Forget Soldiers’ Bonuses, Contractor Corruption Should Take Center Stage

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3rd stryker brigade on patrol in Iraq
Photo Credit: 
By Elisha Dawkins [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Los Angeles Times brought a major issue to the forefront of public discourse: the government’s efforts to force veterans to repay enlistment bonuses dispersed years ago, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pinnacle Politics, among others, reported on the story and our combined efforts and the outrage many Americans expressed forced the government to suspend its collection efforts.

So far, it’s unclear of the government will reimburse already paid money, or if the suspension is only temporary. Tens of millions of dollars had already been “paid back”, and numerous soldiers reported suffering immense hardship. Regardless, the suspension of the program can be viewed as a victory for both the soldiers and the media reporting on the issue.

It’s interesting, however, that the government went to such great lengths to recover funds given to soldiers in the first place. After all, it wasn’t the soldiers who drew up the contracts and offered the bonuses. They merely accepted them from recruiters, supposedly official representatives of the United States the government. In most cases, soldiers aren’t exactly rolling in cash, so the money wasn’t a luxury. The bonuses were frequently used to put down payments on homes, or to eliminate debts and handle divorces.

Yet while the government pursued often struggling soldiers with zeal, the numerous private companies who reaped massive profits during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have rarely been scrutinized by government auditors. Government efforts to recoup misspent funds, even when evidence of blatant and intentional contract violations arose, have been even rarer.

Soldiers Audited, But Private Companies Given A Free Pass?

One important question we have to consider is why soldiers came under heavy scrutiny while private companies have rarely faced the same. It’s believed that private contracts reaped over $138 billion dollars during the war. A special inspector for Iraq reconstruction was established, and subsequently massive amounts of waste was found. The auditor found that as much as $60 billion was wasted, although private contractors weren’t the only ones wasting and misspending funds.

Still, private companies were a big recipient of funds, and waste was rampant. Nearly $40 billion dollars was awarded to private re-construction firm KBR alone. KBR is a former subsidy of Halliburton, a company that was once headed up by former Vice President Dick Cheney. During the Bush administration, Cheney was one of the most vocal war hawks, and his connection to Halliburton, and the huge amount of money it reaped, raises questions to say the least.

In one case, KBR was contracted to rebuild a oil and natural gas pipeline bridge that was destroyed during the war. If the bridge had simply been rebuilt, it would have cost about $5 million dollars. However, KBR and the military decided it was best to bury the pipeline under the sand to keep it protected. On the surface this makes sense, the bridge would have been less vulnerable to attacks, weather, etc.

However, studies conducted before construction commenced found that the soil itself was too sandy to effectively bury the bridge. The Army and KBR ignored the reports, and proceeded anyways, wasting tens of millions of dollars in a failed attempt to bury the pipes. After millions were already wasted, KBR gave up and built the traditional bridge that would have cost $5 million in the first place. The total price tag for the project? $100 million. KBR was accused by military officials of overcharging in numerous cases, but kept being awarded contracts anyways.

In another case, some $100 million dollars found in one of Saddam Hussein’s mansions simply up and disappeared. Meanwhile, the Pentagon spent $1.3 billion dollars on fuel, but never bothered to keep logs of the expenditures. Numerous other instances of waste have been reported and in some cases recorded.

Regardless, efforts to recover misappropriated funds have been minimal. The American government did force KBR to repay $400 million for hiring private security firms, which was in violation of its contract. This only happened after contractors killed countless Iraqi civilians, drawing international outrage. Either way, this is a pittance next to the amounts spent and wasted in Iraq. Add in the potential waste in Afghanistan, and the sum total misused funds could be staggering.

So while the government was busy chasing after soldiers for enlistment bonuses that the government itself offered in the first place, numerous companies have been allowed to rack up huge profits at taxpayer expense. Add in the many questionable relationships, such as Dick Cheney’s connection to Halliburton, and the revolving door between the government and private companies, and even more questions arise. Just goes to show where the government’s priorities are: profits not people.

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