The scandal surrounding the conduct of Blackwater contractors in Iraq is just the most recent example of contractors and criminals run amok in that ill-conceived war. Since the occupation began, the U.S. military and its contractors have relied on shady characters and even criminals to do the outsourced business of supplying the troops, delivering weapons and making sure the mail arrives.
One such wanted criminal, Viktor Bout, was paid tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars while illegally flying transport missions for the United States in Iraq. Bout is the notorious Russian weapons merchant whose fleet of aging Soviet aircraft rivals that of some NATO countries in its size and capacity. By marrying his access to Soviet bloc weapons with his airlift capacity, Bout established himself as the world's premiere purveyor of illicit weapons to the world's tyrants-- a one-stop shopping source for everyone from Charles Taylor and his armies of child soldiers of Sierra Leone and Liberia to the Taliban in Afghanistan, from Jonas Savimbi in Angola to the FARC rebels in Colombia.
As shown in the new book Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible by former Washington Post correspondent Douglas Farah and the Los Angeles Times' Stephen Braun, Bout flew hundreds of flights for the Pentagon and its contractors in Iraq. He did so despite having been: 1) identified by U.S. and British intelligence as a supplier of weapons, ammunition and aircraft to the Taliban and, indirectly, to al Qaeda; 2) the subject of an Interpol arrest warrant at the request of the Belgian government; 3) named in almost a dozen U.N. public reports as the chief illegal provider of weapons to Africa's rogue regimes, and; 4) the subject of an executive order signed by George W. Bush in July 2004 making it illegal to do any business with Bout. The executive order was followed by an order from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in May 2005, freezing the assets of Bout, his senior partners and main companies, again making it illegal for U.S citizens or their government to do business with any of the named entities.
Yet the flights in Iraq went on, at the request of Halliburton, KBR and others, on behalf of the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, until early 2006. Farah and Braun, based on flight and refueling records from Iraq, estimate Bout's companies may have flown up to 1,000 flights as a secondary contractor for the U.S. government. Each flight cost about $60,000 -- not a bad chunk of taxpayer dollars. Bout managed to up his profit margin considerably by having his pilots apply for and receive special refueling cards that allowed them to gas up for free when they landed in Iraq.
Using an Amnesty International report as a starting point, the authors trace a deeply troubling incident that, based on a July GAO report, was not unique. The GAO report found that tens of thousands of weapons purchased by the U.S. military and destined for delivery in Iraq remain unaccounted for.
Some of weapons--200,000 AK-47 assault rifles--were transported by Bout's aircraft before going AWOL. One of his airlines, Aerocom, registered in Moldova, obtained a contract from the Pentagon in August 2004 to fly the weapons from Bosnia to Iraq, along with millions of rounds of ammunition.
But, according to Amnesty International and the authors, there were several problems with the deal. Aerocom was already named in U.N. reports to illicit weapons trafficking in Africa, and Bout was on UN and U.S. sanctions lists. The day before the first flight, the Moldovan government canceled the Aerocom aircraft's air-operations certificate, making taking off illegal. Still, the flights went on, although there is no record of them ever landing in Iraq or of the weapons being delivered to their declared destination.
Blackwater is just one piece of an entire outsourcing system for which there is no accountability. Congress is presently debating a number of bills that would reign in this whole mess of outsourcing gone wild. The House overwhelmingly passed this week a bill by Rep. David Price to bring better oversight and legal accountability. On the Senate side, Senator Barack Obama was the first Senator to introduce legislation on this subject last February. Obama has also added in a section to ensure that critical U.S. military functions are not simply handed over to contractors like Viktor Bout.
It is well past time that the U.S. Congress enacts these bills in to law. That is, unless we want to keep giving our business to the Viktor Bouts and Blackwaters of the world. By failing to control the contractors, or giving contracts to criminal enterprises, we squander our moral authority, waste tax dollars and undercut our men and women in uniform fighting far from home.