The Uncounted Contractors

When is the U.S. government going to get an accurate count of the private military and security contractors it employs in Iraq and Afghanistan? Apparently, not any time soon, according to a GAO report released last Friday.
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Okay, just how long is it going to take for the U.S. government to get an accurate count of the private military and security contractors it employs in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Apparently, not any time soon, according to the Government Accounting Office report released last Friday. The report "DOD, State, and USAID Face Continued Challenges in Tracking Contracts, Assistance Instruments, and Associated Personnel," was GAO's third assessment of the implementation of the Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT) and data reported by the three agencies for Afghanistan and Iraq for FY 2009 and the first half of FY 2010 on the (1) number of contractor and assistance personnel, including those providing security; (2) number of personnel killed or wounded; and (3) number and value of contracts and assistance instruments and extent of competition for new awards.

What GAO found was that:

While the three agencies designated SPOT as their system for tracking statutorily required information in July 2008, SPOT still cannot reliably track information on contracts, assistance instruments, and associated personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a result, the agencies relied on sources of data other than SPOT to respond to our requests for information. The agencies' implementation of SPOT has been affected by some practical and technical issues, but their efforts also were undermined by a lack of agreement on how to proceed, particularly on how to track local nationals working under contracts or assistance instruments. The lack of agreement was due in part to agencies not having assessed their respective information needs and how SPOT can be designed to address those needs and statutory requirements. In 2009, GAO reported on many of these issues and recommended that the agencies jointly develop a plan to improve SPOT's implementation.

The three agencies reported to GAO that as of March 2010 there were 262,681 contractor and assistance personnel working in Iraq and Afghanistan, 18 percent of whom performed security functions. Due to limitations with agency-reported data, caution should be used in identifying trends or drawing conclusions about the number of personnel in either country. Data limitations are attributable to agency difficulty in determining the number of local nationals, low response rates to agency requests for data, and limited ability to verify the accuracy of reported data. For example, a State office noted that none of its Afghan grant recipients provided requested personnel data. While agency officials acknowledged not all personnel were being counted, they still considered the reported data to be more accurate than SPOT data.

Only State and USAID tracked information on the number of contractor and assistance personnel killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan during the review period. State reported 9 contractor and assistance personnel were killed and 68 wounded, while USAID reported 116 killed and 121 wounded. Both agencies noted that some casualties resulted from nonhostile actions. DOD still lacked a system to track similar information and referred GAO to Department of Labor data on cases filed under the Defense Base Act for killed or injured contractors. As GAO previously reported, Labor's data provide insights but are not a good proxy for the number of contractor casualties.

DOD, State, and USAID obligated $37.5 billion on 133,951 contracts and assistance instruments with performance in Iraq and Afghanistan during FY2009 and the first half of FY2010. DOD had the vast majority of contract obligations. Most of the contracts were awarded during the review period and used competitive procedures. State and USAID relied heavily on grants and cooperative agreements and reported that most were competitively awarded.

While, doubtlessly, DOD, State, AND USAID are doing the best they can to make SPOT work, some issues are likely to prove difficult to solve.

Determining the number of local nationals is one example. PMC supporters often note the advantage of using host country nationals is that it funnels money to the people who most need it, the country's citizens. Yet according to the GAO many local nationals working under contracts and assistance instruments are at remote locations and their numbers can fluctuate daily. DOD officials in Iraq and Afghanistan explain that this is especially true for construction projects, where the stage of construction and season can affect the total number of personnel working on a project. For example, DOD officials in Afghanistan told GAO that at one project site the number of local national personnel working fluctuated anywhere from 600 to 2,100.

Further, DOD contracting officials told us in some instances it could be weeks before they are notified that local national personnel are no longer working on a particular project. This has limited the ability to track, in real time, the status of these personnel in SPOT. Also, for personnel working at remote locations, the ability of U.S. government officials to verify the completeness of information in SPOT is hindered by security conditions that make it difficult for them to visit regularly, and they cannot use their limited time on site to verify personnel information.

Furthermore, USAID and State policies limit the extent that local national personnel are entered into SPOT. Following their initial use of SPOT, USAID and State developed agency-specific policies regarding SPOT's implementation. However, in some instances these policies limited the extent to which local nationals were required to be entered into the system. USAID's April 2009 contract and assistance policy specified only that contractor and assistance personnel deployed to Iraq must be registered in SPOT. The policy explicitly excluded Iraqi entities and nationals from being entered into SPOT, until a classified system is established. It was not until July 2010 that USAID directed that its contractor and assistance personnel working in Afghanistan be accounted for in SPOT. The policy notes that procedures will be provided separately for entering information on Afghan nationals into SPOT, but as of September 2010, such procedures have not been developed. As a result of these policies, information on local nationals working under USAID contracts and assistance instruments in Iraq and Afghanistan is still not being tracked in SPOT.

Another problem is that contractors and assistance recipients have not kept SPOT updated. Although the agencies have increasingly required their contractors and assistance recipients to enter personnel information into the system, there has been little emphasis placed on ensuring that the information entered into SPOT is up to date. Specifically, contractors and assistance recipients have not consistently closed the accounts of their personnel once they have left Iraq or Afghanistan. As a result, SPOT does not accurately reflect the number of contract and assistance personnel in either country, and in some cases the numbers may be overstated.

SPOT program officials told us that in March 2010 they began periodically reviewing SPOT to close out the accounts of any personnel who either did not actually travel to Iraq or Afghanistan or whose estimated deployment ending date was 14 days overdue. Based on this review, in April 2010 alone, they identified and closed the accounts of over 56,000 such personnel who had been listed in SPOT as still being deployed.

Perhaps most disturbing however is that although SPOT was designated as a system for tracking the number of personnel performing security functions, it cannot be used to reliably distinguish personnel performing security functions from other contractors. Consider the difficulty in tracking people authorized to carry weapons:

The weapon authorization data field in SPOT identifies personnel who have been authorized to carry a firearm. Employers of armed security contractors are required to enter this information into SPOT as part of DOD's process to register and account for such personnel in each country. However, USAID officials in Iraq explained that security personnel working under the agency's contracts and assistance instruments receive authorization to carry firearms from the Iraqi government, not DOD, and are not identified in SPOT as having a weapons authorization. Further, some contractors performing security functions are not authorized to carry weapons and would, therefore, not be included in a count using this method. Conversely, some personnel who are not performing security functions have been authorized to carry weapons for personal protection and would be included in the count.

Regardless of the method employed to identify personnel in SPOT, it appears that not all personnel performing security functions are being captured in the system. For example, based on an analysis of SPOT data, no more than 4,309 contractor personnel were performing security functions for DOD in Afghanistan during the second quarter of fiscal year 2010. In contrast, DOD officials overseeing armed contractors in Afghanistan estimated the total number of DOD security contractors in Afghanistan for the same time period was closer to 17,500.

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