. Whether or not you like the idea of the government relying on PMSC the reality is that they make a significant contribution, just like regular military personnel. Contractors know going in that if they are killed their family members won't get the same survivor benefits, except for what they get under the Defense Base Act, as a soldier or marine who is killed. They know no chaplain will arrive at the door of their home to comfort the grieving.

So it is really too much to ask that at the very least the government could at least kept track of those who are wounded and killed? After all, one can find contractor casualty lists on Wikipedia. If websites like Icasualties.org could include contractor casualties, as it used to do, the U.S. government with vastly greater informational resources at its disposal should be able to do so as well, albeit in far more comprehensive fashion.

Some contractors are extremely good about letting the world know when their people are killed. DynCorp, for example, has for years put out a press release every time one of its contractors dies. Why other contractors "are generally not updating the status of their personnel to indicate whether any of their employees were killed, wounded, or are missing" is an interesting question that someone ought to ask. Perhaps the Commission on Wartime Contracting can do so the next time it holds a hearing.

Needless to say, SPOT data, should include contractors of any and all nationalities working for a PMC, not just a citizen of the host country