Private Security Puts Diplomats, Military at Odds
Contractors in Iraq Fuel Debate
BAGHDAD, Sept. 25 -- A
confrontation between the U.S. military and the State Department is unfolding
over the involvement of Blackwater USA in the shooting deaths of Iraqi
civilians in a Baghdad square Sept. 16, bringing to the surface long-simmering
tensions between the military and private security companies in Iraq, according
to U.S. military and government officials.
In high-level meetings over the past several days, U.S. military officials have
pressed State Department officials to assert more control over Blackwater,
which operates under the department's authority, said a U.S. government
official with knowledge of the discussions. "The military is very
sensitive to its relationship that they've built with the Iraqis being altered
or even severely degraded by actions such as this event," the official
"This is a nightmare," said a senior U.S. military official. "We
had guys who saw the aftermath, and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us
badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we're
trying to have an impact for the long term." The official was referring to
the prison scandal that emerged in 2004 in which U.S. soldiers tortured and
In last week's incident, Blackwater guards shot into a crush of cars, killing
at least 11 Iraqis and wounding 12. Blackwater officials insist their guards
were ambushed, but witnesses have described the shooting as unprovoked. Iraq's
Interior Ministry has concluded that Blackwater was at fault.
In interviews involving a dozen U.S. military and government officials, many
expressed anger and concern over the shootings in Nisoor Square, in Baghdad's
Mansour neighborhood. Some worried it could undermine the military's efforts to
stabilize Iraq this year with an offensive involving thousands of
"This is a big mess that I don't think anyone has their hands around
yet," said another U.S. military official. "It's not necessarily a
bad thing these guys are being held accountable. Iraqis hate them, the troops
don't particularly care for them, and they tend to have a know-it-all attitude,
which means they rarely listen to anyone -- even the folks that patrol the
ground on a daily basis."
Most officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there are at least three
ongoing investigations of Blackwater's role in the shootings. There are also
sensitive discussions between various U.S. agencies and the Iraqi government
over the future of Blackwater and other private security firms in Iraq.
A State Department official asked why the military is shifting the question to
State "since the DOD has more Blackwater contractors than we do, including
people doing PSD [personal security detail] for them. . . . They've
[Blackwater] basically got contracts with DOD that are larger than the
contracts with State."
According to federal spending data compiled by the independent Web site
FedSpending.org, however, the State Department's Blackwater contracts vastly
exceed those of the Pentagon. Since 2004, State has paid Blackwater
$833,673,316, compared with Defense Department contracts of $101,219,261.
A Blackwater spokeswoman did not return telephone and e-mail messages seeking
The State Department official, directly addressing the question of Blackwater,
said: "The bottom line of this is that we recognize that there's an issue
here. We don't think we need to be told by anyone else that the incident on
September 16 raised a whole series of other issues with respect to how these
kinds of contract services operate, and that's why we're both working with this
joint commission with the Iraqis as well as [conducting an] internal
investigation here to ensure we can address some of the underlying
Scores of private security firms play a vital role in the U.S. military
mission, from force protection to securing the perimeters of American bases and
guarding generals. They free up more U.S. soldiers for combat duty and to
At the same time, the military has long been wary of private security guards,
especially those who, in the military's view, don't follow the rules of
engagement that govern soldiers. Often, private guards quickly drive away from
the scene of an incident, leaving soldiers to deal with the aftermath,
"I personally was concerned about any of the civilians running around on
the battlefield during my time there," said retired Army Col. Teddy Spain,
who commanded a military police brigade in Baghdad. "My main concern was
their lack of accountability when things went wrong."
In Iraq, Blackwater operations have been a source of controversy. In 2004,
insurgents ambushed four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah and mutilated their
bodies. U.S. Marines were ordered to invade the city to capture the assailants,
triggering one of the war's most fierce battles. The firm mostly hires former
Navy SEAL operatives.
"They are immature shooters and have very quick trigger fingers. Their
tendency is shoot first and ask questions later," said an Army lieutenant
colonel serving in Iraq. Referring to the Sept. 16 shootings, the officer
added, "None of us believe they were engaged, but we are all carrying
their black eyes."
"Many of my peers think Blackwater is oftentimes out of control,"
said a senior U.S. commander serving in Iraq. "They often act like cowboys
over here . . . not seeming to play by the same rules everyone else tries to
"Many of us feel that when Blackwater and other groups conduct military
missions, they should be subject to the same controls under which the Army
operates," said Marc Lindemann, who served in Iraq with the 4th Infantry
Division and is now an officer in the New York National Guard and a state
A Pentagon source in Washington said, "We are really making State respond,
conduct an investigation and come up with recommendations." The source
described discussion in Washington as calm and professional but, referring to
Iraq, said, "There is probably a bit more emotion going on in
There have been private discussions in the past over whether the Defense
Department should oversee the State Department's security contracts, according
to the Pentagon source. Defense rules for licensing, oversight and incident
reports when weapons are discharged are more stringent, the source said. The
military is known to quickly and routinely investigate incidents involving its
But "it would be a turf battle," the source said. State would oppose
it because "you are taking away a primary mission their regional security
officer has -- you'd be breaking new ground." At the same time, "DOD
is not volunteering to take them over."
"Given their record of recklessness," said the senior U.S. commander,
"I'm not sure any senior military officer here would want responsibility
An Army brigadier general said finding a way to prosecute security companies
for violations was more crucial than regulating them. In Iraq, they were given
immunity under a regulation, Order 17, crafted by Iraq's U.S. overseers after
the 2003 invasion.
The Iraqi government has backed away from a threat to expel Blackwater, largely
because of its role in protecting senior U.S. diplomats and civilian
operatives. Officials said they would take action once the investigation by a
16-member U.S.-Iraqi commission is completed.
"I think the military culture fully accepts these days, rightly or
wrongly, that we can't go to war anymore without these contractors," said
one Iraq war veteran. "I do not expect calls for action from within the
structure and have heard none. If action comes, it will be from Capitol Hill or
pressure brought by the press."
"The deaths of contractors from Blackwater helped precipitate the debacle in
Fallujah in 2004 and now the loss of Blackwater is causing disruptions in the
war effort in 2007," a military intelligence officer said. "Why are
we creating new vulnerabilities by relying on what are essentially mercenary
Ricks reported from Washington. Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Baghdad, staff
writers Steve Fainaru in El Cerrito, Calif., and Ann Scott Tyson and Karen
DeYoung in Washington and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed
to this report.
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