Monday :: Aug 11, 2003

Private Sector Profits For the War Machine

by Mary

Krugman's column today slams the administration's "Support the Troops" on the cheap attitude. He connects the complaints about bad food and too little water to the efforts of the administration to cut costs where ever it can, when it is a direct expenditure, and to privatize as much of the rest as it can, because they say they believe that the market will deliver more for less. As Krugman says, their mercenary business plan has failed on its first trial.

Military privatization, like military penny-pinching, is part of a pattern. Both for ideological reasons and, one suspects, because of the patronage involved, the people now running the country seem determined to have public services provided by private corporations, no matter what the circumstances. For example, you may recall that in the weeks after 9/11 the Bush administration and its Congressional allies fought tooth and nail to leave airport screening in the hands of private security companies, giving in only in the face of overwhelming public pressure. In Iraq, reports The Baltimore Sun, "the Bush administration continues to use American corporations to perform work that United Nations agencies and nonprofit aid groups can do more cheaply."

One of the nasty little secrets with so many of these services that are being "privatized" these days is we seem to be getting a lot less service for a lot more dollars than when we had the government providing the service. In the case of the soldiers in Iraq, the contractors who are providing logistical support are raking in the bucks while not having much skin in the game. As Dan Baum documented in his article, Nation Builders for Hire, when things get hot, the contractor can decide not to show up for work, whereas the soldier would be courtmartialed.

The General Accounting Office and several watchdog groups say it's not yet even clear that Pentagon contractors are cheaper in the long run than a larger military; the experiment is still too young. And there are other concerns, first among them the uncomfortable fact that the military can find itself dependent in wartime on people it doesn't fully control. Often, the only people who know how to run the military's new high-tech gear are the geeks of the company that makes it, so the soldiers manning, say, an Abrams tank don't necessarily know how to fix it if it breaks. After visiting Arifjan I met a reserve Air Force colonel in the lobby of the Kuwait Hilton who told me the communications gear on which his job depends is entirely maintained by civilian employees of the manufacturer (he wouldn't tell me which). ''We had a problem in the middle of the night and called down for the contractor; they told us he doesn't come in until 9 a.m.,'' the officer told me. ''We're fighting a war, and the contractor doesn't come in until 9 a.m.!'' And really, there's no guarantee the contractor will be there at all if things get ugly. Soldiers have to stay put when the shells start falling or face punishment for desertion; contractors who decide the high pay isn't worth the risk can simply leave. As the Defense Department itself put it in a 1991 report, ''D.O.D. Components cannot ensure that emergency-essential services performed by contractors would continue during crisis or hostile situations.'' And that was before the big increase in Pentagon contracting.

Private contractors are not accountable to the public and they have almost no reason to rein in costs and thus we have a recipe for disaster or scandal. The ability for these companies feeding at the tax-payer's trough to escape scrutiny means that many millions of dollars that could be used for the public good are instead used to enrich the war profiteers. And the number of contractors used hides the real size of the war machine (just as our national guard and reservists don't really count as part of the troop deployment). Today, we don't have any idea about how much of our treasury is going to this expense and how much is being wasted.

Meanwhile, our troops in Iraq are living with the quality of service and support this administration believes they deserve while we spend a billion dollars a week to keep them there.

Mary :: 11:23 PM :: Comments (13) :: Digg It!