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In Iraq, a Private Realm Of Intelligence-Gathering

Jack Holly, a retired Marine colonel who heads the Army Corps of Engineers' logistics directorate, said the center was originally envisioned as "a fusion organization for all of the information gathered among the private security companies." The information would be useful to both the military and thousands of private security contractors who operate on Iraq's supply routes and face the same insurgent threats.

But Holly said the usefulness of the center has been limited because each time a company provides intelligence, it is classified secret by the military and not distributed. This has deterred the private security contractors from participating, since they don't benefit from intelligence collected by the center. "Our perception was that the military would have a huge repository of added intel, which they could then pass on," Holly said. "But they prevented anyone from wanting to participate, and so it's never happened."

Holly said the center has been reduced to "a great display board of tracking. It's like, 'Come watch the lights move.' "

Aegis's Lewis acknowledged, "We can't disseminate classified information, so that is problematic for us." He said he is not certain how the military uses the information compiled through the center. "All that stuff is shoveled to" the Army Corps of Engineers, he said. "It's literally: 'Here it is. Do what you can.' Whatever happens to it after that is their business."

Three years ago, Aegis was an unlikely choice to run the center. The company had been co-founded in 2002 by Spicer, who commanded the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, a British army unit, and served in Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, the Persian Gulf War and Bosnia. Spicer titled his autobiography "An Unorthodox Soldier."

Spicer's experiences in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone are documented in multiple accounts, including Spicer's autobiography and Aegis's Web site.

In 1997, the government of Papua New Guinea hired Spicer and his former private military company, Sandline International, for $36 million to train and equip forces to put down a rebel movement that had closed a major copper mine. Rather than quelling the rebellion, Sandline's presence sparked civil unrest; Spicer was briefly jailed on a weapons charge that was subsequently dropped. The prime minister of the government that hired him soon fell. Spicer said he was supporting a legitimately elected government.

The following year, Sandline was contacted by an international businessman, Rakesh Saxena, to reinstate the elected government of Sierra Leone, which Saxena hoped would grant him diamond and mineral concessions. The operation was successful, but allegations that Spicer violated a U.N. weapons embargo caused a scandal that came to be known in Britain as the "Sandline Affair." Spicer says he conducted the operation with the British government's knowledge.

"Tim Spicer is a mercenary," said Robert Young Pelton, an adventure writer whose book "Licensed to Kill" is about the private security industry. "Didn't anyone Google him?"

Spicer declined to be interviewed.

After winning the U.S. Army contract, Aegis almost immediately ran into problems. A special inspector audit found that the company failed to perform adequate background checks on some Iraqi employees. The company said it had just won the contract and immediately addressed the issue. Then, in October 2005, a video surfaced on the Internet, showing a security contractor allegedly employed by Aegis firing near civilian vehicles to the Elvis Presley song "Mystery Train." Aegis said that it investigated the incident and found that the video was posted by a disgruntled employee who was let go.

But criticism of the company has since subsided. Aegis said it has conducted more than 21,000 private security details without any casualties to Army Corps of Engineers personnel. Holly, who has been in Iraq for 3 1/2 years, said Aegis "came in and it was like: 'We're gonna do this. Were gonna do that. Don't tell us how to do this.' It was almost like they were saying: 'We're here, her majesty's representative. Screw you and the colonies.' It's hard to embrace that.

"But when we sit here today, and I look at how Aegis has matured and evolved as a company and as a private security organization, I'd say they are pretty damn good. They have created an architecture" of security and intelligence.

Klein reported from Washington. Staff researchers Julie Tate in Washington and Richard Drezen in New York contributed to this report.

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