Pallets of cash
John Cusack's movie about a future fictitious occupation of a fictitious country, Turaqistan, is premised on the privatization of ... well, pretty much everything. In the film a Cheney-like CEO of a Halliburton-like company, Tamerlane, is conducting its own foreign policy -- and war and reconstruction. This morning's NY Times features a story by James Risen on a shocking milestone in Bush's implementation of Cusack's dystopic vision: "The United States this year will have spent $100 billion on contractors in Iraq since the invasion in 2003."That's a lot of taxpayer dollars being spent -- with virtually no supervision or controls on private firms to run the war. In fact one dollar in five is going to private contractors, a great many of whom are contributors to Bush's career and to Republican Party politicians. There are now more contractors in Iraq than there are U.S. troops. And if you recall that little incident of the bridge in Fallujah in which 4 of the hated Blackwater mercenaries were burned alive, you are probably aware that many of the contractors are intensely hated by the Iraqis, who don't like being occupied by disrespectful and very violent foreigners.
One of my favorite scenes in Turaqistan was at the Tamerlane trade show where an executive explains how Tamerlane precision bombs had blown off the limbs of a bunch of women who were subsequently outfitted with Tamerline prosthetic limbs and taught to dance and we now part of a dance troupe helping to advertise Tamerlane products. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) wants to hold hearings like the Truman Commission which looked into, among other things, war profiteering -- familiar territory for the Bush Family.
The Pentagon's reliance on outside contractors in Iraq is proportionately far larger than in any previous conflict, and it has fueled charges that this outsourcing has led to overbilling, fraud and shoddy and unsafe work that has endangered and even killed American troops. The role of armed security contractors has also raised new legal and political questions about whether the United States has become too dependent on private armed forces on the 21st-century battlefield.
...Contractors in Iraq now employ at least 180,000 people in the country, forming what amounts to a second, private, army, larger than the United States military force, and one whose roles and missions and even casualties among its work force have largely been hidden from public view. The widespread use of these employees as bodyguards, translators, drivers, construction workers and cooks and bottle washers has allowed the administration to hold down the number of military personnel sent to Iraq, helping to avoid a draft.
In addition, the dependence on private companies to support the war effort has led to questions about whether political favoritism has played a role in the awarding of multibillion-dollar contracts. When the war began, for example, Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company run by Dick Cheney before he was vice president, became the largest Pentagon contractor in Iraq. After years of criticism and scrutiny for its role in Iraq, Halliburton sold the unit, which is still the largest defense contractor in the war, and has 40,000 employees in Iraq.
"This is the first war that the United States has fought where so many of the people and resources involved aren't of the military, but from contractors," said Charles Tiefer, a professor of government contracting at the University of Baltimore Law School and a member of an independent commission created by Congress to study contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is unprecedented," he added. "It was considered an all-out imperative by the administration to keep troop levels low, particularly in the beginning of the war, and one way that was done was to shift money and manpower to contractors. But that has exposed the military to greater risks from contractor waste and abuse."
Dina L. Rasor, an author and independent expert on contracting fraud, said she believed that the $100 billion cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office might be low, since there were virtually no reliable audits of or controls on spending during the first years of the war. "It is a shocking number, but I still don't think it is the full cost," Ms. Rasor said. "I don't think there have been any credible cost numbers for the Iraq war. There was so much money spent at the beginning of the war, and nobody knows where it went."
Peter W. Singer, a defense contracting expert at the Brookings Institution, said the biggest problem was that the administration contracted out so much work in Iraq, almost no thought had been given to an overall strategy to determine which jobs and functions should be handled by the government, and which could be turned over to private companies without damaging the military effort.
"These new numbers point to the overall question-- when do you cross the line in terms of turning over too much of the public mission of defense to private firms," Mr. Singer said. "There are some things that are appropriate for private companies to do, but others things that are not. But we don't seem to have had a strategy for determining which was appropriate and which wasn't. We have just handed over functions to contractors in a very haphazard way."
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