Panel Finds Massive Waste By Wartime Contractors

A report by a congressional commission says the U.S. has lost tens of billions of dollars during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of waste and fraud in government contracts. The panel offered 15 recommendations to tackle the contracting mess. But one suggested fix — hire more government workers — might not be too popular right now.

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Waste and fraud in government contracts have cost the United States tens of billions of dollars during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's the assessment of a congressional commission. Its members offered ideas to do better. But one big fix might not be very popular right now. It would be to rely less on contractors and hire more government workers.

Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN: The numbers are staggering. The price tag for private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade is about $206 billion. And how much has been lost?

Mr. MICHAEL THIBAULT (Commission on Wartime Contracting): We estimate that 31 to $60 billion has been or is being lost to waste and fraud.

BOWMAN: That's Michael Thibault, co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The contracts include everything from building bases, to providing security guards for those bases, to feeding American soldiers who live in those bases, along with building hospitals and schools in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The number of private contractors in those countries last year topped 260,000, mostly foreign workers. That means more contractors than all U.S. military personnel in the war zones.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Co-chair, Commission on Wartime Contracting): We were not prepared to use contractors, and we are still not adequately prepared to use contractors to the scale required.

BOWMAN: That's Christopher Shays, a committee co-chair and former Republican congressman. So how were those tens of billions lost? Ill-conceived projects -meaning the Iraqis or Afghans couldn't maintain those schools and hospitals after the Americans handed over the keys.

Here's Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon official who served on the commission.

Mr. DOV ZAKHEIM (Former Pentagon Official): What is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that will then fall into disuse?

BOWMAN: Another problem: outright theft by contractors. And one more: poor oversight by the American government. Contractors got away with doing a bad job. To fix that part of the problem, the commissioners suggest hiring more contract managers and investigators to keep an eye on the tens of billions spent.

That makes sense to Jack Williams. He's a professor at Georgia State University College of Law and has worked with the government on corruption issues.

Mr. JACK WILLIAMS (Georgia State University Law Professor): That's the way to handle this problem. You're not going to eradicate fraud, waste and abuse. But what you can do is you can create a structure that monitors it. And so they're keeping an eye both on the work and on the money.

BOWMAN: The big reason the U.S. relies so much on contractors is because the federal workforce - the military, the State Department - is overstretched. Private security companies guard U.S. bases, which frees up U.S. soldiers for combat. Nowadays, it's a worker from Sri Lanka peeling potatoes in a mess hall instead of an Army private.

Back during the Vietnam War, there were about 18,000 employees at the U.S. Agency for International Development working on overseas reconstruction projects. Today, there are about 3,000, says Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security.

Mr. RICHARD FONTAINE (Center for New American Security): USAID has become, unfortunately, I think, largely a contract management agency, where it used to do many things directly.

BOWMAN: The commission wants more federal reconstruction workers heading overseas once again, instead of contractors. Christopher Shays, the commission co-chair, acknowledged that might be a tough sell in Washington these days.

Mr. SHAYS: The current stress on the budget may discourage members of Congress from supporting the investments that some of our recommendations would require.

BOWMAN: Don't make those investments in the federal workforce, Shays says, and the government will keep wasting billions.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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