Contractors Do Bad Things, Uncle Sam Has to Sit on His Hands

A batch of documents recently obtained by the Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request exposes "previously undisclosed offenses committed by more than 200 contract employees in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2004 and 2008." Many of these offenses were quite egregious, and yet it was often only the employee disciplined, while the government let the offending company off the hook. A recent New York Times article reveals why: many of these companies are too big to ban.

I like your ski goggles, guy.

The numerous escapades of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan unveiled by the AP include drunken brawls with locals, solicitation of prostitutes, drug use, and the mishandling of weapons. These incidents are pretty much par for the course with companies like DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and, everyone's favorite, Blackwater Worldwide, now known as Xe Services, but these infractions raise an important question.

Why doesn't the government appropriately punish these companies for violations of government contracting polices? Which is to say, why are there so few suspensions and debarments?

The answer of course is that the government is often entirely dependent on these same contractors for their services. The Times article provides a perfect example:

[L]ast year ... officials at the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] wanted to stop BP from getting government contracts until it addressed various environmental and safety violations. Then, according to a lawyer involved in the debarment process at the agency, the Pentagon objected: BP was its biggest supplier of fuel.

These deliberations occurred several months before one of BP's rigs blew up and spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That's not to say that had EPA been able to prevent BP from getting further contracts before the company corrected its "various environmental and safety violations" that we could have avoided the Gulf oil spill. But with such limited ability for the government to punish a contractor, what does a company really fear running afoul of the rules?

Overreliance on a contractor's services can have serious consequences; not least of all is the government's inability to penalize a company when it breaks the rules. In the case of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the issue has become farcical. As the Times reports, "In the case of Blackwater, State Department officials pledged to pull its contracts, only to find that no other security companies were big enough to do the work."

Image by Flickr user The U.S. Army used under a Creative Commons license.

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