WASHINGTON – A year before the Iraq invasion, the then-Army secretary warned his Pentagon bosses that there was inadequate control of private military contractors (search), which are now at the heart of controversies over misspending and prisoner abuse.
The author of that memo, retired Army chief Thomas White (search), said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that the recent events show the Pentagon has a long way to go to fix the problems he identified in March 2002.
"Clearly, there was a lot of work that had to be done and still needs to be done," White said Thursday.
In a sign of continued problems with the tracking of contracts, Pentagon officials on Thursday acknowledged they have yet to identify which Army entity manages the multimillion-dollar contract for interrogators like the one accused in the Iraq prisoner abuse probe.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also acknowledged his department hasn't completed rules to govern the 20,000 or so private security guards watching over U.S. officials, installations and private workers in Iraq.
No single Pentagon office tracks how many people — Americans, Iraqis or others — are on the department's payroll in Iraq.
"You've got thousands of people running around on taxpayer dollars that the Pentagon can't account for in any way," said Dan Guttman, a lawyer and government contracting expert at Johns Hopkins University. "Contractors are invisible, even at the highest level of the Pentagon."
The problem has been known at the Pentagon for years.
In a March 2002 memo, White complained to three Pentagon undersecretaries that "credible information on contract labor does not exist internal to the [Army] Department." The Army could not get rid of "unnecessary, costly or unsuitable contracted work" without full details of all the contracts, White wrote.
White's memo was first disclosed in April 2002 by the GovExec.com Web site, a trade publication for federal employees. It was provided to AP this week by the Center for Public Integrity (search), a nonprofit government watchdog group.
Spokesmen for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Coalition Provisional Authority did not return messages seeking comment Thursday.
The prison abuse controversy that erupted last week is not the first example from the Iraq war of contracting problems.
Investigators from Congress' General Accounting Office and the Defense Contract Audit Agency say lax oversight contributed to problems with several contracts in Iraq with Halliburton Co. (search) The government is investigating allegations of kickbacks and inflated charges on several contracts with Vice President Dick Cheney's former company.
Guttman said the Pentagon in the past decades has significantly cut its contract management work force while increasing its number of contracts with private companies.
The contract with CACI International Inc. (search) is one example. An Army report on alleged abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad says a CACI interrogator lied to investigators and ordered soldiers to abuse prisoners.
Pentagon officials said Thursday they have not determined which agency oversees the contract, which originally was with the Premier Technology Group (search), a smaller company providing contract interrogators that CACI bought last May.
"We haven't been able to find anyone who knows what contract that was," said Deborah Parker, a spokeswoman for the Army's Intelligence and Security Command. Parker said her agency did not hire any contract interrogators.
CACI in March landed an $11.9 million contract with the Army's European Command for "intelligence analyst support services," which includes providing intelligence operatives for the global war on terrorism.
Pentagon officials said they did not know whether the CACI workers in Iraq were under a predecessor to that contract, which was not in effect at the time of the alleged abuse last fall.
CACI chairman J.P. "Jack" London, in a conference call with investment analysts Wednesday, did not identify the Army agency that managed the Iraq interrogator contract. London said the Pentagon had not told CACI about any problems.
The lack of oversight extended all the way down to the Abu Ghraib prison (search) itself, said the report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. The contractors "do not appear to be properly supervised within the detention facility," the report said.
"During our on-site inspection, they wandered about with too much unsupervised free access in the detainee area," the report said. Pentagon officials refused to release the report but said copies posted on the Internet by MSNBC and other news organizations are accurate.
White said contractors should not be in charge of interrogating prisoners.
"You can hire translators and people that would support the interrogation or the intelligence gathering efforts, certainly, but I would not think it would be wise to give up control of that process," said White, a Vietnam veteran and retired brigadier general.