THE BLACKWATER USA security company was a polarizing force in Iraq and in Washington well before its personnel engaged in a controversial shootout in downtown Baghdad last month that left at least 11 Iraqi civilians dead. State Department personnel who rely on more than 800 of the firm's guards for safe travel around Iraq say they appreciate its work; none of those guarded by Blackwater has been killed, though 30 of its own personnel have died. But uniformed U.S. military officers understandably resent the private fighters, who tend to be preening and much better paid than the average soldier. Army sources grumble that Blackwater plays by far more aggressive rules than U.S. troops and needlessly alienates Iraqis. Congressional Democrats despise the firm because it symbolizes the private contracting of military missions that many oppose in principle. Like the services contractor Halliburton, Blackwater also has Republican connections that make it an even more inviting target.
The latest shooting incident -- one of at least five this year in which Blackwater guards have killed Iraqis -- is still under investigation by a U.S.-Iraqi commission. Teams from the State Department (which is getting FBI help) and the Pentagon are conducting separate reviews of private security contractors. Already, though, it seems clear that Blackwater's critics are right in one important respect: There are inadequate controls over security firms, especially those working for the State Department. A decree by the coalition occupation authority early in the war exempted U.S contractors from Iraqi laws, and it's not clear that Blackwater guards working for the State Department are covered in practice by U.S. statutes that govern behavior by American soldiers. This needs to be corrected. Even if a proposed Iraqi law governing private contractors does not go forward, Congress and the Bush administration should ensure that those who kill innocent Iraqis or engage in other criminal excesses can be held legally accountable. Moreover, U.S. diplomats and military commanders should exercise more control over the guards who work for them, with the aim of preventing them from needlessly alienating Iraqis.
At the same time it is foolish to propose the elimination of private security firms in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least in the short term. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed out at a recent congressional hearing, the downsizing of the U.S. military has left the Army without enough people to perform many specialized tasks -- of which VIP security is one. More than 130,000 contractors serve the U.S. mission in Iraq, including some 30,000 security guards, and without them it would be impossible for U.S. forces to function. For some time to come, Blackwater or other security companies will be needed to protect senior U.S. diplomats and other personnel. The focus of the current reviews should be ensuring that they conform to the standards governing U.S. troops and can be held accountable when they commit excesses.