The trouble with security

Leaked military documents reignite the debate over hiring private security firms in Iraq, and Afghanistan
The trouble with security
Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images/ Lennart Preiss/AP

On May 2, 2006, a convoy led by Blackwater private security contractors drove over a roadside bomb in Baghdad. An Iraqi ambulance arrived at the scene and its driver was killed by “uncontrolled small arms fire.” A U.S. Army military intelligence unit interviewed witnesses and reported in a classified document that local Iraqis “are saying that the ambulance driver was shot by Blackwater.” But when the investigating soldiers contacted the tactical operations centre of Blackwater (now renamed Xe Services), “to try to confirm details of the incident,” the centre staff “would not confirm or deny at this time.”

This anecdote from the chaos of the Iraq war was contained in the more than 300,000 classified military documents released by the group WikiLeaks last week. Spanning six years of the conflict, they provided fresh evidence that security contractors killed Iraqi civilians, inflamed tensions with local people, and escaped accountability. In another case, the convoy of an American private security company named Custer Battles shot up civilian vehicles on an Iraqi road and then handed out cash to keep the locals quiet. A few days later, a different convoy of the same company fired on U.S. military police. In yet another incident, at a dangerous Iraqi checkpoint, a firefight unfolded when members of three separate security firms—two American and one British—shot at each other. While the documents posted on are heavily redacted and do not include contractors’ names, un-redacted versions provided to the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel and several other news organizations confirmed those previously reported incidents of civilian killings, and brought new ones to light.

The documents have surfaced at a time when the Obama administration is preparing to engage more security contractors in Iraq as part of its military drawdown. U.S. troops are supposed to complete their exit from Iraq by the end of 2011, while civilians from the State Department remain in Iraq to run the new U.S. Embassy and provide reconstruction and development. But thousands of private security contractors will be brought in to take on the security roles of the departing soldiers—and “State will have no practical alternative to meet its continuing security and support needs in Iraq than by greatly increasing its contracting,” says a July 12 report of the congressionally appointed commission on wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are already 18,800 private security contractors working in Iraq under various U.S. government contracts. The State Department alone will have to increase its 2,700 security contractors by 6,000 to 7,000 more, according to testimony received by the commission. But already the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been called the most privatized in history.

According to the Congressional Research Service, contractors make up more than half (54 per cent) of the Department of Defense workforce in both places. “There has been a real transformation in the way war is fought that we are just beginning to come to terms with,” says Allison Stanger, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and author of One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy. “War is chaotic, but contractors’ war is chaos squared.”

Many issues that have vexed the use of private security contractors in wartime remain unresolved. For example, the commission expressed “concern” that the State Department is not planning adequately for the kind of expenditures and oversight that will be required as contractors take over 14 services currently provided by the military. These include convoy security, explosive-ordinance disposal, and tactical operations centre dispatch of armed response teams, among other crucial services. “What if an aircraft-recovery team or a supply convoy comes under fire?” the commission asked. “Who determines whether contract guards engage the assailants and whether a quick-reaction force is sent to assist them? Who weighs the risks of innocent casualties, directs the action, and applies the rules for the use of force?” While many private security contractors are highly trained, with military or police backgrounds, the panel’s report also said that “the commission has found that some fall far short of professional standards of training, ethos, and discipline.”

But Stan Soloway, head of the Professional Service Council, a trade association that represents contractors including private security firms, said the negative incidents, while inexcusable, should be seen in the context of hundreds of thousands of security personnel risking their lives and working in a professional manner. “WikiLeaks may have identified a few instances, but it’s not like it’s an epidemic set of issues,” he said in an interview.

Still, the matter has reached a boiling point in Afghanistan, where there are more than 26,000 armed private security personnel working for military and other U.S. agencies, according to U.S. Central Command. But unlike in Iraq, most of them are local nationals, raising a whole new set of issues. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in August he wants most of them to cease operations altogether within four months, claiming their activities on a foreign payroll inflamed conflicts, violated the rights of other Afghans, and made it difficult to bolster the ranks of the Afghan military and police. Criticism has also come from the U.S. Senate: on Oct. 7, the armed services committee released a report that said security contractors in Afghanistan “funnelled U.S. taxpayer dollars to Afghan warlords and strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping, and bribery, as well as to Taliban and anti-coalition activities.”

But ending their activities could create more instability. It would leave many of these combat-trained men unemployed—with potentially disastrous consequences. “If the situation changes and they are no longer hired, they are going to be looking for other employment,” says Stanger. “That’s not a stabilizing influence. That’s medieval Europe.”

Meanwhile, bringing rogue security contractors to justice has been difficult, especially in the Iraqi context. Government investigations and prosecutions into alleged killings of Iraqi civilians have been falling apart. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department abandoned a murder case against a Blackwater agent accused of killing a bodyguard of an Iraqi vice-president on Dec. 24, 2006. Murder and manslaughter cases against other Blackwater employees accused of killing Iraqi civilians have also succumbed to problems with evidence and witnesses.

There are also questions about the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. While private security firms that work for or “accompany” the American military are explicitly subject to U.S. law, those who work for other departments and organizations are in a grey zone. Stanger raises a more fundamental concern: “The problem you run into is that you are blurring the line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of force because they are not members of the military. That is just what terrorists want—to blur the lines between who is allowed to use force and not,” he said.

But Soloway notes that the unprecedented nature of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts—active war combined with simultaneous reconstruction and development—necessitated the use of security workers because there were simply not enough troops to go around. And he contends that circumstances have improved from the early days of the Iraq war. “There is no question that because of some incidents that took place, the oversight and management by companies themselves and by government have clearly improved,” he says.

Meanwhile, the congressional war contracting commission, which is due to make recommendations next summer, is working to define what kind of activities constitute an “inherently governmental function” that should never be contracted out. Stanger has proposed banning contractors from security on moving convoys—where they have been most likely to use force. Soloway and others have suggested a more flexible standard under which missions would be analyzed on a case by case basis, with the most sensitive and risky reserved for the military.

Another option would be to hire and train more State Department employees to provide their own security. But in a Congress newly preoccupied with spending cuts and deficit reduction, that’s a non-starter. “The last thing Congress wants to do,” observes Stanger, “is approve more government employees.”