washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

Pentagon planning more oversight of war-zone contractors

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Defense Department said Monday that it plans to improve oversight of contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq by hiring more contracting specialists and providing additional training to government employees who supervise work performed by outside firms.

Pentagon officials told a congressionally appointed panel monitoring federal spending on contracts in the two war zones that years of attrition in the department's acquisition workforce have hampered oversight, particularly as defense budgets have skyrocketed. The Army's contracting workforce, for example, is only 55 percent of what it was in the mid-1990s, while the dollar value of contracts overseen has jumped from $11 billion to $165 billion, officials said.

"The Army is reversing this 15-year steady decline in its workforce," said Lt. Gen. William N. Phillips, principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology. "We project recovery will take at least 10 years."

The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan was created in 2008 to recommend improvements in reconstruction and logistics work performed in war zones by private companies in the wake of concerns about waste and fraud.

Michael J. Thibault, co-chairman of the commission, said that with the $80 billion worth of contracting work performed during the past five years in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is concerned about the "lack of commensurate focus, oversight and program management by government officials."

Given that there are approximately 200,000 civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thibault said, it is "astonishing" that "no one at the Defense Department or the Army has either a department-wide or theater-wide view of contracts, contracting activity, or the numbers and locations of contractors."

Last spring, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Pentagon would push to insource more of its work and hire more acquisition workers. Army officials told commissioners Monday that they plan to hire more than 1,650 workers during the next five years who specialize in contracting. They also plan to have full-time government employees pick up work currently performed by 11,000 contractors.

But in their testimony, defense officials cautioned that those and additional fixes won't happen overnight.

"It takes many years of training, education and hands-on experience to develop the skills required to adequately perform the complex contracting functions we demand of our contracting professionals," Phillips said.

Echoing those sentiments, Shay D. Assad, Pentagon director of defense procurement, said: "We have made meaningful progress, but we have a long way to go."

The commission heard testimony from two major government contractors that maintain vehicles and provide other services in Iraq and Afghanistan: Aecom Government Services of Fort Worth and CACI International of Arlington, Va.

The panel had requested input from a third contractor, London-based Aegis, which provides war-zone security. But Aegis wrote to the commissioners within the past few days to say that it would not be able to send a representative to the hearing, citing unspecified "time resources and contracting constraints."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company