Washington – Jerry Torres, CEO of Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions, has a motto: "For Torres, failure is not an option." A former member of the Green Berets, one of the elite U.S. Army Special Forces, he was awarded "Executive of the Year" at the seventh annual "Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards" in November 2009.
On Monday, Torres, whose company provides translators and armed security guards in Iraq, was invited to testify before the Commission on Wartime Contracting (CWC), a body created in early 2008 to investigate waste, fraud and abuse in military contracting services in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Torres was asked to testify about his failure to obtain the required clearances for "several hundred" Sierra Leonian armed security guards that he had dispatched to protect Forward Operating Base Shield, a U.S. military base in Baghdad, in January 2010.
Torres didn’t show up.
An empty chair at the witness table was placed ready for him together with a placard with his name on it next to those for representatives of three other companies working in Iraq – the London-based Aegis, and DynCorp and Triple Canopy, both Virginia-based companies.
USAID Ducks Legal Responsibility
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also came in for extended criticism when David Blackshaw, the division chief for overseas security, told the commission that his agency was not legally responsible for the actions of armed guards that accompanied their grantees. "The role of the USAID’s SEC’s International Security Programmes Division is limited to advice and counsel," Blackshaw told the commissioners.
The commissioners were incensed. Several of them pulled out copies of a USAID Office of Inspector General report on private contracting that was issued last month that stated a third of USAID private security contracts in Afghanistan have no standard security requirements.
Commissioner Christopher Shays, a former Republican member of Congress from Connecticut, alleged that USAID was trying to "wash their hands" of any responsibility.
"God forbid something would happen with a violent accident in Afghanistan that would affect our national policy in Afghanistan and you would try that ridiculous line of argument," said Commissioner Robert Henke, a former Assistant Secretary for Management in the Department of Veterans Affairs, said. "It won’t work."
"This commission was going to ask him, under oath, why his firm agreed in January to assume private security responsibilities at FOB Shield with several hundred guards that had not been properly vetted and approved," said Michael Thibault, one of the co-chairs of the commission and a former deputy director of the Defence Contract Audit Agency.
"This commission was also going to ask Mr. Torres why he personally flew to Iraq, to FOB Shield, and strongly suggested that Torres AES be allowed to post the unapproved guards, guards that would protect American troops, and then to ‘catch-up the approval process’."
Instead, a lawyer informed the commission staff that Torres was "nervous about appearing".
The failure of a contractor to appear for an oversight hearing into lapses was just one example that the use of some 18,800 armed "private security contractors" in Iraq and another 23,700 in Afghanistan to protect convoys, diplomatic and other personnel, and military bases and other facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq was not working.
Blackwater’s New Afghan Contract
Perhaps the most famous private military contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq – North Carolina-based Blackwater – was not invited to sit at the witness table either, despite the fact that the company had been the subject of several investigations into misconduct.
For example, in September 2007, security guards from North Carolina-based Blackwater guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
Blackwater staff have also been accused of killing other private security contractors – in December 2006, Andrew J. Moonen, was accused of killing a security guard of the Iraqi vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi. And as recently as May 2009, four Blackwater contractors were accused of killing an Afghan on the Jalalabad road in Kabul.
Members of the commission noted with astonishment that the State Department had awarded Blackwater a 120-million-dollar contract to guard U.S. consulates in Heart and Mazar-i- Sharif in Afghanistan this past Friday.
Asked to explain why Blackwater was awarded the contract, Charlene R. Lamb, deputy assistant secretary for international programmes at the State Department, stated that the competitors for the contract – DynCorp and Triple Canopy – weren’t as qualified.
Yet Don Ryder of DynCorp and Ignacio Balderas of Triple Canopy testified that they were both qualified and able to do the contract. The two men said that they would consider lodging a formal protest at the State Department Tuesday after a de-briefing with the government.
The choice of Blackwater, which has been banned by the government of Iraq, left the commissioners with little doubt that the contract award system was flawed. "What does it take for poor contractual performance to result in contract termination or non-award of future contracts?" wondered Thibault.
At a previous hearing of the commission last week, John Nagl, president of the Washington, DC-based Centre for a New American Security, submitted a report on the subject that explained why the government was turning to these companies: "Simple math illuminates a major reason for the rise of contractors: The U.S. military simply is not large enough to handle all of the missions assigned to it."
Yet it appears that the government does not even have the oversight capability to police the companies that it has hired to fill the gap.
Some witnesses and experts said that by definition this work should not be handed out to private contractors in war zone.
"Private security contractors are authorised to use deadly force to protect American lives in a war zone and to me if anything is inherently governmental, it’s that," said Commissioner Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at both the State Department and the Homeland Security Department. "We don’t have a definitional problem, we have an acknowledgement of reality problem."
Non-governmental expert Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), said: "It has become clear to POGO that the answer is yes, PSCs are performing inherently governmental functions. A number of jobs that are not necessarily inherently governmental in general become so when they are conducted in a combat zone. Any operations that are critical to the success of the U.S. government’s mission in a combat zone must be controlled by government personnel."
*This article was produced in partnership with CorpWatch – www.corpwatch.org.