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Joel Rosenthal Interviews Thomas Griffith: When Is Military Outsourcing Appropriate?

April 23, 2009

This is one of a series of four interviews that took place at the 2009 McCain Conference, held at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, U.S. Naval Academy.

These are the other three:

Jeffrey McCausland Interviews James Carafano: The Role of Contractors in Combat

Joel Rosenthal Interviews Colonel Thomas X. Hammes: Unexplored Issues Regarding Military Contractors

Jeffrey McCausland Interviews Eric "Rick" Olson: The Role of Military Contractors


JOEL ROSENTHAL: I thought you really hit the heart of the matter with the question of oaths versus contracts. You started out with the question of incentives and the question of organizational structure. Do you see this as a problem, or is it something that's manageable?

THOMAS GRIFFITH: Yes, it is manageable. It's a problem in the sense of whether people have the wrong expectation of it. If you are dealing with people that you think are going to act a certain way and they are not incentivized or rewarded to act that way, then they're not going to act that way.

As far as an oath versus a contract, that gets into very philosophical issues. In the military, you can't be prosecuted for breaking your oath. You're prosecuted legally under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which spells out different, more specific things. The oath is very general and open-ended: "I support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God."

It encompasses a lot in terms of the underlying value system and obligations that you are committing to, but it doesn't spell them out in any detail. When you take an oath, it's a very open-ended commitment that is filled in with a lot of socialization, I would argue, in terms of officer and enlisted development.

A contract, on the other hand, is a very different instrument. While people who are contractors have a moral obligation in terms of being human beings, contractually, financially, and legally, they're generally bound to whatever is written down. They may choose to go beyond that, but they're not obligated to, and we shouldn't rely on that. Chances are, they work for organizations that are set up not to go beyond that.

There's often a lot of gray area, because, as a commander, you do not have authority per se over the contractor, the way you do a military person or a civilian, because you are not the contracting officer. You're not even the contracting representative officer. So you can't, as a commander, tell a contractor what to do. You can negotiate with them. You can motivate them. You can try to lead them the way you would somebody that works for another government agency that doesn't work for you, kind of like in the regular world of negotiation. But you don't have the same authority over them that you do someone in the military, whether they are civilian or enlisted or another officer.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: You mentioned the question of thinking hard about when outsourcing and contracting is appropriate and when it isn't. As you were speaking just now, it made me think about that. Do we as a group need to think with more precision about what's a task that makes sense to contract and those that are not?

THOMAS GRIFFITH: This goes to the debate over the term "inherently governmental," which is what is written in the circular that the Office of Management and Budget uses for contracting out. That has been a very elastic term. It has been interpreted very, very differently. I'm not sure where I come down on it. There has to be some flexibility for organizations to decide—what is inherently governmental for them may not be inherently governmental for some other agency.

Let's say it makes sense to contract out security guards around the Naval Academy. That may be okay, but then you don't want to do that overseas.

It becomes very difficult to create an itemized list of what can be outsourced and what can't be. On the other hand, you need to have some sort of guidelines to help people make decisions, because if you don't, the term becomes very elastic, and some people say, "Well, we can do just about everything," and other people say, "No, no, you can't do anything." You can make an argument on behalf of lots of different things.

I think it's something that really requires a lot more thought and a lot more analysis. I have been struggling over it for the past couple of years, and I haven't come up with any good kind of framework, to say, "Ask these questions and you'll know."

The other thing we need to keep in mind is that Iraq and Afghanistan are very unique situations in a lot of ways. Our diplomats need protection in a lot of different countries—in Haiti, as just one example, just from crime. We don't want the military to necessarily be sending a squad down to protect the ambassador to Haiti when we can contract it out, really, a lot more cheaply.

So while it's important to understand what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's also important to understand that they may not be representative of what we want for the steady state.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: You also mentioned Plan Colombia, entirely contracted and so on. I'm thinking from just an American citizen's perspective, thinking about the kind of activity that we support with our dollars, but also politically. How do we ensure a certain measure of accountability for a big enterprise like that?

If we have our troops in uniform, in some way, all of that fit comes with it. Is this something we should be concerned about? Again, I'm talking about the size and scale of certain operations that are outsourced.

THOMAS GRIFFITH: Personally, I think, yes, we should be concerned about it. The problem you run into is that it's very hard to get people energized about it, as you mentioned, when there aren't Americans involved.

There were three contractors that were just released from the Colombian jungle. They had been captured for four or five years. They had been shot down during a mission. But it didn't really get the attention of a lot of people, because they didn't have to go. They chose to go, they were getting paid well, and that's part of the risk of the job.

It's very hard for people to find out what's going on with contractors. Part of it goes to the different kind of mindset. For the military, there is the expectation that they report to Congress. That's the main venue for getting information out, really, in a lot of ways—if not the actual asking by Congress, the expectation that they will ask.

For instance, when a uniformed officer is promoted to three or four stars, they have a hearing. So does a State Department ambassador or a deputy secretary of state.

They are asked by the congressional committee—they take an oath to promise to come before them if they're called to talk about things. That permeates the military and the State Department.

There are some things that are kept secret, justifiably so. But there's an awful lot of normal things that are released because they feel that it's their obligation to tell the American public about what's going on.

Contractors don't feel that way. They are not under a lot of obligations to release things, because they can say things are proprietary. That went to my point that there is this additional barrier to get things out.

There are a lot of other parallels that people can point to where this is a problem. The one that comes to my mind is the contracting out of prisons. When people try to go in and find out about how people are working in prisons that have been contracted out, it becomes more and more difficult, because you have to go through the government to the contractor.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I would be curious, from your perspective as a retired military officer, in terms of the whole ethos of service to country. We are here at the U.S. Naval Academy. You talked about the historical moment of the Reagan era, after Vietnam. We ended conscription. Would it be a reach to say that we can see some evidence of an erosion of public service, in the ethos of public service or public duty, that there are certain things that we can pay for? Is there something serious that's lost here?

THOMAS GRIFFITH: I think there is. If you look on a continuum, you have conscription and then professional military service, which is the all-volunteer force, if you will, and then you have contractors.

There are advantages for certain things along the way, but then you also lose something. I think you do lose the sense of public service, but you also lose the sense of the tie-in to the nation. There's a certain resiliency that's built in when people are citizens and are willing to sacrifice for the nation that's lost when people are just seen as either consumers of security or consumers of goods at the mall.

I'm not sure we understand the implications of all that, and I'm not sure that anybody has really tried to deal with it in a very serious way.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: My last question. In terms of looking ahead, if I heard you correctly, obviously there are some big strategic questions about how to use contractors and how they fit into the overall national security strategy. We have more work to do there.

THOMAS GRIFFITH: Right.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I would assume we also need to write better contracts. Would that be part of it, too, in terms of thinking with a little bit more precision about the accountability issue and so on?

THOMAS GRIFFITH: Yes.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: And I suppose a third issue is to be thinking about some of these broader social concerns as well.

Would that be accurate?

THOMAS GRIFFITH: Absolutely. I think strategically we need to think about, if we are going to be using them, what kinds of arrangements need to be made to do that. Certainly one of them is, yes, we need to have better contracts and more people working on contracts and oversight of the contractors. We can't just assume that they're going to do the right thing.

But I also think, on a deeper level, there needs to be more thinking about what this means for the United States in terms of our basic values of who we are and who we want representing us out there.

Also I think there are some strategic questions. If part of what you're trying to do is build up capabilities in different countries, can you really do that by saying, "We're not going to do that as a country. We're going to sell that to somebody else"? In other words, what kind of example does that show to other nations, to say, "We're not going to send our person from the state police over. We're going to contract this out to somebody"?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Write a check.

THOMAS GRIFFITH: Right. But on the other hand, for most people in other countries, when they see an American there working, they don't really know who that person works for. They assume they work for the U.S. Government anyway. They get the blame. So maybe that one concern isn't that big.

But I think certainly this whole idea of the national fabric—and certainly the contractors aren't a cause of that, but they are maybe a reflection of the way we view the relationship—"we" being the American people, but also Europeans—view the relationship between themselves and the state.

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