Latin American counternarcotics contractors lack accountability, senator says

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 6:01 PM

A key lawmaker questioned Thursday whether the U.S. government is adequately overseeing the roughly $1 billion it pays contractors to help governments in Latin America combat production and trafficking of illegal drugs.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chairs a subcommittee on contracting oversight, criticized the State Department and Pentagon for their monitoring and management of large contracts that supply counternarcotics assistance to governments in Central and South America. The contractors provide a range of services, including the training of local police forces and the eradication of coca plants used to produce cocaine.

McCaskill said the agencies had been slow to provide her office with the most basic information, including how much is being spent, what kind of work is being performed and whether periodic evaluations and audits are being done. Companies receiving contracts from the agencies include Northrop Grumman, ITT Systems, Lockheed Martin and DynCorp. The United States has issued similar contracts for counternarcotics work in Afghanistan.

"It makes us worry if somebody is minding the store," McCaskill said. "I have an uneasy feeling that there's much more oversight that needs to be done."

William F. Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, agreed there was room for improvement. In his written testimony, he said his office "found inconsistent records management" among the multiple agencies that oversee the counternarcotics contracting work. He also said that the "volume of procurement activities overwhelms staff capacity in some instances" and that "many of the acquisition steps are manual processes that are both time-consuming and error-prone."

Wechsler said that the agency needed to "do a better job in evaluating its programs and measuring the return on its dollars" and that an internal management review would be underway by early summer.

McCaskill also expressed concern that Pentagon officials said they had to hire an outside contractor for $50,000 over the past few months to just pull the necessary paperwork to prepare for her hearing because they didn't have enough government workers.

"Are you kidding me?" she asked the witnesses. "Have we gotten to the point where we have to hire a contractor to prepare for a hearing on contractor oversight?"

© 2010 The Washington Post Company