A Tougher Line on Government Contracting
Monday, October 8, 2007
Will Blackwater USA's travails spread to the two Northern Virginia companies who share a controversial $3.6 billion contract to provide security services in Iraq?
Experts say DynCorp of Falls Church and Triple Canopy of Herndon have much to gain or lose depending on the outcome of investigations into Blackwater's conduct in Iraq, where its employees allegedly fired on and killed Iraqi civilians.
"There's going to be a continuing drumbeat of bad news for this company," said Peter Singer, an expert on private security at the Brookings Institution who is critical of the industry. "As competitors, that's good news for them. . . . Maybe it means [Blackwater] is less likely to win contracts the future."
Any new business, however, could be lost in the damage to the industry's reputation, some say. "If I were advising either of those companies, I would be worried about the Blackwater incident coming back to haunt the whole issue of private security and how it's used in Iraq," said Deborah Avant, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine.
DynCorp is a 60-year-old company with $2 billion in annual revenue. Triple Canopy was born just four years ago and has ridden the recent boom in government contracting to collect hundreds of millions in revenue. Both will undoubtedly be subject to whatever measures are put in place to address the Blackwatersituation.
On Thursday, for instance, the House passed a bill to make all private contractors in Iraq and other combat zones subject to prosecution in U.S. courts. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, ordered an overhaul of U.S. Embassy security practices in Iraq, tightening government oversight of diplomatic convoys escorted by private security contractors.
The current controversy stems from a Sept. 16 incident in Iraq in which Blackwater personnel protecting U.S. diplomats were alleged to have fired upon and killed Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi government ordered Blackwater to leave the country and later backed away from that position. But the scrutiny continues, with the FBI, Congress and others investigating Blackwater's conduct in that incident and prior ones.
Among U.S. contractors in Iraq, Triple Canopy has more than 2,000 employees in Iraq, compared with Blackwater's 1,000 and DynCorp's 250.
But on the State Department contract, Blackwater has 987 people, compared with 151 for DynCorp and 257 for Triple Canopy. Blackwater travels with high-level diplomatic personnel, especially in and around the violent Baghdad area, while DynCorp operates in the relatively peaceful northern Kurdish region and Triple Canopy in the South.
Triple Canopy and DynCorp have so far avoided the kind of heavy scrutiny that is now being given to Blackwater, whose chief executive, Erik Prince, testified last week before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Triple Canopy, though, has figured in the debate. An incident report filed by one of its workers labeled as "murder" a Blackwater employee's killing of a security aide to an Iraqi vice president, while Blackwater cited the employee for violating rules against handling weapons while drinking in September 2006.
Triple Canopy also faced a lawsuit by two former employees claiming the company dismissed them for reporting that their supervisor had fired at Iraqi civilians. The jury found in favor of Triple Canopy but said "we strongly feel that its poor conduct, lack of standard reporting procedures, bad investigation methods and unfair double standards amongst employees should not be condoned."
Triple Canopy declined to discuss its relationship with the government. "We're a privately held company," said Jayanti Menches, a company spokeswoman.
Greg Lagana, DynCorp senior vice president for communications, said private security represents just a small portion of the company's work. With 14,000 employees worldwide, DynCorp also provides police training in Iraq and a variety of other services worldwide, from maintaining aircraft to eradicating coca fields in Colombia.
"Different companies have different cultures, and that holds true in our industry," Lagana said. "But I think there is a danger that people are getting so caught up in the politics of this issue and in broad-brush perceptions -- and misperceptions -- that they are losing sight of the seriousness and importance of this work."
Steven L. Schooner, co-director of the government procurement law program at George Washington University, said government's response could shape the industry's future.
"It may in fact be the flashpoint or the straw that broke the camel's back on the government's increased reliance on private security in Iraq and around the world," he said.
But, if the government "decides just to capitulate to the court of public opinion and pull Blackwater out, other contractors are going to get the exact same work and probably hire the same people."