October 12, 2007

Blackwater, military don't mix

When someone responds to civilian deaths he indirectly caused, he really shouldn’t say “People make mistakes; they do stupid things sometimes.” Unfortunately for his company and more unfortunately for the American people, that is exactly what Blackwater CEO Erik Prince did last week during his sworn testimony before Congress concerning the reckless actions of his private security force in Iraq. Specifically, the person who made “mistakes” was an inebriated Blackwater mercenary and the “stupid thing” he did was murder an Iraqi security official in cold blood last Christmas Eve. It is only the most recent and infamous chapter in the long and sad history of privatized warfare in Iraq.

There are an estimated 100,000 private contractors operating in Iraq on behalf of the United States government, and with many defense contractors pocketing six-figure salaries, annual contract awards to security companies such as Blackwater have exceeded $1 billion. These companies are composed of former military hands who are paid to protect convoys, guard embassies, and escort coalition officials and journalists. While State Department officials—including Ambassador Ryan Crocker—have insisted that there is no alternative to the services these companies provide, there is a growing concern regarding the no-bid contracts they enjoy, the wide-reaching scope of their operations, and their habitually reckless disregard for the rules of engagement.

Blackwater was founded in 1997 by Prince, a retired Navy SEAL, who has since built Blackwater into the premier private security firm in the United States. Over 90 percent of the contracts Blackwater accepts are with the U.S. government in one form or another, and there has been much made of the fact that the bulk of these contracts have been no-bid: No competitors were allowed to make alternative proposals. These no-bid contracts have come under fire due to Prince’s ties to the government through his wife’s politically connected family, which has given several million dollars to the Bush campaigns and the GOP in general. Whether the contracts were the result of fair auditing or political favoritism, Blackwater, Aegis, and other private contracting companies have come under increasing fire for the high rate of civilian casualties, alcohol abuse among employees, and interference with the occupying forces.

The House hearings referred to several notorious incidents that have shed a negative light on the service history of these contractors. According to the congressional report, Blackwater contractors fired the first shot in 163 of the 195 gunfights they have been involved in since 2005. These include one high-profile incident where an intoxicated Blackwater soldier shot and killed in cold blood the bodyguard to the vice president of Iraq. Other examples include Blackwater guards unlawfully declaring free-fire zones and violating the rules of engagement, Blackwater guards fleeing the scene after inflicting civilian casualties, and Aegis (a British company) contractors creating “trophy videos” of Iraqi deaths.

These incidents not only undermine the credibility of the private contractors themselves but have also hurt the already tarnished reputation of U.S. troops serving in Iraq and that of their allies. While incidents such as the beating, charring, and hanging of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah in 2004 demonstrate the risks these contractors face on a day-to-day basis, it is essential to remember that they are soldiers of fortune working for private corporations, not soldiers fighting to protect the American or Iraqi people.

Although the use of military contractors in various functions is essential to protecting American interests in Iraq, it has become very clear that they are beginning to overstay their welcome. Many of these contractors, in particular those cited in Congressional hearings, have behaved grossly inappropriately. From drinking on the job to firing into crowds, their behavior has jeopardized the contractors themselves and their counterparts in the U.S. military. These recent revelations have shown that the process of no-bid contracting has led to politically connected companies taking their contracts for granted and not doing the job they were hired for.

With Blackwater on the verge of expulsion from the country by the Iraqi government, it is essential that this hiring process become open and transparent immediately so that only the best, most capable, and most professional contractors are hired—contractors who respect the rules of engagement, obey the orders of military personnel, and most importantly respect the Iraqi people who they are ultimately charged to protect alongside the coalition forces. As3 with many other problems associated with the war, political connections trumped pragmatism in decision-making at the highest level. The loyalty of Blackwater to the GOP and the Bush administration was valued over its competency and efficiency, and as in so many events during this tragic war, the taxpayers, the Iraqi people, the American troops, and ultimately the American people themselves have ended up paying the price for these mistakes.