On the shores of Blackwater

From a distance, Blackwater points to issues of accountability and US dependence on private security.

Wade into the debate over private security guards in Iraq, and it's easy to drown in a sea of details – especially over the differing accounts of killings by Blackwater's hired guns. Step back on shore, however, and US hiring of these companies requires a rethink of such reliance.

Iraqi and US investigators are delving into whether guards with Blackwater Worldwide indiscriminately and without provocation killed 17 Iraqi civilians when the security detail was protecting a US Embassy convoy in Baghdad Sept. 16. Iraqi officials say they did and demand the US sever its ties with Blackwater within six months, and hand over those involved for possible prosecution in Iraq. Iraq also wants compensation for the victims' families. Blackwater says its operatives acted in self-defense. The FBI is investigating.

The issues extend beyond crowded Nisoor Square, the site of the shootings.

More immediate, they underscore the need for legal accountability for US government contractors who carry arms as if they were US soldiers, but who aren't in the US armed forces. Heavy reliance on such private firms also reveals the strain on a military which is smaller than a decade ago.

Inhuman and criminal behavior can be carried out by private guards and US troops alike, especially when a clever, faceless, and lethal insurgency can make a person quick on the trigger. In Iraq, both types of American "soldiers" are now immune from Iraqi laws. But American troops are subject to US military law, while the legal constraints on private contractors are untested and, some argue, unclear.

US soldiers have been or are being prosecuted for crimes at Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and Mahmudiya – to name three troubling and high-profile cases. Yet contractors in Iraq involved in alleged wrongdoing have simply been fired – until now.

An oft-voiced reason is that legal jurisdiction for contractors in war zones is unclear. Do they fall under US military or civilian law? Actually, a case can be made for either. The bigger point is that until this FBI investigation, neither the Justice Department nor the Pentagon has been eager to follow up or prosecute. That must change.

So must oversight of private security forces working for the US. The State Department took a step in the right direction after the killings when it announced US federal agents would ride in Blackwater convoys and in-vehicle video cameras would monitor them. Military commanders also keep tabs on their own vehicles and communications, and a way must be found to better monitor not just Blackwater, but the two other security companies that the State Department employs in Iraq.

About 30,000 heavily armed security guards work for US agencies in Iraq. That's a sizable force – and an indication of just how stretched US armed forces are.

The US has used private contractors in war zones in the past, but the switch to a volunteer army after the Vietnam war, downsizing of forces after the cold war, and the duration of the Iraq War have necessitated a much greater dependence.

This is something the Pentagon should consider as it plans the future size and makeup of the armed forces.

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