When Blackwater private security contractors were involved in a shootout in Baghdad that killed nine people this past weekend and the Iraqi interior minister revoked the firm’s license to operate in Iraq, it cast a great deal of scrutiny on the use of private military contractors. Pending investigation, it’s not clear what the fallout from the incident will be or that the interior ministry has any exercisable authority over contractors. Nonetheless, with anywhere between 20-50,000 private security contractors in Iraq, their presence raises a host of issues relating to military and government oversight. The issue has been simmering in the public consciousness for sometime now as people debate whether the military should be outsourced.
There’s no doubt that the world of private military contractors and private security contracts in Iraq is a murky one. However, while there are many unresolved issues about how contractors operate in Iraq and the war on terror, much of the criticism is the result of misunderstandings surrounding the mission of contractors.
The overarching theme of the criticism leveled at Blackwater and the use contractors is that they are somehow above the law. Thurday, the front-page article on the Washington Post was headlined “Where Military Rules Don’t Apply.” “Blackwater USA, the private security company involved in a Baghdad shootout last weekend, operated under State Department authority that exempted the company from U.S. military regulations governing other security firms, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials and industry representatives,” the Post article said. The Post noted that Blackwater wasn’t subject to the same military requirements governing weapons restrictions, the tracking of contractors’ whereabouts and procedures for reporting shooting incidents.
That Blackwater operates under different regulations because it has a contract with the State Department rather than those companies overseen by the military is hardly surprising. The real question should be not whether Blackwater operates under different regulations than other security firms, but rather establishing what security regulations Blackwater does operate under.
A common misconception here is that former Iraqi Ambassador L. Paul Bremer issued regulations effectively making contractors above the law. When I profiled Blackwater last year for The Weekly Standard, Blackwater representatives were emphatic that this was simply not the case.
“Everybody says that Ambassador Bremer signed a piece of paper that makes contractors immune. They can’t be charged with crimes in Iraq,” Chris Taylor, Blackwater’s then-vice president for strategic initiatives said. “Horse doo-doo. That’s not what Order 17 said.”
Order 17 (.pdf link) is the Coalition Provisional Authority rule Bremer issued that governs security contractors. According to Order 17, contractors are subject to registration with the Iraqi ministry of the interior. However, the order also says that in fulfilling their contracts, PSCs are not subject to Iraqi law. That may sound shocking, but Taylor explained it’s anything but.
“[Order 17] said — and this where everybody moved the language around and thought that they were being sneaky — it said any action that is required to fulfill an authorized and or legal contract cannot be considered a crime under Iraqi law,” Taylor said. “Okay, rape, murder, smuggling, sex abuse, child molestation, are never actions that are required to fulfill a contract. Therefore they could be tried under Iraqi law, under a military territorial jurisdiction act, under the war crimes act, under the victims of trafficking and violence protection act — I can go on. . . . It made nobody immune to the law.”
There’s no debate really about whether or not Blackwater can be held accountable if it did in fact wrongfully or recklessly target innocent civilians during the incident this past weekend. But it would have to be determined that Blackwater used excessive force — beyond what was necessary to protect the diplomatic envoy they were providing security for at the time. And that’s certainly a relevant question that should be investigated. Contractors in Iraq have a well-established reputation of being aggressive. On the other hand, Blackwater can say with some degree of pride that in a country rife with I.E.D.s and vehicle ambushes, they’ve never lost a principal on one of their security details. Only if an investigation produces evidence of criminal wrongdoing should charges be filed.
The Post article further raises the question of whether the State Department gave Blackwater too much deference and latitude, noting that the State Department allowed Blackwater to operate without a license from the interior ministry even though having a license was part of the terms of their contract with the Department of Defense.
Given that the U.S. is trying to encourage political progress in the country, it would seem that the State Department’s disregard of authority granted to the interior ministry is problematic. But the State Department may have good reason to look the other way and support Blackwater — which it is dependent on for security — over the ministry of the interior ministry. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Interior Minister Jawad Al-Boulani have been denouncing Blackwater’s alleged “crime” and grabbing headlines. However, comparatively little attention has been paid to the motivations of the Iraqi government in condemning Blackwater.
The interior ministry was incensed back in May when Blackwater contractors shot and killed an Iraqi driver leaving a gas station just outside its building. Some witnesses claimed that the driver did nothing to provoke the action while Blackwater insisted the car got too close to their convoy and they filed several warning shots without the car retreating before resorting to fatal measures. The end result of the incident was an armed standoff between Blackwater and interior-ministry commandos that resulted in evacuating Americans from the building. The ministry made its anger over the incident widely known, and it’s entirely possible that the interior ministry was waiting for big public incident they could pin on Blackwater to exact revenge.
The other problem is that while it bears repeating that contractors in Iraq have acquired a reputation for being overly aggressive, the interior-ministry assessments must be taken with a hefty bag of salt. A report delivered to Congress on September 6 on the state of the Iraqi security forces, “The Report of the Independent Commision on the Security Forces in Iraq,” by retired Marine General James L. Jones, was blistering in its criticisms of the Interior Ministry calling it “a Ministry in name only” and “sectarianism and corruption are pervasive.”
But notably, the report singled out the security conditions of the interior-ministry building itself for criticism. The interior-ministry is said to be “an 11-story powder keg of factions that is plagued by battles for influence among political parties, religious groups, the existing government and tribes and families.” Further, “The security environment at the MOI is so dangerous that when Western officials visit the ministry they frequently wear body armor and move under armed escort.” The Jones report would certainly support the notion that a Blackwater convoy likely encountered a dangerous, life-threatening circumstance in front of the building.
As for Prime Minister al-Maliki’s criticisms of Blackwater — they could very well amount to a shrewd political move to force the Coalition Provisional Authority and the State Department to acknowledge the inchoate government’s political power. Contractors are a significant presence in the country and any political pressure against them that results in a contractor as big as Blackwater being pulled from Iraq could seriously hamper U.S. operations in Iraq. Even with the surge, troops are overstretched and the State Department — including Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker — is entirely dependent on Blackwater for its security details.
For their part, private military contractors have tried to keep a low profile politically — though that’s becoming increasing hard to do. Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, sent a letter yesterday to Blackwater founder and Chairman Erik Prince inviting him to testify before the committee on October 2. “One question that will be examined is whether the government’s heavy reliance on private security contractors is serving U.S. interests in Iraq. Another question will be whether the specific conduct of your company has advanced or impeded U.S. efforts,” read the letter Waxman sent Prince.
Those are legitimate questions, certainly. Many military observers have been sharply critical of the fact that the U.S. has become dependent on private security contractors for operations that should rightfully belong to the military — a development that has troublesome political implications as this latest incident with Blackwater so amply demonstrates. It’s also worth noting that it was the post-Cold War willingness of Congress to rapidly downsize military forces and facilities that created the mammoth market for private security contractors in the first place. (Blackwater has received $678 million in government contracts since the Iraq war began. Another security firm, Aegis, has received nearly $300 million for a single contract in Iraq, and there are dozens if not hundreds of security firms now operating in Iraq.)
Which is not to say that there aren’t things that private security contractors can’t do well, nor is it impossible for them to be accountable. But that also means coming to terms with the fact that many of the problems surrounding private security contractors stem from the government itself. When I spoke to him last year, Erik Prince bemoaned the incompetence of the Department of Defense’s contracting officers. Blackwater has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure and training for their contractors; the company’s facilities and capabilities are staggering. Prince is quite confident Blackwater can adapt and execute any mission they are tasked with. It’s less clear that the government is capable of giving contractors the clear directives and standards that are necessarily to properly hold private security contractors accountable.
But it’s doubtful that Waxman, who has a well-deserved reputation for grandstanding, will use the Government Reform Committee to shine a harsh a light on Congress and the Department of Defense’s complicity in creating this mess. Private security contractors have been a favorite bogeyman of the Left since the war began. Even if it’s become politically untenable to say that you don’t support the troops, mercenaries are undoubtedly fair game.
If the goal is to weaken the U.S.’s war effort, contractors are big, juicy political target and Blackwater will definitely be in Waxman’s sights. But Prince is extremely shrewd and the company has a number of extremely influential political and military allies. In politics as well as battle, Blackwater knows how to fight.
— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.