our shadow army

Via the always-interesting Swedish Meatball Confidential (pNSFW): the Commission on Wartime Contracting issued an interim report to Congress earlier this year suggesting that perhaps security contractors are not a good substitute for actual armed guards employed by the United States Government:

Agencies’ failure to effectively use contract suspension and debarment tools, and the U.S. government’s limited jurisdiction over criminal behavior and limited access to records, have contributed to an environment where contractors misbehave with limited accountability….

Contractors performing acquisition-management functions may commit the government to a certain course of action and usurp the government’s discretion. And private security contractors operating in a contingency environment are likely to be called upon to use their weapons, raising issues of appropriate use of force and accountability.

A serious concern with relying on armed security contractors is a potential gap in legal accountability. Without certain legal accountability, incidents involving contractors may alienate the host nation and undermine attempts at establishing legitimacy….

The use of contractors to manage other contractors and the heavy use of armed private security contractors reflect a failure of government to provide for contingency workforce needs. Congress and federal agencies are obligated to structure the U.S. peacetime workforce to deal with projected mobilization and crisis demands. Personnel shortages in a contingency are not sufficient justification for contracting out high-risk functions after a crisis develops. Securing a standing capability to deploy at the start of a contingency would reduce contract waste, fraud, and abuse such as were conspicuous in early operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is all stated in the mild, non-confrontational tone these things are always written in, of course, but the overall message couldn’t be clearer — massive reliance on contractors (or, to be blunt, mercenaries) is bad for America’s national security, and the government needs to develop real contingency plans for rapid mobilization of security resources in a crisis.

Not that the fighting in Iraq, or, to be frank, even Afghanistan has really been in response to a crisis — and this is the meat of the problem. American society at large has not really taken part in our recent wars, because these wars have not been fought in response to any existential threat to that society. As a consequence, very little attempt has been made to use the powers of government — whether statutory powers or the powers of persuasion — to recruit citizens for contingency operations based on patriotism and an understanding of the necessity of such work. The only appeal has been a financial one, made to contractors — essentially staffing companies that exist largely to siphon off experienced personnel from the military.

But why would we do it this way? The Commission has some ideas:

Responsibility for managing, overseeing, and evaluating contractors falls not only to contract specialists, but also to those who define mission requirements, allocate resources, plan tasks and operations, promulgate policies and programs, and use the contractors’ services. For many senior officials, contractors appear to be a “free” source of labor with no direct impact on their resource budgets.

This, too, is connected to the larger issue of the disconnect between American society and its defense and security apparatus. Contracting enables “senior officials” to pretend that their departments haven’t grown — that the size of government hasn’t grown — by keeping additional security personnel off of USG payrolls. It’s a ridiculous sham that makes it easier to hide the real cost of both low-grade interference and outright warfare overseas. But as the report points out, contractors do not have the same accountability to the American people and their representatives that soldiers and other government employees do, which creates special problems, partly because mercenaries with guns are acting in our name in foreign nations, and partly because of the huge opportunities for fraud, waste, and abuse inherent in outsourcing the most basic functions of government.

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