PUBLISHED:October 09, 2008

Outsourcing the U.S. military

Oct. 9, 2008 — As the trend toward hiring private contractors to support — and in some cases, supplant — military personnel in America’s foreign wars continues to grow, the government should examine methods to hold contractors accountable for their actions. It also must find ways to inculcate their corporate cultures with the public values we expect the military to promote, according to a law professor who has been studying the use of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Laura Dickinson, a law professor at Arizona State University, told Duke Law students about her research into the application of organizational theory to current situations during a lunchtime presentation on Oct. 6.

“Organizational theory is a body of research that stands at the intersection of economics, sociology, anthropology and the law and it looks at how norms get internalized through structures within organizations like corporations, law firms, and public bureaucracies,” she explained.

According to Department of Defense estimates, the ratio of contractors to soldiers in the Vietnam War was 1 to 10, whereas the ratio is closer to 1 to 1 in Iraq, Dickinson said. This increase in contractors along with high-profile incidents involving contractor misconduct make it especially important that the government look closely at establishing certain norms in the contracting companies, she explained.

Dickinson’s latest research, which will appear in her forthcoming book Outsourcing War and Peace, derives in part from a series of interviews she conducted with Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps lawyers recently returned from Afghanistan.

“Some of the military lawyers who I’ve interviewed have said there are in some places as many as two incidents a week involving security contractors who allegedly have used excessive force,” Dickinson said.

Contractors have been implicated in human rights violations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and in the deaths of 17 Iraqi citizens during a shootout deemed unjustified by the Iraqi and U.S. governments.

“I’m not suggesting that all contractors are somehow egregious human rights abusers and committing massive war crimes,” Dickinson explained. “On the other hand there is an accountability problem and an accountability gap. And the laws and institutions that we have for protecting public values have been designed with governmental employees and institutions in mind. And so those laws and institutions are not really equipped to cope with this vast shift [towards hiring more private contractors].”

Some of the responsibility lies with what Dickinson calls “accountability agents.” In the military hierarchy, JAG Corps lawyers are supposed to function as impartial accountability agents, she said. The government should be asking questions about the role of accountability agents in private contracting companies, she said. “How integrated are the accountability agents with the other employees? How firmly committed to the values in question are the accountability agents?”

Giving JAG officers some oversight over contractors is one way to increase accountability, and that is already being tested in Iraq, Dickinson said. But ensuring compliance with public values may require “redesigning these institutions so they can be more effective” at guaranteeing accountability, she said.

Dickinson’s talk was sponsored by the Center for International and Comparative Law and can be viewed as a webcast.