Contracting faulted in Abu Ghraib abuse

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) blasted the Pentagon’s practice of “off-loading” contracts to other federal agencies and said that an instance of this practice may have led to the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

During a hearing of the Armed Services Committee yesterday, senators on both sides of the aisle criticized the Pentagon’s procurement practices. Meanwhile, the defense and services industry, reeling from recent fiascos, is calling on the government for greater clarity and discipline in the contracting process.

Levin seized on a defense contract to Virginia-based CACI International, which was hired to conduct interrogations at Abu Ghraib.

Department of Defense (DoD) officials in Iraq hired contract interrogators by sending their money to a Department of the Interior contracting center in Arizona, which then placed an order through a contract awarded by the General Services Administration. (The GSA secures the buildings, products, services and technology that federal agencies need.)

“DoD and Department of Interior officials effectively abdicated their responsibilities, leaving almost the entire contracting process in the hands of the contractor,” Levin said in opening statements during a hearing on improving defense acquisition.

A series of audits identified numerous subsequent abuses, including the issuance of orders that were outside the scope of the contract, the failure to comply with competition requirements and the failure to monitor contractor performance adequately, Levin said. Poor Army oversight also led to allegations of torture on behalf of the contractors.

The case against the CACI and Titan Corp. employees was referred to the Justice Department for prosecution. Titan provided translators under its contract.

The contract that went through the Department of the Interior was for information technology and was improperly used to hire the interrogators at Abu Ghraib, said Stan Soloway, the president of the Professional Services Council, which represents the governmental professional and technical services industry. Soloway served as a Pentagon acquisition official during the Clinton administration.

“There is inconsistency now as to who has what responsibility,” he told The Hill. We have to make sure that, as we instill discipline in the process, we have to clarify all responsibility and how do you handle areas that are going to be legitimately gray areas.”

Ultimately the contracting officer must determine the scope of the contract and whether the services contracted comply with that scope, he added.

“We need to have very clear lines of authority and very clear procedures and rules when it comes to determine whether something is within the scope of the contract,” he said.

Soloway also said that Congress so far has raised questions but has yet to produce legislation. He noted that issues raised by the interrogation contract have led to changes within the GSA, which since has implemented a program called “Get It Right.”

The bungled contract in Iraq also has prompted questions about whether there is enough discipline in the system.

Soloway stressed that government contracts need “real clarity and oversight as to what the relative responsibilities are.”

A year ago, Congress directed the GSA to do a series of reviews of its client-support centers and some of the reviews have been completed, Soloway said.

“There is direct pressure on GSA right now to get their management controls in place,” he added.

Congress’s frustration with the Pentagon’s acquisition process is not limited to service contracts.

“In times of large budget deficits and domestic crises, defense spending goes down and yet we are seeing defense cost going up,” Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the panel’s Airland Subcommittee, said during the hearing.

“We are already at a point where we can only [buy] four ships for the United States Navy in one year. That obviously has national security implications.”

McCain also pointed out that costs for key programs, such as the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the C-130J cargo planes and the Navy’s next-generation destroyer, have skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) criticized the fact that each service pursues its own capabilities and ends up duplicating efforts, as happened with the contract dealing with unmanned aerial vehicles. The services should look at whether joint solutions would satisfy their needs, he said.

Gordon England, acting deputy secretary of defense, said the Pentagon is already involved in a series of efforts to refine and change its acquisition practices.

“It is vitally important that we make substantive progress,” England said. “Defense acquisition is an especially complex undertaking, involving myriad of interests, regulations, changing technologies and requirements.” He said that, despite previous efforts, “we still do not have it right.”

An appointed panel, led by retired Air Force Gen. Ronald Kadish, is assessing Pentagon acquisition practices and will complete its study in November.

“You have to have a process of continued improvement, otherwise you will fail,” Kadish told The Hill. He said the Pentagon needs to take into account the consolidation of the defense industry and the pressures of globalization as well as its own needs. “All those need to be rationalized,” Kadish said.