Solicitation for Media Team in Iraq Hints at Contracting-Overhaul Snags

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Army wants a private firm to provide a seven-member media team to support the public affairs officer of the 25th Infantry Division, now serving as Multi-National Division-North in Iraq -- at least three media specialists, two Arab speakers, a Web manager in Iraq and a media specialist stateside.

So last week it extended until next Sunday the deadline for bids on a contract to provide those services, continuing a practice that has vastly expanded during the past five years as the military has hired outside firms for jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama called last week for the Defense Department to stop outsourcing services that the government could perform. A look at solicitations last week on the Web site showed more than 40 notices about new and modified contracts for Iraq and Afghanistan, including contracts for building an air-traffic control tower at an Iraq air base, providing security guards for U.S. military facilities in Iraq and hiring a new Food for Peace officer in Afghanistan.

But the solicitation for the media team is an example of the borderline cases that will be a challenge for government officials charged with writing new rules and enforcing them.

The statement of work accompanying the solicitation for the 25th Infantry Division contract says the services to be provided include "engaging Western and U.S. external audiences; informing our internal and home station audiences with aggressive media relations; as well as command information and outreach programs that support Iraq's steady growth in its government."

One result being sought: "Expand public information reach beyond traditional recipients of media products in order to garner maximum exposure to publics in the U.S. on a 24 hour basis," the work statement says.

Except for informing division personnel and home station audiences, those tasks are normally handled by the State Department's public diplomacy officials and before that by the U.S. Information Agency, not the military.

Maj. Patrick J.O. Husted, public affairs planning officer for the 25th Infantry Division, described the solicitation as "similar to other media support contracts that have been utilized during Operation Iraqi Freedom to augment divisional public affairs offices." He said the 25th Infantry's public affairs office has nine employees -- three officers, four noncommissioned officers and two enlistees -- all deployed to Iraq from the division's home base in Hawaii. "Doctrinally speaking, division public affairs assets are not manned to the point where we can provide adequate coverage of units and events," Husted said.

Under the proposal, three media specialists, including the team leader, would be stationed in Iraq to provide day-to-day assistance to the public affairs officer. The team leader would also help produce a 24- to 36-page monthly command magazine for internal and external distribution, along with a 220-page year-end command information book "to be distributed to key personnel and/or available for individual purchase," according to the proposal.

The two Arabic-speaking specialists would monitor Iraqi media and "assist in identifying and engaging Iraqi and international journalists/media," the proposal says. The Web manager would design a site, which would be separate from the 25th Division's home site. It would provide "a way for the troops to communicate with their family and friends and a broader range of the American public about their activities in Iraq." The stateside media specialist would work on story packages for distribution to "hometown, regional and national U.S. media."

In other cases, the military has been hiring private firms because the United States is undertaking tasks, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, that involve construction projects.

For example, on March 2, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sought the names of firms that would provide architectural and engineering services in Iraq that it said could total $245 million over the next five years. The projects, according to the solicitation, could include building town and city roads, bridges, police stations, schools, barracks, and army or air force bases.

The military is also undertaking programs that in other times would have been handled by the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development. On March 3, the Army solicited private firms to bid on a contract that could run to $40 million over four years "to inform and influence undecided Afghans to accept the government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a legitimate government of the people, [and] support the acceptance of the Afghan National Security Forces as legitimate security forces."

To carry out this mission, the winning contractor "must be able to develop, test, produce, coordinate dissemination of media products and report effectiveness of products in support of the 2009 program lines," according to the solicitation. The selected media company would produce and distribute "approved billboards, flyers, posters, educational pamphlets or brochures, newspaper advertisements, radio messages, television advertisements and documentaries," the solicitation adds. The proposal offers specifics on the quantities the Army could order, such as single-sided fliers (10,000), posters (5,000), 45-second radio messages (three times a day for two weeks for each station in two languages) and 45-minute television programming (two times each station, two languages) so the bidder can estimate pricing.

As with similar but much more costly strategic communications contracts in Iraq, the Army would supply task orders during the year for the pamphlets and the radio or TV ads it wanted, guaranteeing that the contractor would get a minimum of $500,000 the first year.

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