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McCaskill panel faults counternarcotics contracting in Latin America

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2011 - WASHINGTON - As doubts grow about the effectiveness of the global war on drugs, a congressional panel reported Wednesday that federal agencies have failed to monitor the impact of $3 billion paid to private contractors hired to help in the fight against drug cartels in Latin America.

The Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, chaired by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., found that $840 million in sole-source contracts were awarded with inadequate competition over five years. It criticized the State Department and the Pentagon for a lack of transparency and poor record-keeping in overseeing such contracts.

"Without adequate oversight and management we are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we're getting in return," McCaskill said in a statement. She added, "It's becoming increasingly clear that our efforts to rein in the narcotics trade in Latin America, especially as it relates to the government's use of contractors, have largely failed."

The 13-page report, issued a year after the subcommittee first explored such counternarcotics contracts in a hearing, found that the government's yearly spending on such contracts increased over five years by nearly a third -- to $635.8 million in 2009. Nearly two-thirds of the $3.1 billion spent in such contracts over that period went to five contractors.

The panel's report follows in the heels of a wider study, issued last week by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, that asserted that the global war on drugs has had limited impact, in spite of vast expenditures by the U.S. and other nations.

"The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world," said the report,which called for "fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies."

The panel's 19 members include former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso; former U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan; former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou; former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker; and former European Union foreign minister Javier Solana.

"Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers," the report asserted, contending that governments waste huge sums on efforts to reduce drug supplies.

The White House drug policy office objected to the report's findings, saying last week that there are signs of progress in the effort to slow drug trafficking. For example, the White House reported that the number of Americans using illicit drugs today is roughly half what it was in the late '70s. Also, Colombia's cocaine production capacity declined by an estimated 60 percent between 2001 and 2008.

While the McCaskill panel's report did not touch on such wider issues, it bored in on the apparent lack of accountability by contractors. After requesting documents from the Defense and State departments on contracts to firms that provide services such as spraying coca fields and training Colombian police and soldiers, subcommittee staffers found that neither agency could fully account for its counternarcotics spending.

The $840 million in sole source or non-competitive contracts awarded during the five years included some questionable awards, such as a nearly $37 million no-bid contract to an Alaska Native corporation to provide meal services in Bolivia and "personnel support services" in Colombia.

The report -- which analyzed counternarcotics contracts in Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru and other Latin American countries -- found that a Virginia-based firm that got more than $1 billion in contracts from 2005-09 had been criticized for inadequate accounting of government property and possible overcharges related to employee expenses.

McCaskill, whose panel also scrutinizes contracts in Afghanistan, said that "we can't make these same mistakes again" as the government ramps up its counternarcotics contracting in that country. The subcommittee is planning a hearing on Afghanistan contracts later this month and there may be a push for amendments that would demand more transparency and oversight of such contracts.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.