Everybody thought it was a big deal last spring when President Bush announced his "surge" of 20,000 troops in Iraq, which brings the total number to 160,000, four years after the invasion.

Meanwhile, with little public or Congressional scrutiny, the president has been eagerly shelling out billions to maintain an even larger private armed force in Iraq.

According to the journalist Jeremy Scahill — without whose dogged reports in The Nation and on Democracy Now the story would be virtually unknown — U.S. taxpayers are now supporting a private-security force of 180,000 in Iraq. That’s larger than our formal military presence.

By contrast, in the 1991 Gulf War, "the ratio of troops to private soldiers was about 60 to 1," Scahill writes on Counterpunch.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Scahill reports that neither journalists nor elected officials have been able to ascertain exactly how much Bush is lavishing on this massive rent-a-cop force, which operates with much more impunity in Iraq than the formal army.

Some in Congress claim that the figure might be as high as 40 cents per dollar spent on the war.

Given that we’re burning through $2 billion per week in Iraq, that means that a few secretive private-security firms — a "coalition of the billing," to quote Scahill — are shaking us down for some $800 million every week, or a cool $42 billion per year.

The opportunity costs of this boondoggle are monumental. I’m sure we can all think of more productive ways to spend $42 billion than to send a bunch of armed, little-supervised henchmen into a foreign country.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Here’s mine: $42 billion represents about six times the annual budget for our dismal school lunch program.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.