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A Dangerous Reliance on Defense Contractors

Has the Obama Administration Failed to Learn from Its Predecessor’s Mistakes?

President Obama appears not to have learned from his predecessor’s mistakes in relying on contractors for intelligence, a practice that needs to change, writes Sean Duggan.

Blackwater security contractors are seen inside a helicopter above central Baghdad, Iraq. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)
Blackwater security contractors are seen inside a helicopter above central Baghdad, Iraq. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

The Bush administration spent the better part of a decade refusing to face up to the manpower implications of its open-ended commitment of forces—particularly in Iraq. And because they didn’t have the courage of their convictions to reinstitute the draft, they were forced to take three disastrous steps: active duty forces have been deployed and redeployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient dwell time; the National Guard and Reserve have been transformed from a strategic to an operational reserve, alternating deployments with active forces; and private contractors have been tasked with filling in the gaps, often taking on missions traditionally reserved for uniformed forces.

The disastrous consequences of this final step—the widespread use of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan—are already widely known. Indeed, the incidents that were arguably the most detrimental to the U.S. mission in both countries involved contractors, from the torture at Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base to the indiscriminate shootings at Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not fully learned from its predecessor’s mistakes. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced late last month that the Pentagon will begin an internal investigation into the Defense Department’s broader efforts to fund information operations. The inquiry was prompted by a contract funded by the Defense Department that allegedly set up a network of private contractors in Afghanistan to help track and kill suspected militants.

Revelations of similar contracts under the Bush administration have not been uncommon, but these new allegations demonstrate the Obama administration’s disconcerting willingness (or acquiescence) to continue its predecessor’s reliance on private contractors to execute wartime operations traditionally carried out only by U.S. special forces, intelligence agencies, and the State Department. Equally troubling is the clear lack of oversight over the ballooning DOD-wide information operations budget despite numerous instances of flagrant contractor abuse in the recent past.

The scale of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan require the United States to employ contractors in logistical and on-base functions such as supply and equipment delivery or food preparation services. But the Obama administration must make a clean break from the Bush administration’s overreliance on private contractors to conduct security and intelligence missions in combat zones.

The New York Times broke the story in mid-March that a senior civilian Defense Department employee, Michael Furlong, had inappropriately used $25 million “from the Pentagon’s program against roadside bombs to hire private contractors to gather information on suspected insurgents in Afghanistan—activities that Furlong says were authorized by top U.S. military commanders.” Furlong allegedly hired former Special Forces and intelligence personnel to undertake surveillance on potential targets in both countries—an act that is generally considered illegal when carried out by civilian personnel.

Perhaps such instances of abuse were inevitable given the dramatic increase in funding for Department of Defense-wide information operations in the past several years, particularly within the Central Command area of operations. Funding for such operations in that theater (which includes Iraq and Afghanistan) increased from $40 million in 2008 to $110 million in 2009 to a requested $244 million in 2010. And overall information operations throughout DOD in fiscal year 2010 amounted to over $528 million. Funds under this broad category have been used to finance news articles, billboards, radio and television programs, and even public opinion polls in several countries.

The high-level priority that the Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders have placed on such operations has created an atmosphere of virtually unconstrained funding in which abuses were bound to occur. In fact, when Congress pressed the Pentagon to report the total amount budgeted for information operations—or strategic communications as they are frequently called—across all services and commands late last year, Secretary Gates “found that no one could say because there was no central coordination.” This realization prompted “multiple studies” in late 2009 that were aimed at getting a better understanding of individual services’ plans for strategic communications this year. It is unclear whether the Furlong program was discovered under one of these studies or through other avenues.

The current administration is wisely following Obama’s campaign commitment to redeploy out of Iraq, which will ease the enormous strain placed on the men and women of our armed forces over the last seven years. But this latest episode reveals that it has yet to fully reverse the dangerous U.S. dependence on private contractors.

Sean E. Duggan is a research associate at the Center for American Progress.

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