A version of this article that appeared in the newspaper today incorrectly spelled the name of Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Warnings Unheeded On Guards In Iraq
VIDEO | Student Questions Bush About Private Contractors
Monday, December 24, 2007
The U.S. government disregarded numerous warnings over the past two years about the risks of using Blackwater Worldwide and other private security firms in Iraq, expanding their presence even after a series of shooting incidents showed that the firms were operating with little regulation or oversight, according to government officials, private security firms and documents.
The warnings were conveyed in letters and memorandums from defense and legal experts and in high-level discussions between U.S. and Iraqi officials. They reflected growing concern about the lack of control over the tens of thousands of private guards in Iraq, the largest private security force ever employed by the United States in wartime.
Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department took substantive action to regulate private security companies until Blackwater guards opened fire Sept. 16 at a Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and provoking protests over the role of security contractors in Iraq.
"Why is it they couldn't see this coming?" said Christopher Beese, chief administrative officer for ArmorGroup International, a British security firm with extensive operations in Iraq. "That amazes me. Somebody -- it could have been military officers, it could have been State -- anybody could have waved a flag and said, 'Stop, this is not good news for us.' "
Private security firms rushed into Iraq after the March 2003 invasion. The U.S. military, which entered the country with 130,000 troops, needed additional manpower to protect supply convoys, military installations and diplomats. Private security companies appeared "like mushrooms after a rainstorm," recalled Michael J. Arrighi, who has worked in private security in Iraq since 2004.
Last year, the Pentagon estimated that 20,000 hired guns worked in Iraq; the Government Accountability Office estimated 48,000.
On Feb. 7, 2006, Blackwater guards allegedly killed three Kurdish civilians outside the northern city of Kirkuk. That incident triggered demonstrations outside the U.S. Consulate and led Rizgar Ali, president of the Kirkuk provincial council, to complain to U.S. authorities in Kirkuk and Baghdad, Ali said in an interview. The incident was one of several shootings that caused friction between the U.S. and Iraqi governments..
On Christmas Eve 2006, a Blackwater employee killed the bodyguard of an Iraqi vice president in the Green Zone. Six weeks later, a Blackwater sniper killed three security guards for the state-run media network. On May 24, a Blackwater team shot and killed a civilian driver outside the Interior Ministry gates, sparking an armed standoff between the Blackwater guards and Iraqi security forces in downtown Baghdad.
By June 6, concerns about Blackwater had reached Iraq's National Intelligence Committee, which included senior Iraqi and U.S. intelligence officials, including Maj. Gen. David B. Lacquement, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence. Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, who heads the Interior Ministry's intelligence directorate, called on U.S. authorities to crack down on private security companies.
U.S. military officials told Kamal that Blackwater was under State Department authority and outside their control, according to notes of the meeting. The matter was dropped.
"We set this thing up for failure from the beginning," said T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel who advised the new Iraqi army from January to March 2004. He added that private security guards regularly infuriated his Iraqi staff with their aggressive tactics and that he reported the problems "up the chain of command."
"We're just sorting it out now," Hammes said. "I still think, from a pure counterinsurgency standpoint, armed contractors are an inherently bad idea, because you cannot control the quality, you cannot control the action on the ground, but you're held responsible for everything they do."