The U.S. military has long relied on contractors to provide a variety of goods and services to U.S. forces around the world, including those located in Iraq and Afghanistan. These services range from maintaining advanced weapon systems and setting up and operating communications networks to providing gate and perimeter security, interpreting foreign languages, preparing meals and doing laundry for the troops. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) uses contractors for a variety of reasons, including a lack of skilled and qualified military personnel and the need to conserve scarce skills to ensure that they will be available for future deployments. DOD estimates that it has more than 50,000 contractor employees in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Depending on the types of services being offered, contractor employees may be U.S. citizens, or third country nationals, and contractors are often encouraged to hire host country nationals to help rebuild local economies and get local nationals back to work. While contractor employees can provide significant benefits to U.S. forces, contractor employees can also pose a risk to U.S. troops. For example, the terrorists who attacked the U.S.S. Cole were suspected to be contractor employees associated with its refueling operations. This attack led military officials to realize the risk that contractors could pose to the safety and security of U.S. installations and military personnel. The risk is increased when U.S. forces are involved in a military operation against an insurgency, as they are in Iraq. Background screenings of contractor employees can provide some insight into the likelihood that the employee may cause harm to U.S. troops and may deter some criminals and terrorists from working at U.S. installations. Although DOD is not required to screen contractor employees, in some situations, such as in Iraq, DOD is using biometrics to screen contractor employees for past criminal activity and security threats. GAO was asked to review the process used to screen contractor employees who support U.S. deployed forces. Specifically, we were asked to determine the ability of DOD and contractors that support deployed forces to conduct comprehensive background screenings of employees and the steps installation commanders have taken to protect their troops.
DOD and contractors have difficulty conducting comprehensive background screening for U.S. and foreign nationals because of a lack of resources and inaccurate, missing, or inaccessible data. Because force protection officers, intelligence officers, and other officers have concerns about the comprehensiveness of background screenings and the risks contractors pose, installation commanders take steps to protect their troops. The information available to contractors that screen employees who live in the Unites States is limited to public information from county, state, or federal courts; state databases; or commercial databases, such as those that collect information on incarcerations. None of these types of searches guarantees a comprehensive background screening because these sources may not include all criminal data, among other things. Screening host nation and third country national employees can be difficult because of inaccurate or unavailable records in some countries. Also, officials from the background screening firms we spoke with told us that some foreign laws can restrict access to criminal records. Moreover, DOD's biometric screening programs are not as effective as they could be because the databases used to screen contractor employees include only limited international data, and some systems do not make all data accessible. Recognizing the limitations of data, military officials we interviewed who were responsible for security at installations in Iraq and elsewhere told us that they take steps to mitigate the risks contractors, particularly non-U.S. contractors, pose. For example, officials from most of the units we spoke with told us that contractor employees are routinely searched as they enter and leave the installation, while the majority of the units we spoke with told us that they interviewed some contractor employees before granting them access to the base.