Private services fill troop shortage

Kai Ryssdal Oct 2, 2007

Private services fill troop shortage

Kai Ryssdal Oct 2, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: Whatever happens to Blackwater and its employees as a result of the three or four investigations into that shooting incident in Baghdad, there is now a new spotlight on one of the defining characteristics of the war in Iraq — the large-scale privatization of what used to be military functions.

Steve Schooner’s a professor of procurement law at George Washington University. Mr. Schooner, welcome to the program.

STEVE SCHOONER: How are you?

RYSSDAL: I’m all right, thanks. What did you think of the news of the day, the appearance of Erik Prince from Blackwater up on The Hill, today?

SCHOONER: I have to say part of me is a little disappointed that he was pressured or that he actually went to the hearing to testify. I’m not sure that it’s in the nation’s best interest, and I’m not sure that it’s actually going to further the discussion or the overall ability to make sense of this incredibly complicated issue.

RYSSDAL: Help us do that for a second, would you? First of all, did he have a choice? He sort of had to go to The Hill to talk today because he’s a businessman and the government’s his biggest customer.

SCHOONER: I guess that’s right, but at the end of the day it’s a public spectacle. We’re not having a serious conversation about solving any problems. It’s fascinating to watch the public reaction on this. Blackwater is not alone, nor are they even a significant percentage of the arms-bearing contractors that we have. This wasn’t a situation where we had the major representatives from the Defense Department there who were talking about how we’re going to deal with private military in the future. And I think that’s a little bit disappointing.

RYSSDAL: What is, then, the next step in this conversation about the privatization of the way America fights its wars?

SCHOONER: One way to begin thinking about it is breaking it down into the simplest problem that we have. The United States military is not large enough to meet all of the needs as the government has created them. So, to the extent that the United States government wants to project military force around the globe, we don’t have enough military to get that job done. So we have a number of very, very large choices. We could, for example, bring back the draft. We could leave Iraq. We could be less ambitious as to how we’re going to use our military. And if we’re not going to do any of those things, we may have to rely on contractors. But if we’re going to rely on contractors, you’d like to think that we would plan to do so and then use those contractors in the most responsible manner possible.

RYSSDAL: You’re implying, then, that we haven’t been planning to use contractors this way?

SCHOONER: There was no serious discussion in the United States before 9/11 about dramatically increasing the United States government’s reliance on private military or privatized security. This was simply a form of triage. The demands that were put upon the military exceeded the capacity that we had. And so in crisis we turned to these contractors. It’s for that reason that the regulatory regime that you would expect to be employed in a situation like this simply isn’t there. So you have tens of thousands of arms-bearing contractors in the battle area who do not work for the same people and specifically are not directly under the command of the military commander in the battle area. And that’s a very, very disconcerting scenario.

RYSSDAL: There are, obviously, varying levels of command relationships, as you mentioned. But there’s another one, too, right? There’s the client-customer relationship. And why couldn’t the government — who is in the final analysis the customer here, right? — why couldn’t the government go to Blackwater or Triple Canopy or anyone of those other firms and say, “Listen, you’ve done a fabulous job here. We appreciate your service. But in the next contract, we’re going to have some more requirements. You will not bear arms so openly. You won’t shoot randomly . . .” Those sorts of things.

SCHOONER: Well, the point I think you’re making is, Can the government ask more of its contractors. Can it ask them to comply with some additional requirements. And the short answer is yes. So, can we do better going forward? Absolutely. Should we? Of course.

RYSSDAL: Steve Schooner is the co-director of the Procurement Law Center at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Mr. Schooner, thanks for your time.

SCHOONER: Thanks. Have a good day.

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