Don't Panic! April 15 2004

Your war questions answered

What are private security companies doing in Iraq?

The same sorts of things they do here, I suppose. Enforcing the "No Horseplay" rule at the North Mosul Galleria mall food court. Patrolling parking lots in little white pickup trucks with a yellow flashing light on the top. Sitting at the front desk and handing us the clipboard so that we can sign-in.

Well, not quite.

Even though it is U.S. military policy to not farm out "mission critical" tasks to private firms, that's exactly what happens in Iraq every day. Security at Baghdad-Jackson International Airport is furnished by an outfit called Custer Battles. Yeah, I know, calling your security firm Custer Battles is kinda like calling your construction company House of Cards, but the Virginia-HQ'd firm is actually headed by a duo named Scott Custer and Mike Battles.

If guarding Iraq's main airport isn't a mission critical enough for you, try this: The occupation's chief administrator, L. Paul Bremer, is protected by a security team provided by Blackwater, the North Carolina firm whose name has been in the news lately because savages killed and mutilated four of their men in Fallujah, Iraq. When they were attacked, Blackwater's men were providing a security escort for trucks delivering food supplies to American soldiers.

Or how about this one: On April 3, an eight-man Blackwater team protecting the U.S. government's headquarters in Najaf held off an attack by what has been described by reports as "hundreds" of armed Iraqi men. When the Blackwater team ran low on ammo, a Blackwater helicopter re-supplied them, evacuating a wounded U.S. Marine in the process.

If these missions seem a bit more dangerous and complicated than you'd associate with your average rent-a-cop, well, it probably won't surprise you to learn that these security companies are staffed by ex-military personnel. Messrs. Custer and Battles are former Special Ops guys. Blackwater was founded by former Navy Seals. Their facility in North Carolina, just a few miles from the world's largest Navy base in Norfolk, Va., is so well appointed that the Navy sends Seals there for weapons training, hostage rescue simulation and balancing beach balls on their noses.

Right now, there are between 15,000 and 20,000 private security contractors in Iraq. That number is fuzzy because, hey, they're private companies and they don't have to say a damned thing to the press if they don't want to. Also, they're not all American. Some of the companies in Iraq are from China, South Africa and Australia, and are not quite so easy for lazy journalists track down.

One thing is semi-certain, though. There's about one private security person for every 10 U.S. soldiers in Iraq — approximately 10 times the ratio during Gulf War I: Kuwait and See. We rely on private security for military tasks now more than ever. In the short term, that reliance will increase. These private firms pay a lot better than the military does and will lure many of our Special Ops people away from the military. What's more, demand for private security is expected to increase, or even double, after the June 30 "handover" of power to the Iraqi people.

The military likes to use private contractors because they say it saves them money. It's also a way of working around congressionally mandated ceilings on troop strength. Farming out military tasks to private firms isn't without its downside, though. Even though the contractors are well paid, they can't protect themselves as well as regular soldiers. The Fallujah four, for example, were ambushed in their unarmored truck.

It's not just their safety that's the issue — it's also everyone else's. The activities of uniformed soldiers are limited by strict codes of conduct, U.S. foreign policy and, ultimately, the U.S. Constitution. Private contractors, however, are free to stoop as low as necessary to make a buck, and the U.S. government often does nothing to stop them.

In 1995, a U.S. firm called MPRI trained Croatian soldiers who then launched an ethnic cleansing assault that left hundreds dead and 150,000 homeless.

And then there's DynCorp. A few years ago, two employees of that ethically challenged firm exposed an in-company child sex-slave ring in Bosnia. The whistleblowers weren't rewarded. They were fired.

These companies are still active Army contractors. MPRI still runs the Army's recruitment centers, and DynCorp is raking in the bucks in Iraq.


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