WASHINGTON — Stretched thin by troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and security needs at home, the Army has resorted to hiring private security guards to help protect dozens of American military bases.
To date, more than 4,300 private security officers have been put to work at 50 Army installations in the United States, according to Army documents obtained by The Times.
The work was awarded to four firms -- two of which got the contracts without having to bid competitively. The contracts are worth as much as $1.24 billion.
The Army says the maneuver lets it free up more soldiers for military duty while quickly putting private guards in place to meet the need for additional security since the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the Army's action has drawn criticism on two grounds: that it compromises domestic military security, and that it amounts to abuse of a law intended to aid impoverished Alaska Natives.
Two five-year contracts worth as much as $1 billion went to two small Alaska Native firms with little previous security experience. The firms, which operate under special contracting laws enabling them to avoid competitive bidding, subcontracted part of the work to two of the country's largest security firms: Wackenhut Services Inc. and Vance Federal Security Services.
Thirty-six bases are covered by the Alaska Native contracts -- including three in California: Ft. Irwin, the Sierra Army Depot and the Presidio of Monterey.
"I'm concerned about the protection of our military facilities," said Rep. Lane Evans, an Illinois Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and has called for hearings on the contracts.
"Some of these installations house chemical weapons and intelligence materials and should not be compromised with questionable contracting processes and poor security."
Democrats, watchdog groups and independent contracting experts said that the Army's contracting arrangement with the Alaska Native firms amounted to a back-door deal to send taxpayer dollars to Wackenhut and Vance, which lost out the only time they faced open competition against other companies for the security contracts.
"It's a total abuse of the intent of the law," said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Program on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. "The law was designed to benefit companies that need a special boost. At the end of the day, if Wackenhut is benefiting, it's just a blatant abuse of the system."
The move is part of a larger trend of hiring private contractors to do many jobs previously done by the military. Since the war in Iraq, the shift toward private contractors has accelerated. Private companies now do everything from washing soldiers' laundry to protecting senior American officials from attack.
At Army bases in the United States, officials said that security requirements arising from the Sept. 11 attacks had forced them to use thousands of active duty and reserve units to set up additional patrols and guard posts.
Defense officials saw private security guards as a way to perform the additional security duties, free up more soldiers to fight in the field and make it possible for reserve units to return home when their service commitments expired.
Defense Department officials first had to lobby Congress to lift a nearly 2-decade-old federal ban on hiring private security guards at military bases. The ban was enacted after government unions said they feared losing nonmilitary Defense Department guard jobs to private companies.
Army officials said that by the time Congress acted, they didn't have enough time to mount a full and open bidding competition for the work.
The ability to award contracts to Alaska Native firms without any competition enabled the Army to quickly install private security guards. The Army decided in July 2003 to issue contracts to two firms, each with a cap of $500 million over five years.
Wackenhut's partner is the Alaska Native firm Alutiiq Security and Technology, based in Chesapeake, Va. The other Alaska native firm, Chenega Technical Products, based in Panama City, Fla., subcontracted to Vance.
At about the same time it awarded the Alaska Native contracts, the Army also decided to issue two more contracts to provide base security through typical open competition. The Army said it had more time for the second round of contracts, which were awarded in September 2003.
In that competition, Wackenhut and Vance entered the bidding but lost to other companies, the Army documents showed.
The two winning companies, Coastal International of South Carolina and Akal Security of New Mexico, were given $74 million worth of contracts to guard 12 bases.
The Army said that the private guards have performed well, and were trained to the same standards as Defense Department civilian guards, who work at Army bases along with military police officers.