Every day, President Bush trusts his life to U.S. government employees. At the White House, Secret Service agents and U.S. Marines protect him around the clock. Wherever he travels, he takes Secret Service with him. He uses Marine helicopters for short trips and Air Force aircraft for longer ones. And, for his medical care, there are Navy doctors on call.
Most U.S. diplomats, too, put their safety in the hands of people paid directly by Uncle Sam. Scores of American embassies and consulates around the world are patrolled by a joint force of civilian diplomatic security agents and fully armed units of U.S. Marines.
All of these security personnel, whether civil servants or uniformed military, are highly trained. And, by most all accounts, they do an exemplary job. They are swift and sure when force is necessary. They are also sensitive to civilians, whether confronting a line of impatient visa seekers or in the course of guarding the commander in chief. And, if there are any problems, they are accountable to a clear chain of command.
Yet, despite this solid reputation, they're mostly absent from Iraq. Instead, the top American diplomats there have relied on the hired guns of the increasingly swampy North Carolina private-security firm Blackwater USA. Since 2003, the State Department has paid Blackwater upwards of $832 million for security in Iraq. Today, Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince and three State Department officials are scheduled to appear before Congress to explain what that money paid for. The short answer? Gold-plated Rambos that are a slight to the U.S. government's in-house security personnel and a hindrance to U.S. policy goals.
If the State Department's attitude is any indication, clearly Blackwater and the two other major private contractors -- Dyncorp and Triple Canopy -- are the Cadillacs, maybe the Rolls Royces, of security. State has been happy to leave them to their own devices and send big checks. Written contracts (some of them no-bid) are vague, requiring "protection of U.S. and/or certain foreign government high-level officials whenever the need arises." Accountability is non-existent. After the Sept. 16 Blackwater shootout that reportedly left 11 Iraqi civilians dead and 14 wounded, the State Department couldn't say which laws -- Iraqi or American, if any -- the Blackwater agents were subject to.
And premiums for private security services are high. Court documents in one of several lawsuits filed by families of Blackwater agents killed in Iraq suggest that its triggermen are paid $600 a day -- or more than $150,000 a year. By contrast, a Marine gunnery sergeant, with say 15 years experience and maybe a couple of tours in Iraq's Anbar province under his belt, would make about $43,000. That discrepancy could be even higher, according to a report released yesterday by the Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The report cited a fee for each contractor of $1,222 a day or $445,000 a year and declared that a Blackwater guard is "over six times more than the cost of an equivalent soldier."
But even more costly are the harmful effects on U.S. policy. The arrogance and trigger-happy ways of the gold-plated Rambos are killing innocent Iraqis and destroying the good will that our uniformed troops up the road are fighting and dying for. Indeed, our diplomats had to hunker down in the Green Zone after the latest shootout. They feared for their lives, and the reaction of Iraqis, if they ventured out with Blackwater in tow.
State Department officials claim the situation is one of necessity. "[T]here is simply no way at all that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq," says the U.S. ambassador there, Ryan Crocker. "There is no alternative except through contracts." It's certainly true that civilian diplomatic security agents are a small force. But the most reliable estimates put the number of private security contractors protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq at less than 1,000. That's the equivalent of a battalion or less of Marines or soldiers. Surely the Pentagon, even given its shortages, could lend a battalion to protect senior diplomats doing the necessary political work in Iraq. It could also redirect some of the $20,000 enlistment bonuses now offered to green recruits and instead try to retain the senior soldiers and Marines leaving uniform to work for Blackwater.
Not all Marines are perfect; the ongoing courts martial of Marines accused in the killings of civilians at Haditha, Iraq, underscore that. Nor are all Blackwater employees criminals; many of them served with distinction in the armed forces. But by giving private security firms such special treatment, U.S. officials are implying that these private armies are better at their jobs than government security personnel. And, if you believe that, I have a few thousand Secret Service agents and U.S. Marines I'd like you to meet.
Patrick B. Pexton is deputy editor of National Journal.