Private security firms operating in Iraq are facing new scrutiny, as a new media report claims the US government had been repeatedly warned about the violence and tension that unregulated firms were sparking. Another report suggests that a British security firm witheld intelligence from British armed forces.
The Washington Post reports that in 2005, when the Pentagon decided to allow private contractors onto the battlefield and use deadly force on people and assets – which it had historically not allowed – the government faced opposition to the policy shift.
Critics, including the American Bar Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned that the Pentagon had used an obscure defense acquisition rule to push through a fundamental shift in American war-fighting without fully considering the potential legal and strategic ramifications.
The provision enabled the military to significantly raise troop levels with contractors whose "combat roles now closely parallel those of Constitutionally and Congressionally authorized forces," wrote Herbert L. Fenster, a partner with McKenna Long & Aldridge, a Washington-based international law firm that represents several major defense contractors. Fenster questioned the provision's legality in a lengthy comment he filed in opposition. The practice "smacks of a mercenary approach," he wrote in an e-mail.
But neither the military nor the State Department set guidelines for regulating tens of thousands of hired guns on the battlefield. Oversight was left to overburdened government contracting officers or the companies themselves, which conducted their own investigations when a shooting incident occurred. Dozens of security companies operated under layers of subcontracts that often made their activities all but impossible to track. They were accountable to no one for violent incidents, according to U.S. officials and security company representatives familiar with the contracting arrangements.
The issue of private security contractors in Iraq was first brought into the public spotlight on Sept. 16, when employees of the Blackwater security firm opened fire on a Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 civilians. A US military investigation found no evidence that the Blackwater employees were provoked, and US federal prosecutors have begun a grand jury investigation of the shooting.
But the Washington Post report says that Blackwater was involved in a series of fatal shootings back in 2006. Matthew Degn, an Army veteran hired by the Iraqi Interior Ministry as a policy adviser, told the Post that the 2006 shootings, along with the inability to do anything about them, were a source of huge frustration for the Iraqi government.
After the [May 24, 2006] shooting of a civilian Iraqi driver outside the Interior Ministry gates, Blackwater guards refused to divulge their names or details of the incident to the Iraqi authorities. Degn, who was working in the ministry at the time, recalled that the Iraqis were outraged and the American advisers felt threatened.
... "We sent many memos up the chain of command," he said. "I thought it was a huge issue. The coalition knew about it, but it was just another part of the war, so nothing was ever done. I felt it was completely ignored."
"I mean, how many of these incidents does it take before you're finally aware?" Degn added.
U.S. officials argue that security contractors save money and free up troops for more urgent tasks, such as fighting insurgents. "Certainly there have been moments of frustration where people here have said, 'Maybe we should just take over the whole operation, even if it stretches our forces more,' " Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell said. "But the reality is that we think our resources are better utilized taking it to the bad guys than guarding warehouses and escorting convoys."
Meanwhile, British officials are calling for a government investigation into charges that security contractor ArmorGroup discouraged its employees from passing intelligence on to British armed forces. Colin Williamson, a former employee of the British security firm, told the Guardian that he felt such orders were given "because our bosses and probably, in turn, the [British Foreign Office] didn't want to expose how corrupt and infiltrated by the militia the police were."
Williamson said he believed such intelligence could have been vital. "I ignored the order and, at first, put the intelligence I picked up on my report sheets for the company," he said. "But nobody wanted to know. So I told the military everything I could pick up. Because I had an impeccable source inside the Iraqi police who didn't want money, he just believed the militias shouldn't be attacking the army that came to Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
"This officer was a brilliant source of information in the Basra region. At one stage I was moved to a very dangerous place in the city called the Old State Building. This officer used to let me know in advance when there would be a mortar attack on the base. Each time he gave me prior warning I would go to a certain company commander, a major in the British army, and in turn warn him about it."
He added: 'I am convinced this man's information saved lives and yet our official line was not to tell the military about any intelligence we came across regarding the police and the militias. He was so well informed that on one occasion when he rang he said: 'You are about to be attacked at any moment' and before he could put down the phone the mortars came in."
The Guardian also reports that British MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and Phyllis Starkey have called upon the Foreign Office to investigate the matter fully.
"We have expressed our views to the Foreign Office that there has to be a full parliamentary inquiry," Donaldson told the Guardian yesterday. "I am satisfied that the issues raised are so serious that they warrant such an inquiry. I know some of the ex-RUC officers and former British soldiers who worked for the ArmorGroup in Afghanistan and Iraq."
"These sources are, in my view, credible individuals; they are people who have served their country in the past. That is why what they are saying is of such a serious nature that they must be examined fully."
Christopher Beese, ArmorGroup's chief administrative officer, said the firm has does not have a policy of withholding intelligence from the British military, and denied that it padded its numbers. He added that an investigation "seems like a massive waste of public money."