Outsourcing in the Dark

By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, July 26, 2007

You don't trifle with Robin Smith when it comes to keeping America safe. Smith is a former airman first class who won a Sharpshooter badge and was one of 125 women selected by the Air Force for a test combat training program. She comes from a family that was almost a stranger to civilian life; until her brother retired from service in the mid-'90s, she says, "there was a member of my family on active military duty for over 100 consecutive years." Smith is black; her forebears joined up in the days of the Buffalo Soldiers.

Since she left the service, Smith has worked for several private security contractors, which is how she came to be stationed at the Department of Homeland Security headquarters here in Washington, in the employ of Wackenhut Services, the company that provides security at a multitude of nuclear, defense and other highly sensitive federal facilities. For a time she was stationed in the building where Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff worked, and she saw him every day he was at the office. "He trusted us to do everything to protect his site," she says.

That trust was misplaced. In September 2005, Smith was working as an emergency dispatcher, charged with monitoring the cameras throughout the complex and alerting Wackenhut superiors if something went awry. One day, an employee opened an envelope filled with an unidentified white powder, which poured out over her. Two Wackenhut officers rushed to the scene, which they failed to isolate. Appalled, Smith asked if she should notify the Federal Protective Service and was told she shouldn't. She asked if any of the officers had training in hazardous materials and was told they didn't. She recommended they isolate the envelope and the employee and evacuate the building.

Instead, Wackenhut officers took the envelope outside and told the employee to go wash off the powder, which she did, passing directly in front of Chertoff's office on her way to the ladies' room. Finally, after half an hour, they called the Federal Protective Service, which evacuated the building.

The following year Wackenhut's contract at DHS headquarters was terminated, though the company retains an array of contracts at other sensitive facilities. Last week, the House subcommittee on government management, organization and procurement held a hearing on Wackenhut's performance on some of those contracts and more generally on how well the federal government monitors the performance of its contractors in this age of outsourcing. Among the witnesses were Smith and Gregory Friedman, the Energy Department inspector general, who raised questions about Wackenhut's performance at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear weapons complex (Friedman's office found that Wackenhut had alerted its guards in advance of a 2004 drill testing their readiness), and about Bechtel Corp.'s treatment of radioactive waste at the Hanford, Wash., nuclear plant.

Over the past six years, the Bush administration has contracted out government whenever possible. The government spent $219 billion on private contracts in 2000; for the past two years, its annual spending on private contractors has topped $400 billion. Much of that is going to the contractors providing services to our forces in Iraq, but the privatization extends well beyond the war. The Energy Department, Friedman testified, has 15,000 federal employees and pays for roughly 100,000 contract employees. DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner testified that the value of DHS contracts rose from $3.4 billion to $15.8 billion in a single year. DHS, he said, is unable to select or monitor its contractors with as much care as he'd like. At the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, Associate Administrator William Desmond testified, contracted projects are growing "faster than we can hire managers to oversee them."

Part of the problem is that the federal government has no central database to assess the record of prospective contractors. When DHS checks out its contract bidders, Elaine Duke, the department's chief procurement officer, told the committee, there's no file containing reports on contractors from the various departments' inspectors general or Congress's Government Accountability Office. If the companies have been indicted or involved in civil action over their performance, contract officers such as Duke are, like the rest of us, reliant on Google to discover what's out there.

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents Manhattan's East Side, has introduced legislation to create a central database that would enable officials at one department to know when a contractor has screwed up at another. Maloney's bill, if enacted, would be only a small step toward bringing accountability to our newly privatized government, but it would at least keep procurement officers from flying blind and might just make our Department of Homeland Security more secure.


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