Private War : Convoy to Darkness
Cutting Costs, Bending Rules, And a Trail of Broken Lives
Sunday, July 29, 2007
BAGHDAD -- The convoy was ambushed in broad daylight last Nov. 16, dozens of armed men swarming over 37 tractor-trailers stretching for more than a mile on southern Iraq's main highway. The attackers seized four Americans and an Austrian employed by Crescent Security Group, a small private security firm. Then they fled.
None of the hostages has been found, eight months after one of the largest and most brazen kidnappings of Americans since the March 2003 invasion.
Crescent is shuttered, like dozens of other companies that have come and gone in Iraq's booming market for private security services. The firm leaves behind a trail of broken lives and a record of alleged misconduct. In March, the U.S. military barred Crescent from U.S. bases after it was found with weapons prohibited for private security companies, including rocket launchers and grenades, according to documents and interviews with former Crescent employees and U.S. officials.
An investigation by The Washington Post found that Crescent violated U.S. military regulations while being paid millions of dollars to support the U.S.-led mission in Iraq. The company routinely sacrificed safety to cut costs. On the day of the kidnappings, just seven Crescent guards protected the immense convoy as it drove through southern Iraq, a force that security experts described as inadequate to fend off a major attack.
Former senior managers with Crescent denied any wrongdoing and said the guards who were seized had been well equipped and simply failed to thwart the kidnappers.
"We pretty much catered to them. We spoiled them," said Scott Schneider, the company's former director of security. "You know, basically the operators screwed up," he added. "I mean, you hate to speak ill of people, but the way the situation transpired, they just made mistake after mistake" as the convoy came under attack.
Schneider oversaw Crescent's security operations for more than two years, despite having pleaded guilty, according to court records, to misdemeanor charges of breaking and entering and domestic violence in Michigan in the mid-1990s. Under U.S. law, it is a felony for domestic violence offenders to carry firearms, a prohibition that was adopted by the Defense Department for military and civilian personnel.
Crescent's managing partner, Franco Picco, said he fired Schneider, who earned $10,000 a month, after becoming aware of his criminal background shortly after the kidnappings.
Based in Kuwait City, about an hour from Iraq's southern border, Crescent was formed in 2003, part of a security industry that mushroomed overnight in Iraq in response to troop shortages and mounting insurgent attacks. By this year, the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, a trade group based in Baghdad's Green Zone, listed 177 active foreign and Iraqi security companies. The Pentagon has said that some 20,000 security contractors support the U.S.-led coalition, although some estimates are considerably higher.
The industry is largely unregulated by the U.S. and Iraqi governments, leaving companies to establish their own standards for operating on the battlefield.
This article is based on two eyewitness accounts of the ambush, company documents and interviews with former Crescent employees, including the four missing Americans. Two weeks before they were taken, the men expressed growing concern for their personal safety to a reporter traveling with them in Iraq.
"We're not the badasses we used to think we were," said one of them, Paul Reuben, now 40, a former Marine from Buffalo, Minn., sitting in his Kuwait City dormitory on the eve of a convoy mission. "I realize I'm vulnerable."