War Zone Contracting Termed Huge 'Failure'

Article excerpt

Lt. Col. Dominic "Rocky" Baragona dreamed of making a million dollars, buying the house next door to his parents and taking care of them when he retired from the Army.

Six years after his death, the Ohio soldier's parents are due nearly five times the amount of their son's dream from a federal court decision against the foreign defense contractor found responsible for killing him in a May 19, 2003, traffic accident in Iraq. The 1982 West Point graduate was ejected when his Humvee was struck by a KGL truck driven by an Egyptian employee of the contractor.

However, the elder Dominic and Vilma Baragona might never see the $4.9 million judgment because the Kuwait & Gulf Link Transport Co. appealed the ruling, claiming that a U.S. federal judge lacked jurisdiction because the crash occurred overseas.

Legal experts say the case is an example of many weaknesses in a wartime government contracting system fueled by more than 197,000 private contractors -- U.S. citizens, locals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and third-country nationals recruited from around the world -- hired to work in the war zones at a rate unprecedented in U.S. history.

Government agencies report:

A lack of oversight has led to widespread abuse among contractors who have bilked the government out of millions of dollars.

There is no accurate count of contractor personnel in the war theater, just as there is no uniform system to track workers killed or injured.

Private contractors' legal status is different from that of U.S. government employees; military leaders have less authority over contractors than over military or civilian subordinates.

Criminal cases and civil lawsuits involving contractors, which are not tracked by U.S. agencies, routinely raise political and jurisdictional questions.

"This has been a massive failure. We have failed our military, and we have failed the American people," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D- Mo., testified during a February hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting.

Matter of logistics

The Government Accountability Office, using a Department of Defense census, last year estimated there were at least 197,718 private contractors -- and possibly thousands more -- working for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they transport fuel, supplies and equipment, perform maintenance and construction jobs, provide security, and conduct intelligence analysis.

U.S. agencies awarded $85 billion in private contracts for work in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, the Congressional Budget Office reported last year. In fiscal 2007 and the first half of fiscal 2008, the government spent $33.9 billion on 57,000 contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, the GAO found.

John Hutton, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the GAO, told Congress last month that lack of oversight increased costs. For example, because the Department of Defense in 2006 failed to note what contractors are entitled to, the government spent an extra $43 million in Iraq on free meals to contractors who had food allowances, he noted.

Still, retired Lt. General William Gus Pagonis, director of logistics for the Persian Gulf War in 1991, said the military cannot function without third-party support because private contractors allow troops to focus on the combat mission.

"There have been over a million troops rotated in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. If not for third-party contractors, we would have needed 4 million," Pagonis said. "I don't know how we'd do that without the draft. …