Soldiers of Misfortune 

Critical elements of the war in Iraq have been outsourced to private contractors. John Mancini's story shows the many perils of that approach.

John Mancini is a talented and detail-oriented professional, with an aversion to authority and a tendency to talk more than is good for him. In another life, he might be a gadfly, haranguing government bureaucrats at city council meetings. But because Mancini had some very marketable skills, he became a bureaucrat himself, working in Iraq and Kuwait for some of the world's largest defense contractors. Over the course of sixteen months in 2003 and 2004, he worked for and clashed with three of the companies at the center of the debate over privatizing the military. Every time they pissed him off, they lived to regret it. "I'm not passive," he explained. "I was born and raised in New York City, okay?"

Mancini has helped streamline military and espionage budgets ever since the 1970s. He started with Loral Electronics, which rebuilt worn circuitboards on F-16 fighter planes. After moving to Arizona in the 1980s, he worked for Motorola and Sperry Space Systems, buying equipment for Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program and surveillance satellites launched from the space shuttle. He took a break from defense work to buy data-processing equipment for American Express, but began to get restless. "I had gotten divorced," he recalled, "and I always had opportunities to travel throughout, but being married, and you know, you had a child, that put limits on your ability to move."

In 2001, Mancini took advantage of one of those travel opportunities, moving to Kuwait and working for Combat Support Associates. American and Kuwaiti militaries were conducting joint training operations at the time, and Mancini's job was finding cheaper ways to repair military equipment. Before he came along, the army would ship worn tank barrels back to the United States for repairs. Then he found a Kuwaiti machine shop that could do the job on the cheap. "I cut the time from nine months to three months, and cut 50 percent of the costs," he boasted.

That was Mancini's career in a nutshell: hunting for cheap, efficient ways to conduct military operations. It seemed so simple and uncontroversial — look for competitive bidders, scan for excessive costs, and apply some common sense — at least until he signed up with Halliburton.

In 2003, Mancini became one of the soldiers in the new, privatized American military. During prior wars, the Pentagon relied only sporadically on private companies. But in Iraq, critical functions in the occupation have been farmed out to multinational corporations, some of which are led by former government officials who may have used their connections to secure no-bid, multibillion-dollar contracts. Today, 25,000 American civilians are working on logistical and security functions in Iraq, and Halliburton alone employs another 37,000 civilians from other countries such as the Philippines and Bosnia.

Meanwhile, the number of Pentagon auditors and contract managers has steadily fallen, crippling the government's ability to ensure the public's money is being spent wisely. The inevitable result has been corruption, sloppy accounting, and a sense that no one would hold these new civilian soldiers accountable no matter what they did. Mancini watched all of this from inside secure compounds in Kuwait and Iraq. He saw people waste millions of dollars and dream up complicated kickback schemes. He saw British mercenaries get drunk and play with guns in 120-degree heat. He saw the banality of human beings who have too much money and authority and too few restraints.

In 2004, the Pleasanton-based temporary employment firm Procurement Services Associates (PSA) hired Mancini to do purchasing paperwork on behalf of Perini Corporation, which had secured the contract to rebuild the electrical infrastructure in southern Iraq. A little more than a month into his new job, Mancini was badly injured in a car accident in Kuwait. Perini officials flew him home, but Procurement Services Associates initially refused to pay for his rehabilitation — a decision the company probably came to regret. Mancini filed a claim with the federal government, alleging that PSA had shafted him in violation of federal law. In addition, he has been cooperating with the Los Angeles Times, which has begun investigating claims that civilian workers injured in Iraq and Kuwait have been illegally denied medical care.

If Mancini turned out to be a big headache, PSA officials should have realized who they were dealing with. After all, he was one of the two men who blew open the $1.4 billion Halliburton overbilling scandal. In fact, Mancini has been at or near the center of some of the worst mistakes in the war. From Halliburton to Abu Ghraib to this emerging civilian health-care dispute, Mancini had a close view of all the occupation's stupidity, arrogance, venality, and cruelty.

His story is the story of the privatized military in Iraq. First he worked for a company that screwed the American taxpayers. Then he worked alongside men who allegedly tortured countless Iraqis. Finally, he claims, his third and final employer ended up giving workers like him the shaft.


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