Training Iraqi soldiers in SWAT procedures didn't seem like mercenary work to Greg, who took a yearlong leave of absence from a Midwestern police department to spend a year in Baghdad as a contract employee with a private military corporation.
Sequestered at a guarded training camp near the airport, he and a team that grew from 15 to 45 American men — mainly retired military personnel plus a few police officers and federal agents — taught Iraqi security forces about forced entry into buildings through doors and windows, the use of weapons and close-quarter battle skills. They also guarded their own compound and searched suspected insurgent homes while regular U.S. military troops secured the city where the raids took place.
The SUVs and other vehicles in Greg's unit were hit by gunfire at least a dozen times while traveling between their secured training site and Baghdad's Green Zone. Iraqis may have mistaken them for U.S. military or not cared that they weren't. Sometimes Greg's team would fire back.
Because they worked for a private company, Greg — who spoke on the condition his real name not be used because of the confidentiality clause in his contract — and his colleagues weren't counted in the official troop totals of military personnel in Iraq nor would their deaths, if they were killed, be reported by the American Forces Press Service as are those of the enlisted forces. As a for-profit military contractor, Greg says he earned nearly five times his patrolman's pay, declining to give exact dollar figures.
"The United States is putting a lot of funding into training the Iraqis so they can secure their own country. It's not publicized a lot for whatever reason, but it is true that we are doing that," says Greg. "We want to develop a unit of the Iraqi military that can take care of their own problems internally."
Greg worked for a subsidiary of US Investigation Services Inc., known as USIS. Headquartered in Falls Church, Va., the parent company's website touts its "information and security services … serving human resources, insurance, government agencies and National Security markets."
Like an unprecedented number of other private, for-profit companies, USIS has landed contracts to do support work for the U.S. military and other federal agencies as part of the invasion, occupation, stabilizing and rebuilding in Iraq. Some, like USIS, do logistics, training and personal security detail.
Other private companies support the U.S. military in myriad ways: providing food service, purifying water, driving trucks to transport supplies, constructing housing and other buildings.
"When the American military goes to war today, contractors are the equivalent of an American Express card: The military can't go to war without them," says David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the British American Security Information Council, an independent, nonprofit group with offices in Washington, D.C., and London.
Some private security contractors — companies like Blackwater USA, DynCorp International and Armor Group — are protecting diplomats and staff of federal agencies. Considered by some to be efficient, economical providers of mainly noncombat services and by others to be for-hire, mercenary forces with little accountability, private military corporations currently number as many as 177 in Iraq, according to the Private Security Company Association of Iraq.
De facto soldiers
It's the contractors who act as de facto security forces that are drawing an increasing amount of criticism and questions. They work for the U.S. government as well as, for example, construction companies that need to provide protection for employees. They wear military-like clothing. They carry weapons. They fire back — and sometimes first — at Iraqis. But they are not U.S. military troops.
The trend represents a fundamental change in how America goes to war. Frontline troops from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are still expected to engage in combat. But many authors, analysts, journalists and lawmakers are asking questions about the role of and rules for nongovernmental security forces.
"Most Americans believe there are about 145,000 troops on the ground in Iraq," says Jeremy Scahill, a journalist who has written a book about private military contractors. "Seldom mentioned in that equation is the fact that there are about 130,000 private contractors."
A Capitol Hill source says he's seen Department of Defense unofficial totals of 126,000 contracted employees in Iraq, about 21,500 of whom are American. An unknown number of employees work on contracts through other governmental agencies. The Brookings Institution estimates that the private military industry operates in 50 countries with $100 billion in annual revenue.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office noted in a June report that none of the principal federal agencies using private security in Iraq could provide complete data on the costs. Exact numbers of employees are not known either.
And that means deaths and injuries among those privately employed in Iraq can't be accurately and easily counted. The Associated Press earlier this year tracked civilian deaths through Labor Department statistics and reported 769 deaths through 2006. Through the end of 2006, about 3,000 U.S. troop deaths were reported.
These private companies doing federal government business hail from the United States, Great Britain, South Africa, Fiji, India, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates, according to the British American Security Information Council. Some of them are strictly military support companies, providing services like feeding and housing U.S. troops. Others have more of a consulting role — like USIS — training and advising Iraqi police and military forces.
"The crux of the question that people in the military have been grappling with ... is where's the dividing line between the support function and the combat function?" says Isenberg, who has been researching private military corporations since the early 1990s. "And also are there not some things that the military does that should be considered an inherently governmental act?"
It's also the private military firms that, for example, provide armed guards to protect U.S. government officials including the ambassador to Iraq and embassy workers, protecting supply convoys traveling through Iraq and standing guard over private and governmental buildings.
"When you're talking about private military corporations, the private security contractors are a much smaller set of the private military contractor complex," Isenberg says.
It's these types of contractors that understandably have drawn the most attention and criticism. Their employees are often former military enlistees, sometimes retired special forces veterans: Navy SEALs, Green Berets and British SAS officers are among them.
Private military firms "are businesses that provide governments with professional services intricately linked to warfare; they represent, in other words, the corporate evolution of the age-old profession of mercenaries," writes Peter Singer, the Brookings Institution director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative.
He has identified problems with the emerging privatization of the U.S. military including the lack of regulation globally of the industry, the effect on the military itself as service men and women choose more lucrative private employment, ineffective screening of employees and a lack of congressional oversight.
"To put it bluntly, the incentives of a private company do not always align with its clients' interests — or the public good. In an ideal world, this problem could be kept in check through proper management and oversight; in reality, such scrutiny is often absent," Singer writes.
Employees of the private military corporations have been subjects of some of the Iraqi conflict's most notorious stories. Four civilian employees of Blackwater USA were killed by Iraqis in Fallujah in 2004, their bodies beaten, torched and hung from a bridge. The families of the four men have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater, charging the company failed to provide armored vehicles, equipment, personnel, weapons and maps.
Private contractors from CACI International, a British contractor with offices in Arlington, Va., were criticized in a Pentagon report for violating policy and giving instructions that led to physical abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. The Center for Constitutional Rights is suing both CACI and Titan Corp., a San Diego-based company, for human rights violations committed by their interrogators at Abu Ghraib and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
The International Peace Operations Association, the industry group for the contractors, prefers the term "peace and stability operations" for the private military corporations' work in Iraq, Darfur and other conflict zones. Association President Doug Brooks often acts as spokesman for the industry as he admits corporation executives often shy away from media interviews. "Just about most of the time you get people calling up to do spicy mercenary stories," he says.
The association was founded in 2001, prior to Sept. 11, to create industry standards, maintain professional and military practices and promote the industry to the public and lawmakers. Brooks says the industry's growth is explained by the recent trend to downsize and professionalize the U.S. military.
"We have the best support, best supplied military operation in history going on in Iraq," he says. "The soldiers aren't doing that work. They don't have to come back and clean toilets after they finish patrol. That's all provided now and that makes a much more professional soldier than what we've had in the past. We train our young people to be professional soldiers."
The recent publication of Scahill's book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, is bringing more attention to the private military corporation issue. Debuting on the New York Times best seller list last month at No. 9, the book chronicles the trajectory of Blackwater USA, the North Carolina—based company founded by Erik Prince.
"Erik Prince comes from a very powerful, conservative family in Holland, Mich. His father, Edgar Prince, ran his company Prince Manufacturing. He used that as a cash-generating engine to fund the rise of not only the Republican Revolution of 1994 that swept Newt Gingrich into power but also for several groups that make up the core of what we call the religious right in this country: the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family," Scahill says.
When Erik Prince's sister, Betsy, married Dick DeVos, last year's Republican candidate for Michigan governor, Scahill says a powerful alliance was cemented. "Those two families merged together in the kind of unification that was commonplace in the monarchy of old Europe," he says.
With backing from his family fortune, Prince started Blackwater in 1997. The war on terror has allowed it to grow exponentially with tens of millions of dollars in government contracts as part of the privatization of the Iraq effort.
"This is by no means just about Blackwater. Blackwater is a company that's engaged to tell a much bigger story. We are living right now in the middle of the most radical privatization agenda in the history of this country," Scahill says. "The Bush administration has used the private sector to essentially double the size of the occupation, using troops whose deaths don't get counted in the official death toll and are operating outside the official system of law."
Scahill was reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when he met several Blackwater "operatives," as he calls them. The company originally said its services were "donated" to the relief effort, but then it was awarded a no-bid contract with the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Protective Services to defend reconstruction projects and several private businesses, Scahill reports.
"What's happening is we're encouraging wealthy people to hire their own private military to defend their own economic interests," he says.
Scahill realized these men shared an employer with the dead contractors in Fallujah he had encountered as a freelance reporter in Iraq.
"I feel like Hurricane Katrina provided us a window into the future of what could happen in this country with natural disasters or national emergencies," Scahill says. "Training and putting arms into the hands of private contractors who are accountable to no one, to me, is a very disturbing trend in this country."
Not surprisingly, Scahill's book has drawn criticism from the private military corporation industry. Brooks objects to Scahill's tendency to lump all private companies in Iraq into one category. Most are not in the private security business, he says, and are instead involved with rebuilding and other nonmilitary action. The companies, though working in what Brooks calls one of the world's most dangerous places, are infrequently engaged in combat.
"Mr. Scahill's issue is that they were Republican private security," Brooks says. "If you remove the word ‘Republican,' his 400-pager turns into a 10-page pamphlet. And I'm a Democrat. It's an ideological issue to him. He just has a burr up his ass about Republicans."
A Michigan Blackwater contractor, Stuart is a 25-year-old former Marine. Citing the company's confidentiality policy, he agreed to talk only if he was not identified. He enlisted in the Marines right after high school, serving four years in special operations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Stuart, which is not his real name, signed on with one of Blackwater's competitors and worked in Afghanistan guarding diplomats. He then contracted with Blackwater a few years ago. He returned from a four-month stint in Iraq earlier this year.
"Obviously the best thing is the pay," he says. Blackwater employees, according to Scahill, routinely make between $350 and $1,000 a day. Stuart declined to provide an exact figure.
During his eight years as both an enlisted Marine and a private contractor, Stuart says he's seen privatization's use and acceptance grow within the U.S. military. It was noticeable daily on the streets of Baghdad. "You see the military the most, but military contractor convoys are all over. If you take a drive anywhere, you're going to see them," he says.
Stuart says the provocative descriptions of Blackwater employees and other would-be "mercenaries" are exaggerated. Scahill, for example, describes the men as "the ugly American persona to a tee" and as "chiseled like bodybuilders" wearing "tacky wraparound sunglasses," goatees and "dressed in all-khaki uniforms with ammo vests of Blackwater T-shirts with the trademark bear claw in the cross-hairs, sleeves rolled up."
Stuart shrugs off the description as not applicable to most of his Blackwater colleagues "You do your job and you stay on top of things. Most of the time, you're not going to see combat," Stuart says. Much of the work of U.S. diplomats takes place inside the Green Zone, the fortified area of downtown Baghdad that contains the U.S. embassy, troop and contractor housing, and Iraqi government offices.
Stuart says that makes "security detail" like chauffeur work. "You're a personal escort. We're like a taxi service," he says.
While rank-and-file employees like Stuart and Greg may be following the rules, Scahill and others wonder about their employers' ultimate accountability. "There is no effective system that could monitor these kinds of forces," Scahill says.
For his part, Greg believes some of the subcontracting — especially for security detail and other work that leads to some combat operations — is part of a U.S. government plan to relieve itself of potential blame if contractors improperly engage in combat, injure civilians or commit other possible human rights violations.
"It's plausible deniability," Greg says. "The government can point and say, ‘Those fucking Blackwater guys did it.'"
Scahill and other critics of this system say that's exactly the point. Since they're not enlisted military, employees of private military contractors can't be court-martialed. The Coalition Provisional Authority — the temporary government between the invasion and the transfer of power from the U.S. military back to Iraqis — exempted contractors from Iraqi law before it disbanded in 2004.
The Department of Defense contractors are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and Congress broadened the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdictional Act to cover contractors accompanying the forces. But for private security forces for other employers, the laws are more ambiguous.
The IOPA, Brooks says, is addressing the ethics and accountability issues. The association has requirements for its 34 corporate members that include supporting an ethics policy. Private contractors should screen their employees, he says, and discipline them if they need to. The problem, according to Brooks, is that short of firing them, the private sector has limited recourse for wayward employees.
"If they've committed human-rights crimes, they should be charged with human-rights crimes," Brooks says. "We get hammered on that and we say, `We're not the government.' We're all for accountability but we are not allowed to take our own people out and hang them. We can fire them. People say, ‘All you did was fire them,' but what else are we supposed to do with them?"
Legislation is pending that would strengthen accountability. In February, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., introduced a bill that would require better oversight of private military corporations who are operating under federal contracts. The legislation would require multiple reporting and establish rules of engagement for contractors.
Scahill, for his part, doesn't believe legislation will improve oversight and accountability. "The Democrats and some Republicans are struggling to try and figure out a system to effectively monitor 143,000 people in a war zone. I don't think there's any system that could oversee a private force," he says.
Using private contractors isn't anything new for the federal government — including the Department of Defense. Brooks, from the industry association, says about 80,000 privately contracted employees did logistics work during the Vietnam War.
But there's no doubt it's a growing industry. A Congressional Research Service report released in January called "Defense Contracting in Iraq: Issues and Options for Congress" found an 88 percent increase between 2000 and 2005 in the dollar amount of U.S. defense department contracts for goods and services overall.
What's different now is how the money is being spent.
"There has been a substantial shift in the types of contracts for troop support services, the size of the contracts, and the lack of effective management control over the administration of the contracts, and the oversight of the contractors," the report stated. "These new contracts have characteristics that make oversight difficult."
According to the report, the majority of troop support contracts in Iraq have not been competitively bid. It cites congressional concern that the contracts are "expensive and difficult to manage"; public agencies and private organizations have cited waste and fraud.
Meanwhile, Stuart is running his own small business while he decides if he'll go back to lucrative private security work in Iraq with Blackwater. "I won't if my family and friends have anything to say about it," he says.
Greg, who also trained African forces in SWAT work, doesn't think he'll return to Iraq. But that's not because of a philosophical difference with private military work. He disagrees with the popular characterization of contractors as soldiers of fortune.
"Mercenary is a big word for it," Greg says. "If you look at true mercenaries, I don't think that's quite what the PMCs are, although some people characterize them that way."
Scahill sees nothing positive in privatizing military work. "The only people that those forces are responsible to are the people that hired them. I think it raises serious questions about the constitutionality of this operation," he says. "We're likening corporate profits to the business of war. ... I find it, as a citizen, just scary. You build in an incentive to keep the conflict going. That's frightening."
A version of this story appeared originally in Detroit's Metro Times.firstname.lastname@example.org