By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Most of the more than 100 private security companies in Iraq open fire far more frequently than has been publicly acknowledged and rarely report such incidents to U.S. or Iraqi authorities, according to U.S. officials and current and former private security company employees.
Violence caused by private security guards in Iraq has come under scrutiny since a Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad involving employees of Blackwater USA. The company's chairman, Erik Prince, told a congressional committee Tuesday that Blackwater guards opened fire on 195 occasions during more than 16,000 missions in Iraq since 2005.
However, two former Blackwater security guards said they believed employees fired more often than the company has disclosed. One, a former Blackwater guard who spent nearly three years in Iraq, said his 20-man team averaged "four or five" shootings a week, or several times the rate of 1.4 incidents a week reported by the company. The underreporting of shooting incidents was routine in Iraq, according to this former guard.
"The thing is, even the good companies, how many bad incidents occurred where guys involved didn't say anything, because they didn't want to be questioned, or have any downtime today to have to go over what happened yesterday?" he said. "I'm sure there were some companies that just didn't report anything."
The former Blackwater guards and other private security workers spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns they would be unable to obtain future employment in the security industry. In addition, Blackwater employees reportedly sign an agreement pledging not to divulge confidential information; violations can result in a $250,000 fine imposed by the company.
Tens of thousands of private security guards operate in Iraq under a multitude of contracts, each with its own regulations. Defense and State Department contracts require security companies to report all weapons discharges, but few comply fully, according to U.S. officials and security company employees. Two company officials familiar with the system estimated that as few as 15 percent of all shooting incidents are reported, although both cautioned that it was impossible to know exactly how many incidents go unreported.
Out of nearly 30 security companies under Defense Department authority, only "a handful" have reported weapons discharges, said Maj. Kent Lightner of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who monitors shooting incidents involving security companies under military contracts. Lightner said the lack of reporting undermines statistics the military compiles on shooting incidents. Through May, the military had reported 207 such incidents over the previous 12 months.
"In my civilian life, if I were doing a process analysis on this thing, I would say, 'You know what, these numbers are suspect in terms of which companies are having the most incidents and what type of incidents they are,' " Lightner said during a recent interview in Baghdad.
Col. Timothy Clapp, who preceded Lightner as director of the Reconstruction Operations Center, which tracks the movements of private security firms under Defense Department contracts, said reported incidents were usually limited to a few companies, including two British firms, Aegis Defence Services and ArmorGroup International.
Clapp said military officials became temporarily concerned last year that Aegis, which protects Corps of Engineers officials on reconstruction projects, was "out of control" because the company reported so many incidents. But Clapp said the numbers were skewed because Aegis conducts many more missions than other companies and because other companies rarely or never report shooting incidents.
"In their contracts, it says they are supposed to report, but whether they do or not is up to them," he said.
Lightner said responsibility for investigating shooting incidents involving companies under Defense Department contracts falls first to the company itself, then to the contracting officer.
U.S. officials and security company representatives said they were especially concerned about firms that operate beyond the radar of U.S. and Iraqi authorities. David Horner, who worked for Crescent Security Group, a company based in Kuwait City, said that after being attacked with a roadside bomb in a town north of Baghdad, Crescent employees fired their automatic weapons preemptively whenever they passed through the town.
"I know that I personally never saw anyone shoot at us, but we blazed through that town all the time," said Horner, 55, a truck driver from Visalia, Calif. "Personally I did not take aim at one person. But I don't know what everybody else did. We'd come back at the end of the day, and a lot of times we were out of ammo."
Horner said he did not believe any of the incidents were reported to the military. He said he quit after one of Crescent's Iraqi employees fired a belt-fed PK machine gun from the bed of Horner's truck and hit what appeared to be two members of the Iraqi National Guard.
"I was like, 'Oh man, we shot some of our own guys,' " Horner said. He said he consulted with the Crescent team leader as the two Iraqis writhed in pain, one shot in the legs, the other with "a bullet or two in his shoulder." Soldiers from a nearby Iraqi army checkpoint were approaching to investigate.
"Let's get the [expletive] out of here," Horner quoted the team leader as saying before the Crescent team drove off.
"That was my last mission," Horner said. "I wasn't over there to wreck somebody's life. There was too much cowboying going on. I really didn't know if we had made things worse over there. More than likely we did; that was my feeling."
Crescent officials have denied any wrongdoing to the military after the company was forced to suspend operations in Iraq this year because of weapons violations.
Private security guards said the question of whether to shoot often depends on split-second decisions that can mean life or death not only for them but also for those around them. Most incidents, they said, occur when a vehicle comes close to a security convoy, forcing guards to determine whether the vehicle represents a potential car bomb or merely an erratic driver.
In the Sept. 16 incident, Iraqi witnesses have said Blackwater guards fired on a white sedan carrying a doctor and her adult son after the car failed to slow down as it approached a traffic circle. In May, a Blackwater team shot and killed a civilian driver outside the Interior Ministry; the guards told investigators that the car had driven too close to their convoy and appeared to represent a threat.
CPA Memorandum 17, signed in June 2004 by L. Paul Bremer, the departing chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority that ran the occupation, describes the "binding Rules for the Use of Force that must be adhered to by all PSC [private security companies], their officers and employees." The memo prescribes a series of graduated steps, including verbal warnings, physical restraint and displaying weapons. In recent years, security guards have resorted to firing pen flares, throwing water bottles, using air horns and sirens, and displaying signs warning drivers to maintain a safe distance.
In practice, the rules of force often vary from company to company and even team to team, said current and former guards. One former Blackwater guard said the rules of force for Blackwater employees on State Department contracts -- including those involved in the Sept. 16 incident -- differed from those for Blackwater guards on non-State contracts.
State Department contracts advise employees to fire "aimed shots," as outlined in CPA Memorandum 17, according to the former employee. Those shots were often designed to disable the oncoming vehicle. But the rules, which were crafted to minimize civilian casualties, also preclude firing warning shots into the air or into the ground, tactics that also might alert a driver who had strayed too close.
"From the State Department perspective, they're looking at it as a liability thing: What happens to that round when it goes downrange," said one of the former Blackwater security guards. "I was like: 'Look, give them a chance. Not every Iraqi in a car that's near you is a bad guy.' The guy whose car you shoot up today is also the guy who could be planting an IED [improvised explosive device] tomorrow. And the only reason he changed sides now is the car that took him 10 years of life savings to buy, now you've destroyed it."
Of the 195 incidents cited by Prince and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, 162 resulted in property damage, according to a memo released Monday by the committee.
Procedures for reporting shooting incidents also often varied, according to current and former guards. "It's almost like a case of cover your ass," the former Blackwater guard said. "It's like, 'These guys did this, they filled out this report, we have documentation on it, and unless anybody else says anything, it's in this file here.' "
Lightner, the Army major who monitors shooting incidents, said he thought the number of reported incidents was in some ways insignificant. "Other than entertainment value, I don't see why I need to be all that worried about the number of incidents, as long as they were legitimate," he said. "If they were incidents of wrongdoing, then that's a different story."
Lightner said he usually accepted the company's version of events. "If they're reporting firing a weapon, and there's no wrongdoing, and they operated according to the law, then God bless 'em, drive on," he said. "If Aegis sends me a report and says, 'Bad guys shot at us, we shot back and dropped two of them,' I'm not going to investigate. I'm not going to worry about it, unless somebody comes back and says, 'Yeah, they dropped two children, or they dropped a woman.' "
Staff writer Alec Klein and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.