Despite problems, private companies necessary in Iraq

By Freedom New Mexico

The private security company Blackwater USA is on the hot seat just now, largely as a result of a shooting incident Sept. 16. That’s when 14 people, mostly Iraqi civilians, were killed and 18 people were wounded.

If the imbroglio leads to clarifying the legal status of private security operatives and perhaps to improving the terms under which such contracts are granted, that would be a good outcome.

But it shouldn’t serve to discredit the very idea of hiring private contractors to carry out certain functions in a war zone.

Blackwater has a contract to protect U.S. State Department employees in Iraq.

Some reports filed in the immediate aftermath of the incident in Nisoor Square in Baghdad, including from the U.S. military, suggest that Blackwater employees opened fire without provocation. Blackwater chairman Erik Prince disputed these accounts at a congressional hearing, maintaining the Blackwater guards responded to small-arms fire aimed at them and acted appropriately.

There’s also an accusation that last Christmas Eve a Blackwater employee got drunk and killed a bodyguard for an Iraqi vice president. The employee was fired and fined for having a weapon while drinking, but hasn’t been prosecuted by either the Iraqi or the U.S. government.

The Iraqi government is demanding the Blackwater operatives be turned over for prosecution. The FBI has been assigned to investigate the incident. It may take a while, but something resembling the truth is likely to come out of the process.

When Blackwater first got the job of providing protection for Paul Bremer, the U.S. “proconsul” of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq beginning in 2003, Bremer exempted private U.S. contractors in Iraq from prosecution under Iraqi law. Private contractors working for the Department of Defense are subject to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, as are U.S. service personnel. But Blackwater’s contract was and is with the Department of State, which left it in a murky legal situation.

The U.S. House recently voted to place private contractors in Iraq under the jurisdiction of U.S. civilian courts. That might or might not be a workable way to ensure accountability; it could require the Justice Department and the FBI to send even more people over to Iraq to monitor and investigate contractors.

As the dust from this incident settles, however, it is important to review just how private contractors are held accountable for their actions and how the procedures can be improved.

There are about 130,000 employees of private firms in Iraq providing support and security for the military, the Iraqi government and for those trying to rebuild the country. In addition to diplomats, private security firms guard workers trying to rebuild Iraq’s oil facilities and other infrastructure, train Iraqi police and military personnel, and provide food, housing and other logistical services.

It’s unlikely the phenomenon of contracting out to private firms for military support services will go away. The justification — that it’s better to have trained military people out engaging the enemy than digging latrines or even guarding the gates of bases — makes a certain amount of sense for a volunteer military that has never been big enough to do all the jobs eventually required of the United States in Iraq.

But contracting-out on this scale is a relatively new phenomenon. It began in earnest in the early 1990s, when the military was downsized. Blackwater itself wasn’t formed until 1997. But its business and the business of other contractors boomed after 9/11 and especially after the invasion of Iraq.

It is likely that in the haste to get “boots on the ground” some possible safeguards were bypassed. It is time to assess the experience to date, learn from mistakes, and incorporate the lessons into the next contracts let out to bid.

If policymakers didn’t get us involved in unnecessary wars, of course, there would be little or no need for private “mercenaries.” Until Washington wises up, however, it would be helpful to learn how to use them wisely.