Since 9/11, private security companies have been guarding some of America's most sensitive military installations, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.
Now, concerns about accountability and the caliber of the private guards are leading some critics, both inside and outside government, to ask whether this is a job too vital for the military to outsource to civilians.
Concern has escalated since the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported this month that some private contractors had hired felons, had missing and incomplete records, and in one case, had falsified records on weapons and training. At two military bases, the GAO report found, a total of 89 private guards with criminal records were working.
The GAO's conclusion: The Army's screening procedures for the private guards are "inadequate and put the Army at risk," despite previous agency warnings about such problems during the past three years.
The Army, for its part, has pledged to improve management and oversight of private guards.
Those who see merit in contracting out military-base security say the problems are solvable and that, overall, private security guards are as professional and competent as the Army's own personnel. Private guards, they note, are supervised by the Army and trained according to Department of Defense specifications. With Army and National Guard personnel stretched thin by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the private companies provide an invaluable service, say supporters of the current system.
Critics, though, doubt the Army's beefed-up oversight will be sufficient, because some of the contract guards work for American subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies. In this age of terrorism and after the Dubai ports flap, they say, American military personnel should provide security at US military bases.
Some homeland security experts see a more fundamental problem. The need to outsource and the subsequent management problems, they say, are indications of the overall stresses the nation's military, security, and law-enforcement agencies face daily as they adapt to the increased demands of the post-9/11 world.
"Security resources are thin in the country right now. They're in demand, and those with advanced skill sets are drawn to the money, and they're going overseas where they can make 100 to 140 percent more," says Edward Clark, founder of Executive Interface, a homeland security risk-management company in Garden City, Mo. "The system is fairly stressed."
Beginning in the 1970s, the US government began to outsource some of its functions - from designing computer systems to selling food in federal buildings - to private contractors. The intent is to save taxpayers' money and make the government more efficient.
But Congress drew the line at military security. In 1982, it prohibited the Defense Department from hiring private security firms at military bases in the United States. Lawmakers were concerned about the "uncertain quality and reliability of private security guard services, base commanders' potential lack of control over contractor personnel, and the right of contractor personnel to strike," according to the GAO.
That changed in the wake of 9/11. Commanders ordered that entrances to all domestic bases, many of which were open to the public, had to be secured. At the same time, military engagement in Afghanistan and then Iraq strained military personnel resources.
In 2003, Congress temporarily lifted its restriction against private security guards. To hire new guards as quickly as possible, especially for the Army, the Defense Department did not put the contracts out to competitive bid, as is usually required to ensure that the government gets the lowest price.
Currently, 57 Army installations use private guards, and 46 of these hired the guards under such sole-source contracts. The GAO concluded these contracts cost 25 percent more than contracts later put out to bid.
Army officials defend sole-source contracts as the fastest way to meet a crucial need, but say that all future contracts will be put out to bid. They also suggest that the GAO report exaggerated the seriousness of the problems it found with screening and training.
"Their overall record has been outstanding," says Ned Christensen, a spokesman for the US Army Installation Management Agency.
Wackenhut Services Inc., a company working under a no-bid contract, insists that most problems the GAO cited were with firms that won the competitive bids, not those who received the sole-source contracts.
"The comments that are in that report - all of the misrepresentation, all of the failure to properly train - pertain almost specifically and uniquely to the competitively bid piece," says Wackenhut CEO James Long. "My guess is they hopelessly underbid it, couldn't run it without losing their tail, and had to start cutting corners."
But the GAO said it found problems with each company's work.
"The problems were across the board," says Michele Mackin of the GAO. "We found a lack of oversight. The Army really relied on what the contractors said they were doing and provided very little monitoring."