By Spencer Ackerman - October 2, 2007, 10:51AM
By Patrick B. Pexton
All of these security personnel, whether civil servants or uniformed military, are highly trained. And, by most all accounts, they do an exemplary job. They are swift and sure when force is necessary. They are also sensitive to civilians, whether confronting a line of impatient visa seekers or in the course of guarding the commander in chief. And, if there are any problems, they are accountable to a clear chain of command.
Yet, despite this solid reputation, they're mostly absent from Iraq. Instead, the top American diplomats there have relied on the hired guns of the increasingly swampy North Carolina private-security firm Blackwater USA. Since 2003, the State Department has paid Blackwater upwards of $832 million for security in Iraq. Today, Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince and three State Department officials are scheduled to appear before Congress to explain what that money paid for. The short answer? Gold-plated Rambos that are a slight to the U.S. government's in-house security personnel and a hindrance to U.S. policy goals.
If the State Department's attitude is any indication, clearly Blackwater and the two other major private contractors -- Dyncorp and Triple Canopy -- are the Cadillacs, maybe the Rolls Royces, of security. State has been happy to leave them to their own devices and send big checks. Written contracts (some of them no-bid) are vague, requiring "protection of U.S. and/or certain foreign government high-level officials whenever the need arises." Accountability is non-existent. After the Sept. 16 Blackwater shootout that reportedly left 11 Iraqi civilians dead and 14 wounded, the State Department couldn't say which laws -- Iraqi or American, if any -- the Blackwater agents were subject to.
for private security services are high. Court documents in one of several lawsuits filed by families of Blackwater agents killed in Iraq suggest that its triggermen are paid $600 a day -- or more than $150,000 a year. By contrast, a Marine gunnery sergeant, with say 15 years experience and maybe a couple of tours in Iraq's Anbar province under his belt, would make about $43,000. That discrepancy could be even higher, according to a report released yesterday by the Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The report cited a fee for each contractor of $1,222 a day or $445,000 a year and declared that a Blackwater guard is "over six times more than the cost of an equivalent soldier."
But even more costly are the harmful effects on U.S. policy. The arrogance and trigger-happy ways of the gold-plated Rambos are killing innocent Iraqis and destroying the good will that our uniformed troops up the road are fighting and dying for. Indeed, our diplomats had to hunker down in the Green Zone after the latest shootout. They feared for their lives, and the reaction of Iraqis, if they ventured out with Blackwater in tow.
State Department officials claim the situation is one of necessity. "[T]here is simply no way at all that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq," says the U.S. ambassador there, Ryan Crocker. "There is no alternative except through contracts." It's certainly true that civilian diplomatic security agents are a small force. But the most reliable estimates put the number of private security contractors protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq at less than 1,000. That's the equivalent of a battalion or less of Marines or soldiers. Surely the Pentagon, even given its shortages, could lend a battalion to protect senior diplomats doing the necessary political work in Iraq. It could also redirect some of the $20,000 enlistment bonuses now offered to green recruits and instead try to retain the senior soldiers and Marines leaving uniform to work for Blackwater.
Not all Marines are perfect; the ongoing courts martial of Marines accused in the killings of civilians at Haditha, Iraq, underscore that. Nor are all Blackwater employees criminals; many of them served with distinction in the armed forces. But by giving private security firms such special treatment, U.S. officials are implying that these private armies are better at their jobs than government security personnel. And, if you believe that, I have a few thousand Secret Service agents and U.S. Marines I'd like you to meet.
Patrick B. Pexton is deputy editor of National Journal.
Contractors training at Blackwater in North Carolina.
By BEN RYAN
October 1, 2007; Page A22
"They are immature shooters and have very quick trigger fingers," says an anonymous lieutenant colonel.
"Why are we creating new vulnerabilities by relying on what are essentially mercenary forces?" asks a nameless intelligence officer. "They often act like cowboys over here," says an unidentified commander.
Ever since a recent shootout in downtown Baghdad, newspapers have been ablaze with charges that private security contractors in Iraq are trigger-happy.
This rush to pass judgment is hardly surprising. Frequently derided as "mercenaries" and "rent-a-cops," security contractors make an easy target for war opponents.
As a former employee of a major Blackwater competitor, I find this categorical smearing of contractors to be starkly at odds with my experience. I served as an officer in the Navy SEALs for six years. After I left, I joined a private security firm and was promptly sent to Iraq.
Contrary to the popular belief that Blackwater contractors are "thugs for hire," most are highly professional and well trained. Blackwater operates the world's largest private military training facility. Its 1,000 contractors working in Iraq are drawn from the ranks of former military and law enforcement officials. Many of its workers are former SEALs or veterans of other special-operations units.
The risks these workers assume are underscored by the infamous 2004 ambush in Fallujah, in which four Blackwater contractors were murdered and mutilated. To date, Blackwater has lost 30 contractors. For all anyone knows, last month's incident could have turned into another Fallujah had Blackwater's contractors reacted differently. The details are still terribly unclear.
The contractors -- and the U.S. diplomats they were escorting -- claim they were ambushed. Yet Iraq's Ministry of Interior almost immediately issued a report declaring that the contractors were "100% guilty." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has charged that the operators killed "in cold blood."
With conflicting reports, condemnations should not be made until the joint Iraqi-U.S. investigation is completed. The media, however, has accepted the Ministry of Interior's version of events, all but writing off the accounts of both Blackwater and the State Department.
This follows a long-established pattern of unfounded claims in the press about security contractors. For instance, numerous reports reference contractors making over $1,000 a day -- far more than active-duty soldiers. Some point to the more than $700 million Blackwater has received in State Department contracts in order to denounce security firms as war profiteers.
The truth, however, is that contractors are cost-effective. Blackwater contractors, for example, are generally paid $450-$650 a day. More important, unlike U.S. servicemen, they usually receive no benefits and are paid only for the days they work. Security contractors at the better firms have typically retired from active duty or left the military on their own accord after extended service. They are honorable veterans who have chosen to risk their lives to protect American diplomats in a war zone.
Instead of depleting our armed forces, security contractors allow the government to recapture its investment in these men during wartime and avoid the extraordinary expense of training new recruits. In short, they're already trained and experienced -- and cost money only when they're needed.
Another common myth is that contractors are above the law. True, the June 2004 Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17 exempts contractors (and other diplomatic personnel) from local prosecution. But that doesn't mean that contractors have been granted blanket immunity from prosecution. In fact, the order clearly states that this immunity is limited only to acts necessary to fulfill contracts. Indiscriminate attacks on civilians -- as alleged in last month's incident -- are not covered.
Contractors are also subject to numerous U.S. statutes and regulations, as well as international treaties. Just last year, Congress amended the Uniform Code of Military Justice to include contractors. Contractors can also be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which permits charges to be brought in federal court for crimes abroad.
Like soldiers, security contractors are sometimes forced to make split-second decisions with enormous consequences. They must be -- and are -- accountable to our government for their actions. But the people I worked with in Iraq, including veterans working for Blackwater, were hardly rogue cowboys. I did, however, meet some trigger-happy journalists over there.
Mr. Ryan is a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer who spent time in Iraq as an employee of Triple Canopy, a private security firm.