WASHINGTON — Launched in February 2006 with an urgent goal — to save U.S. soldiers from being killed by roadside bombs in Iraq — a small Pentagon agency ballooned into a bureaucratic giant fueled by that flourishing arm of the defense establishment: private contractors.
An examination by the Center for Public Integrity and McClatchy of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization revealed an agency so dominated by contractors that the ratio of contractors to government employees has reached six to one.
A JIEDDO former director, Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, acknowledged that such an imbalance raised the possibility that contractors in management positions could approve proposals or payments for other contractors. Oates said the ratio needed to be reduced.
The 1,900-person agency has spent nearly $17 billion on hundreds of high-tech and low-tech initiatives and had some successes, but it's failed to significantly improve soldiers' ability to detect roadside bombs, which have become the No. 1 killer of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The emphasis on contractors has earned the agency criticism from government auditors and experts, who say that it hasn't properly accounted for their work. The critiques raise questions about the Pentagon's bureaucratic approach to solving a battlefield problem such as the crude, often homemade roadside bombs that accounted for the deaths of 368 coalition troops in Afghanistan last year, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
"The number of contractors is grossly out of whack for what we would expect," said one congressional staffer who helps oversee JIEDDO but wasn't authorized to be quoted by name.
As early as 2008, the Government Accountability Office said that JIEDDO "does not fully identify, track and report all government and contractor personnel" in accordance with Defense Department rules. While Oates said the agency had since set up systems to do so, he agreed that it's long relied too heavily on private companies.
"When you get ready to spend money or make decisions with regard to the government's money, there has to be or should be a ... military or GS (government service) person who makes that decision," Oates said in an interview.
The agency's origins date to the early months of the Iraq war, when U.S. troops in Iraq suddenly found themselves under siege from roadside bombs, which the military dubbed improvised explosive devices. In the summer of 2004, Gen. John Abizaid, then the head of U.S. Central Command, sent a memo to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld calling for a "Manhattan Project-like" effort to quash the threat.
The Army formed a 12-person task force and gave the project a $100 million budget. In 2005 the task force was turned into a joint forces team and its budget mushroomed almost overnight to $1.3 billion.
With deaths from roadside bombs spiraling out of control — from 50 in 2003 to 400 in 2005 — an even grander effort was sought the following year.
Led by Montgomery Meigs, a retired, four-star Army general, JIEDDO was endowed with nearly $3.6 billion in its first year. Word passed quickly to defense contractors, inventors, universities and government labs that JIEDDO had more than $3 billion to spend and was looking for high-tech solutions.
Contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars were awarded to major defense firms. By September 2010, JIEDDO had 110 military employees, 142 Army civilians and 1,666 contractors on board, according to the agency.
Using its own cost multiplier of $225,482 per individual, the estimated cost for contract staffers last year alone was more than $375 million.
"A lot of people were feasting off JIEDDO, " said Dan Goure, a former defense official who's a vice president at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area research center.
Last summer, the issue of staffing came into sharp focus when the Senate Appropriations Committee pressed for a full accounting of JIEDDO's budget for its military, civilian and contractor personnel.
In its 2011 budget, the agency had estimated $215 million under the "staff and infrastructure" portion. The Senate pressed JIEDDO to look for personnel in other parts of the budget. The search found $420 million more, most of them contractors.
In a report for the 2011 budget, the Senate committee changed the staff and infrastructure line to $635 million; JIEDDO didn't object.
The amounts of the contracts have been staggeringly large in relation to the agency's overall budget:
- In April 2008, Lockheed Martin and three other contractors — Wexford-CACI, BAE and ITT — were awarded a $453 million contract for "support services."
They wrote that "not only is JIEDDO a large bureaucracy, it is still built around a technical solution approach focused on research and development, testing and fielding the elusive 'silver bullet' to defeat IEDs." They cited a Pentagon report that had chided the agency, saying: "Its emphasis on multi-million-dollar contracts to develop high-tech sensing equipment has been ineffective at curbing attacks by homemade bombs."
Oates, who was the agency's third director in five years, said: "There are no silver bullets that are going to solve this problem."
(This article was reported and written by Peter Cary of the Center for Public Integrity and Nancy A. Youssef of McClatchy. Shashank Bengali of McClatchy contributed. The center is a nonprofit investigative journalism organization based in Washington. Cary is a freelance writer who formerly headed the investigative reporting team at U.S. News & World Report.)
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