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In Iraq, a Private Realm Of Intelligence-Gathering

Aegis has also spent about $425,000 in company money and private donations on more than 100 small charity projects such as soccer fields and vaccination programs. The projects enable the company to build relationships in the communities in which it operates and gather information at the same time. "It's not intelligence as I understand it; it is understanding the water in which we swim," said David Cooper, who directs the program.

The company, for instance, spent $1,300 distributing tracksuits to girls' schools in an area of eastern Iraq where residents routinely pelted Aegis security teams with rocks, according to Justin Marozzi, Aegis's former director of civil affairs, who now is a London-based consultant. Through relationships forged on the project, the company learned of an insurgent cell that was working out of the governor's office, he said. The military "acted on" the tip, Marozzi said. He declined to elaborate.

Aegis recently launched a second charity to operate in Iraq and elsewhere called Hearts and Minds. The charity project "goes back to basic counterinsurgency doctrine," Clemens said. "You need local people on your side."

Aegis also provides on-demand "threat assessments for the people that travel the battlespace" throughout Iraq, said Robert Lewis, who directs Project Matrix as the company's chief of staff in Baghdad. One intelligence assessment, developed recently for the Army Corps of Engineers and provided independently to The Washington Post, included a detailed map of previous attacks and analyzed the intent and capabilities of Shiite militias and criminal gangs operating in Basra province. "There has been collusion with elements of the Basra" security forces, "which has increased the capability of the militias," concluded the report, which was compiled by Aegis's intelligence officer for the region.

Aegis declined to make its intelligence officials available for comment but said the information is unclassified and is gathered from a variety of open sources, including thousands of private security contractors who operate on Iraq's roads. Dashboard transponders enable Aegis to track dozens of private security companies that register with the Reconstruction Operations Center. The system helps to alert the military to armed contractors on the battlefield, preventing potential "friendly fire" incidents, and to mobilize an emergency response when contractors come under attack.

Aegis operates five remote command centers on coalition bases throughout Iraq. Col. Timothy Clapp, who until recently oversaw the system for the military, said Aegis is integrated into the Army Corps of Engineers' intelligence and operations chains of command.

The military relies on private contractors to offset chronic troop shortages. "If we had a 2 million-man army, we wouldn't be having this conversation," said Ed Soyster, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But the scope of the contractors' responsibilities is sometimes unclear, particularly in the area of intelligence-gathering. Singer, of the Brookings Institution, said intelligence contracting is growing "in a major, major way" with little government oversight.

Paul Cox, press secretary for Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), asked: "Who's overseeing this, and has Congress been informed to the extent that contractors are involved in intelligence activities? . . . We at least need to get an accurate picture of what's being contracted." Price has requested a Government Accountability Office investigation of private security contractors in Iraq, including Aegis. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, has requested an audit of Aegis by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

Clapp said the Army Corps of Engineers had a small role in running the Reconstruction Operations Center. He said it was difficult for the military to ensure that security companies follow regulations to report all shooting incidents through Aegis. "You have to take it with a grain of salt," he said. "Some of the companies clearly underreport."

In addition, Blackwater USA and DynCorp International, two of the largest security firms in Iraq and both American companies, refuse to participate in the Reconstruction Operations Center, essentially making their movements invisible to other private security firms. (Blackwater bid on the new contract, then filed a protest with the GAO when it was eliminated from the competition.) Blackwater said that its movements are tracked by the military under separate U.S. government contracts and that it thus does not need to participate. DynCorp said it also is monitored separately.

The idea for the center originated after four Blackwater employees were ambushed in the city of Fallujah in March 2004; their charred remains were strung from a bridge overlooking the Euphrates River. The U.S. military was unaware at the time that the security contractors were traveling in the area.

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