by Marylaine Block
Have you noticed that one of the things that's being tested in Iraq is an entire theory of government?
That theory is that government functions can be, even should be, outsourced. The idea, borrowed from big business, is that flexibility is what matters for management. Large fixed investments in facilities and workforce not only cost lots of money; they restrict a company's ability to adapt swiftly to changing conditions. Therefore, companies cut those fixed investments to the bone and, when they need new facilities or employees, they hire contractors to provide them for a set fee (which frequently results in lower wages and benefits for workers).
Most Americans probably weren't aware until recently that many government functions once performed by civil servants are now contracted out, but most librarians have known it ever since this administration tried to kill the Government Printing Office and have each agency negotiate with private contractors for all their printing needs. Government and military librarians had been aware of it even before the GPO flap, because private contractors have been running some government libraries for several years now.
The theory of contracting out is that private companies with a profit motive are better managed, more efficient, and cost-effective. That may even be true much of the time, especially if the contractors are given clear goals and performance standards and their work is closely monitored and evaluated. Certainly the competitive threat of private contractors has forced government librarians to improve their own operations and institute better cost controls and performance measures.
But we have no way of knowing how well the private contractors in Iraq are performing. In fact, we know virtually nothing about them. We don't know what rules they operate by, what their chain of command is, or where the buck stops. We don't know who is to be held accountable, or by whom.
We do know that when enlisted personnel serve the military as truckdrivers, security guards, cooks, and such, they are bound to their duties by their military oath. Soldiers will go into danger when ordered, because that's the deal they agreed to when they signed up; they knew that danger was built into the job, and so was punishment for disobeying orders.
Thee employees of private contractors, though, can't be ordered to risk their lives. They are free to say, "Whoa, this wasn't what I bargained for. I don't want to be inside a gasoline truck when a rocket-propelled grenade hits it." Turkish gasoline truck drivers exercised their rights as private employees and went on strike in December, disrupting both military plans and the daily life of Iraqis.
When soldiers are assigned a job, they do it according to rules established by their commanders, military law, and international treaties, and will be held responsible for their conduct. When contractors are assigned that same job, what rules are they following? Who has the power to tell them "No, you can't do things that way"?
The Army Times reported that "a security consultant with a private company contracted by the government, recorded the first known enemy kill using a new — and controversial — bullet. The bullet is so controversial that if Thomas, a former SEAL, had been on active duty, he would have been court-martialed for using it. The ammunition is 'nonstandard' and hasn’t passed the military’s approval process." <http://www.armytimes.com/story.php?f=1-292925-2426405.php>
The soldiers charged with abusing prisoners have said they were told by the interrogators, some of whom were civilian employees of CACI International, to "soften up" the prisoners. Can these interrogators be compelled to testify at those soldiers' courts martial? By whom? Does the military have any authority over them? Can the interrogators be tried themselves? In what courts, military or criminal? Who has jurisdiction? To whom, if anybody, are they accountable? During Senate hearings, John McCain tried at length, and in vain, to get answers from Donald Rumsfeld about who was in charge at Abu Ghraib and where these interrogators fit in the chain of command.
Retired military sciences instructor Stan Goff explained in an online discussion forum that the reason the framers of our Constitution made the military answer to civilian leadership was to make sure that it would serve the broad interests of the American public. Private contractors, Goff said, can cut around accountability to Congress and the public, because "the Freedom of Information Act largely does not apply to private corporations who can call virtually every activity a confidential business practice even if they are ... working for the military. They don't have to answer the public's questions about their practices, and they don't have to tell us how many of their people are killed, caught, or wounded, or how they became casualties." <http://www.democrats.us/beta/forum/view_topic.php?id=1305&forum_id=3>
Nonetheless, the actions these contractors take will be understood by Iraqis and the world to represent official US policy. As Nicholas Van Hoffman pointed out, there's a real question about "how much control the American authorities have over the irregulars running about the country. Dyncorp mercenaries in the former Yugoslavia were accused of rape and robbery. The point is that they are not subject to military discipline, and even if they commit no acts universally regarded as criminal, they may still do things that offend the Iraqis: They might drink alcohol, use insulting gestures, whistle at women or find a dozen ways to get into trouble doing things which are innocent enough if done in Indiana, but which are incendiary acts if done in Basra." <http://www.thinkingpeace.com/pages/arts2/arts180.html>
Government employees -- "bureaucrats" -- have been criticized for many things, and sometimes justly. But we know what rules they are required to abide by, and we know who they are accountable to. Ultimately, that's us, the American people. Most public employees believe their responsibility is to serve the law and the interests of the public. That's why so many civil servants over the years have risked their careers to blow the whistle on officials who break the law, take bribes, fake test results, or wantonly waste tax money.
We don't know what principles private contractors are loyal to, or what constituency they serve. If they had to choose between better service to the public or better return on their company's investment, we don't know which they would choose. What's worse, we may not be able to find out, because we don't even know who could compel them to testify at a Congressional hearing.
It may be time for Americans to start rethinking this theory of government. Librarians could start the discussion. Those of us employed by public agencies are potentially affected parties whose jobs could be contracted out. But as citizens, we are all affected parties, because we believe our governments should be held accountable for good public service and wise stewardship of tax money. We run our libraries by that principle.
We need to insist that any private contractors hired to do the public's business abide by the same high standards.
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We aren't passengers on Spaceship Earth, we're the crew. We aren't residents on this planet, we're citizens. The difference in both cases is responsibility.
Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut.
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