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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.