Government Fails to Collect Reliable Information on Taxpayer-Funded Contracts, Including Security Personnel, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Report Says

By Edwin Mora and Susan Jones | October 7, 2010 | 10:09 AM EDT

U.S. soldiers escort a wounded foreign contractor from the USAID compound in Kunduz, north of Kabul, on Friday, July 2, 2010 after six suicide bombers attacked the compound, killing at least four people. (AP Photo)

( - Under federal law, the U.S. government is required to compile information on all taxpayer-funded contracts – and the people working on those contracts, including security personnel -- in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But a recent audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that federal agencies failed to “reliably” keep track of the information required by Congress.

“[T]he agencies’ lack of complete and accurate information may inhibit planning, increase cost, and introduce unnecessary risk,” warned the GAO in a report dated Oct. 1.

The three federal agencies involved – the Defense Department, State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development -- use a system called SPOT to track data on contracts, contractor personnel, grants and cooperative agreements.

As of March 2010, the three agencies told GAO there were 262,681 contractor and assistance personnel working in Iraq and Afghanistan, 18 percent of whom were performing security functions. (DOD reported 207,553 contractor personnel, while State and USAID reported 19,360 and 35,768 personnel, respectively.)

GAO noted it had previously recommended that DOD, State, and USAID develop a plan for implementing SPOT, and it “continues to believe that a plan is needed to correct SPOT’s shortcomings.”

Required information

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008 required the three agencies to track the following, at a minimum, for each contract involving work performed in Iraq or Afghanistan:

-- a brief description of the contract;

-- the contract’s total value;

-- whether the contract was awarded competitively;

-- the total number of contractors or assistance personnel employed;

-- the total number performing security functions, and

-- the total number killed or wounded.

Additional legislation directed the agencies to track criminal offenses committed by or against contractor personnel. And the phrase “contract in Iraq and Afghanistan” was redefined to include grants and cooperative agreements. (With contracts, the goods or services obtained are for the direct benefit of the U.S. government, whereas the primary purpose of grants and cooperative agreements is to further a public purpose.)

DOD, State, and USAID rely on private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide security, transportation, and base operations. State Department grants are used, for example, to teach computer skills to women and adolescents, to cover travel costs for various experts attending conferences, and to fund mine-clearing efforts. USAID develops grant programs in sectors such as banking, education, health, and road construction in the two countries.

Congress requires the contract and grant data as part of its oversight function.

SPOT falls short

The Web-based system for gathering the huge amount of information is called SPOT, which in governmentspeak stands for Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker.

Although the law only directs the agencies to track aggregate data, SPOT is currently configured to track individuals by name, and it records information such as the contracts they are working under, deployment dates, blood type, and next of kin.

In March 2010, DOD, State, and USAID told Congress STOP would be modified to allow users to enter the aggregate number of personnel working on a particular contract or assistance instrument, as opposed to requiring each individual to be entered by name.

But GAO noted that as of September 2010, SPOT still does not allow users to enter aggregate personnel data, because the agencies have disagreed on who will pay for the modification and what approach to take.

Although SPOT was designated as a system for tracking the number of personnel performing security functions, it cannot be used to reliably distinguish security personnel from other contractors, GAO said.

For example, according to the GAO’s analysis of SPOT data, 4,309 contractor personnel were performing security functions for the Defense Department in Afghanistan during the second quarter of fiscal year 2010. But DOD officials overseeing armed contractors in Afghanistan estimated that the total number of DOD security contractors in Afghanistan for the same time period was closer to 17,500.

Three challenges

GAO highlighted three challenges in maintaining complete and accurate data on taxpayer-funded contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First, USAID and the State Department cited security concerns. They told the GAO that identifying local nationals who work with the U.S. government by name could place those individuals in danger if the SPOT system is compromised. Therefore, both agencies make exceptions when it comes to naming local Afghanis or Iraqis working under U.S.-funded contracts. 

Second, there are practical limitations in tracking local nationals: Even when local Iraqis or Afghanis are required to be entered into SPOT, “agency officials have explained that such personnel are particularly difficult to track, especially in Afghanistan, and as a result, their numbers in SPOT are not a close representation of their actual numbers.”

Third, contractors and other assistance recipients have not kept SPOT updated. “Although the agencies have increasingly required their contractors and assistance recipients to enter personnel information into the system, there has been little emphasis placed on ensuring that the information entered into SPOT is up to date,” GAO reported.

“As a result, SPOT does not accurately reflect the number of contract and assistance personnel in either country, and in some cases the numbers may be overstated,” the report concluded.

Although DOD, State, and USAID are required to track the number of personnel killed or wounded while working on the U.S. taxpayer’s dime, only State and USAID tracked this information during the GAO’s review period.  Defense Department officials told GAO “they eventually intend to track the number of killed and wounded contractor personnel through SPOT.”

According to the GAO, “Over the past two years, DOD, State, and USAID have made some progress in implementing SPOT. While that progress has been hindered by practical and technical limitations, a continued lack of interagency agreement on how to address issues, particularly those related to tracking local nationals, has been an impediment toward moving forward.”

The GAO repeated its 2009 recommendation, which directs the agencies to “develop a plan for implementing SPOT.”