Some Things Just Can’t Be Handed Off

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

October 25, 2001

No one would seriously think of having private companies do our bombing for us in Afghanistan. Yet we have privatized our national security in many dangerous ways.

Companies such as BioPort, Argenbright Holdings and Aviation Development Corp. may have bland-sounding corporate names, but the organizations behind them are anything but ordinary. They are private businesses that have been paid to take over critical government responsibilities. More important, they have failed, and it is now the American public that is paying the price. BioPort is the firm that has a monopoly over the production of the anthrax vaccine in the U.S.

Until the mid-1990s, a government-owned lab in Michigan was the primary vaccine supplier, but in 1998 the lab was auctioned off to the highest bidder. The firm has yet to pass an inspection by the Food and Drug Administration. There are disputes over the effectiveness of the vaccine it makes and its side effects on U.S. soldiers. The last visit by inspectors found that employees working in the supposedly sterile section where the vaccine is produced sometimes did not even bother to wash their hands.

Argenbright Security is the company that provides security and pre-boarding screeners at a number of the nation’s airports, including Newark International, Boston’s Logan and Washington’s Dulles. We all know of its failure to stop the terrorists who struck on Sept. 11. Less publicized is the fact that the firm was recently cited by the Justice Department for allowing more than 1,300 untrained screeners to work at airports, including dozens of convicted criminals.

Aviation Development is the company that provides contract pilots and radar technicians to the CIA and State Department. This spring, its employees mistakenly directed the shoot-down of a private passenger plane in Peru. The plane was carrying a family of missionaries.

These companies are only the tip of the iceberg, and yet we seem to have learned nothing from their failures.

For example, the responsibility for developing the next generation of vaccines was given to Dynport, a company intricately linked with BioPort. Argenbright remains at work at the airports. Contractors still run vast sections of the U.S. intelligence and reconnaissance programs.

In the last few decades, the government has outsourced or privatized a wide variety of functions. They range from accounting and garbage collection to supply-chain management and information technology.

These programs have not only trimmed the excess fat of government but also have provided large gains to the American public in money saved and better service.

However, in our rush to privatize we may have cut too deep. A number of activities—especially those in the national security field—that should have stayed under the strict control of public institutions were contracted out. The companies that now provide them are motivated solely by profit.

This is a sword that cuts two ways. It may drive the firms that have taken over these tasks to be more efficient, but it also may lead them to cut corners. If it happens in the wrong areas, the resulting risks of failed outsourcing can be dangerous.

When a company mismanages garbage collection, trash piles on the street. When a company fails to deliver a safe vaccine, lives are at stake.

The exact divide between public and private responsibilities is often murky. When it comes to the security of our society, however, there must be no confusion.

Security is a fundamental public service that requires a special public trust. Those who carry out its core missions should be responsible to the public and not other entities, in particular not those with an eye on the bottom line.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the most basic role of government is “to provide for the common defense.”

Something is wrong when we turn over this essential responsibility to private companies with track records that can only be described as horrible.

Just because private companies can do the job doesn’t mean they always should. There are some things that are best left to government, with all the assurances of public controls and accountability.

Our security is one of them.