The U.S. wasted billions upon billions of dollars in Iraq on poor contracting practices, but very few insiders are willing to talk about it. Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren is an exception.
Van Buren served with the Foreign Service for over two decades and worked as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader in Iraq. In September 2011, he released a book about his experiences, titled: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. After the book’s publication, the State Department suspended Van Buren’s security clearance indefinitely.
POGO: Can you give me some examples of the kind of waste and incompetence you witnessed?
PVB: I had one contractor…who hadn’t had a performance review in five years, but had stayed on, because there was no one else. I’m not just going to sit down and accept things when they are not right. So I decided to write a realistic evaluation. But the contract was renewed anyway against my advice, the reason being, he only had one negative evaluation—mine.
Another good example is our interpreters, who were largely employees of a subcontractor, an Alaskan Native-owned company. Most of the ‘terps’ were Iraqi-Americans recruited from the Detroit or Chicago areas. They tended to fall in two groups—they were so Americanized, they could speak only childhood Arabic, or they had very little English capability. They were fraudulently presented to the U.S. as skilled, but they weren’t.
Finally, there was the general problem that I wasn’t adequately contacted to see how projects were going. Take, for example, a meat factory the U.S. was supposed to be operating in Iraq. When we stopped by the factory, we found out that the contractor who’d taken ownership of it had sold it off almost immediately. The second guy who was supposed to run it couldn’t make any money, so he moved to Dubai. When we arrived, there were six Sunni families squatting in the factory. And we were still paying the security guard for the plant. He wasn’t there either.
POGO: The Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the U.S. has wasted $31 to $60 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan on contracting. Do you think we’ve learned any lessons here?
Peter Van Buren: The mistakes certainly aren’t over—we continue to make the same ones in Afghanistan. Two presidents have now told us that our role in Iraq and Afghanistan was to create stability in the Middle East. If that is the definition of success, we’ve failed with enormous cost, and over an enormous period of time. I don’t think any lessons have been learned. We continue to repeat the same errors because we don’t know what else to do. For example, when the PRT program in Iraq was shut down—not because it was successful—those very same contractors who failed in Iraq, were picked up in Afghanistan.
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POGO: Do you think the U.S. needs to cut down on the number of defense service contractors?
PVB: Absolutely—there are a lot of problems with contractors. Many of them don’t know what they’re doing and the hiring process varies from agency to agency. In Iraq, where I’m most familiar, we needed to staff up almost overnight in 2007 and good, ordinary hiring practices were thrown out the window—like actually checking references and degrees. Then, officials hid behind the contracting process to cover up their own sloth and ineptitude. If anything turned out less than wonderful, they simply blamed the contractor. In short, if you send incompetent people, you’re not likely to get good results.
POGO: What kind of repercussions did you face after revealing this kind of information in your book?
PVB: My security clearance has been suspended indefinitely and I’ve lost my diplomatic passport. I’m kept on payroll by technical means. The attitude of the State Department has been, we don’t want to hear about any of this stuff; do what you’re told and keep your mouth shut. I’ve been told over and over again, leave Iraq alone—there is no interest in evaluating the success and failure of what we were doing.
POGO: Given this response, what are you feelings about enhancing whistleblower protections?
PVB: I aggressively support the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. Recently, I’ve started working with the Government Accountability Project (GAP), and they have helped me file a complaint against the State Department, claiming that the actions against me constitute whistleblower retaliation. This kind of unchecked retaliation sends a chilling message to everyone else: don’t speak about bad things that happen.
Peter Van Buren's new book is called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.