New revelations about shootings in Iraq involving the security contractor Blackwater USA have intensified debate in Washington about the wisdom of the US government's reliance on private firms to perform quasi-military functions.
Contractors do so many jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan that at this point the US military cannot carry out basic operations without them, say some experts. Personnel from private firms help run Patriot missile batteries, for instance. They load B-2 bombers, as well as protect US diplomats and visiting members of Congress.
Yet among Iraqi civilians, private guards in particular may have become one of the most disliked symbols of the US presence in the country. Their perceived excesses may undermine US efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people – a key aspect of any counterinsurgency effort.
"The use of contractors appears to be hampering efforts to actually win the counterinsurgency campaign [in Iraq] on multiple levels," writes Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a just-published report on the subject.
At an Oct. 2 hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Blackwater USA chief executive Erik Prince vehemently defended his firm's record in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The parts of the world Blackwater operates in are particularly dangerous, said Mr. Prince. Yet no person under the company's protection has been killed or severely injured.
US government outsourcing of bodyguard and protective functions to firms such as his is an effective marshaling of resources, said Prince.
"By doing so, more American soldiers are available to fight the enemy," he said.
Per request from the US Department of Justice, neither Prince nor House lawmakers specifically discussed the Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater employees were involved in a shooting in a Baghdad square in which at least eight civilians were killed. On Monday, the FBI announced that it has opened in investigation of the incident.
The Blackwater executive did tell the House panel that in 2006 his firm carried out some 6,500 protective missions in Iraq. In only 56 of those – less than 1 percent – did Blackwater guards fire their weapons, he said.
"To the extent that there is any loss of innocent life ever [in Iraq], let me express that is tragic," he said.
A new report from the House Oversight panel was critical of Blackwater actions, however. It described a number of questionable incidents involving firm personnel, which previously had not been reported. Among them:
On Oct. 25, 2005, Blackwater USA security personnel guarding a US motorcade in Mosul shot at a vehicle that appeared to be turning into their path. A bullet passed through the car and struck a civilian bystander, who fell to the ground, severely wounded. The convoy continued on – though Blackwater reported the shooting and an ambulance was sent to the scene.
On Sept. 24, 2006, a Blackwater protection team drove up the wrong side of a road in Al-Hillah at 45 miles per hour – a common security practice. The driver of an oncoming Opal lost control while swerving out of their way and slammed into a phone pole. The car burst into flames. The Blackwater convoy left the scene without helping the burning auto's occupants.
On Nov. 28, 2005, a Blackwater motorcade traveling to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil in Baghdad collided with a total of 18 vehicles during its round trip. Statements about this episode made by team members in its immediate aftermath later were found by Blackwater officials to be "at best, dishonest reporting."
Overall, since 2005 Blackwater has been involved in 195 incidents in which shots were fired, according to data compiled by the House committee. In 85 percent of those incidents, Blackwater fired first, according to the House.
Blackwater's own reports show that the firm's actions caused 16 Iraqi casualties prior to the Sept. 16 incident.
"In the vast majority of instances in which Blackwater forces engage in weapons fire, the Blackwater shots are fired from a moving vehicle and Blackwater does not remain at the scene to determine if their shots resulted in casualties," concludes the House Oversight report.
Yet there is an even larger issue than whether shootings by Blackwater or other private guards are justified, according to Mr. Singer of Brookings. The very presence of private firms performing functions once carried out by the US military has created a "dependency syndrome," he writes.
Outsourcing of logistical jobs as well as protective services "has become the ultimate enabler, allowing operations to happen that otherwise might be politically impossible," according to Singer.
That is true, he says, because outsourcing allows the US government to avoid other, more difficult ways of increasing manpower, such as sending larger numbers of regular troops or mobilizing the National Guard or making compromises necessary to win the support of other allies.
"The US government needs to go back to the drawing board and reevaluate its use of private military contractors, especially armed roles within counterinsurgency and contingency operations," writes Singer.
On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that he expects to move soon to tighten Pentagon oversight of Blackwater and other private security firms in Iraq.
A military fact-finding team traveled to Baghdad last week to investigate the issues surrounding Blackwater and the Sept. 16 shooting incident.
"The recommendations from the group look very reasonable to me," said Secretary Gates at a news conference in El Salvador, his first stop in a five-day swing through Central and South America.
Gates declined to specify exactly what the recommendations were, or what moves he might make. US military commanders currently have the authority to discipline the guards and to ensure that they are following proper rules in their use of force.
Meanwhile, State Department officials say they have established a joint commission with the Iraqi government to investigate the role of security companies in the country. A separate US panel is looking at diplomatic security in particular.
"The secretary of State has made clear that she wishes to have a probing, comprehensive, unvarnished examination of the overall issue of security contractors working for her department in Iraq," David Satterfield, the State Department's senior coordinator for Iraq, told the House Oversight and Government Reform panel at Tuesday's hearing.
Some Democratic lawmakers questioned whether an investigation led by the State Department could be impartial, given the department's close relationship with Blackwater.
"Yes, we believe that is possible," said Mr. Satterfield in response. He added that around the world the State Department dismisses security contractors it finds deficient "every day."
As to US prosecution of private contractors for alleged abuses in Iraq, that is a matter best left to the Justice Department, said diplomats.
"They're the prosecutors. The State Department isn't the prosecutor for the US government," Richard Griffin, assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security, told the House panel.
•Wire-service material was used in this report.