Correction to This Article
A version of this article that appeared in the newspaper today incorrectly spelled the name of Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Page 2 of 4   <       >

Warnings Unheeded On Guards In Iraq

U.S. officials argue that security contractors save money and free up troops for more urgent tasks, such as fighting insurgents. "Certainly there have been moments of frustration where people here have said, 'Maybe we should just take over the whole operation, even if it stretches our forces more,' " Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "But the reality is that we think our resources are better utilized taking it to the bad guys than guarding warehouses and escorting convoys."

The State Department investigated previous Blackwater shootings and found no indication of wrongdoing, according to a senior official involved in security matters. He said the U.S. Embassy discussed any concerns the Iraqi government had about the company's conduct. "I'm not aware of the significant warnings," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing investigations related to the Sept. 16 shooting.

The Defense Department has paid $2.7 billion for private security since 2003, according to USA Spending, a government-funded project that tracks contracting expenditures; the military said it currently employs 17 companies in Iraq under contracts worth $689.7 million. The State Department has paid $2.4 billion for private security in Iraq -- including $1 billion to Blackwater -- since 2003, USA Spending figures show.

On Dec. 5, the State and Defense departments signed a memorandum of agreement designed to increase cooperation between the two and better define their authority over private security contractors. The nine-page agreement, which was approved by Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces there, for the first time set common guidelines for reporting serious incidents, the use of deadly force, coordination on the battlefield and possession of firearms.

But the laws governing security contractors still have not been clarified. On Sept. 30, 2006, Congress passed a provision aimed at giving the military authority over all contractors in Iraq, including Blackwater. But the provision has not been implemented by the Pentagon. The 15-month delay "has led to much confusion over who will be covered . . . and has called into question whether the Department plans to utilize this provision," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who sponsored the provision, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates shortly after the Sept. 16 incident.

The Pentagon is studying whether the provision can withstand legal scrutiny, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Contractors in Combat

In previous wars, the Pentagon had prohibited contractors from participating in combat. But in Iraq, military planners rewrote the policy to match the reality on the ground. On Sept. 20, 2005, the military issued an order authorizing contractors to use deadly force to protect people and assets. In June 2006, the order was codified as an "interim rule" in the Federal Register. It took effect immediately without public debate.

Critics, including the American Bar Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned that the Pentagon had used an obscure defense acquisition rule to push through a fundamental shift in American war-fighting without fully considering the potential legal and strategic ramifications.

The provision enabled the military to significantly raise troop levels with contractors whose "combat roles now closely parallel those of Constitutionally and Congressionally authorized forces," wrote Herbert L. Fenster, a partner with McKenna Long & Aldridge, a Washington-based international law firm that represents several major defense contractors. Fenster questioned the provision's legality in a lengthy comment he filed in opposition. The practice "smacks of a mercenary approach," he wrote in an e-mail.

But neither the military nor the State Department set guidelines for regulating tens of thousands of hired guns on the battlefield. Oversight was left to overburdened government contracting officers or the companies themselves, which conducted their own investigations when a shooting incident occurred. Dozens of security companies operated under layers of subcontracts that often made their activities all but impossible to track. They were accountable to no one for violent incidents, according to U.S. officials and security company representatives familiar with the contracting arrangements.

U.S. officials often turned to the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, a trade group funded by the security companies. Lawrence T. Peter, a retired Navy intelligence officer, served as the association's director while also working as a consultant to the Pentagon's Defense Reconstruction Support Office, which administers contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, said Peter earned "a few thousand dollars a year" as a consultant.

The association operated out of an office inside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Logistics Directorate in the Green Zone. Jack Holly, a retired Marine colonel who heads corps logistics in Iraq, said that Peter and the association play "a critical role to help the private security community improve and regulate itself," adding, "They tried to fill a void that had been left by the U.S. government's failure to recognize the problem."

<       2           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company