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PBS Frontline: "Private Warriors"

Martin Smith
PBS Frontline Producer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005 11:00 AM

FRONTLINE returns to Iraq, this time to embed with Halliburton/KBR, and to take a hard look at private contractors like Blackwater, Aegis, Erinys, and Custer Battles, who play an increasingly critical role in running U.S. military supply lines, providing armed protection, and operating U.S. military bases. These private warriors are targeted by insurgents and in turn have been criticized for their rough treatment of Iraqi civilians. Their dramatic story illuminates the Pentagon's new reliance on corporate outsourcing and raises tough questions about where they fit in the chain of command and the price we are paying for their role in the war.

The film aired Tuesday, June 21, at 9 p.m. on PBS: PBS Frontline.

PBS Frontline producer Martin Smith was online Wednesday, June 22, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film.

A transcript follows.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: How much did the program cost to produce?

Your point is well taken, now when will an equivalent coverage be given of the $18.4 billion that is being spent to rebuild schools, hospitals, power plants, infrastructure of Iraq? The federal government is not telling us that either and our local newspaper does not have enough funds to research the story (They say that The Washington Post does have the resources).

Martin Smith: FRONTLINE's cost in a range of $350,000 to 500,000. This one cost around $489,000. We would have liked to report on reconstruction and we approached Bechte with this in mind. In the end we had better access to KBR and went with a story about military contracting.

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Toronto, Canada: Mr. Smith, after watching your compelling documentary last night I was wondering if you would like to comment on how much Iraq has changed since you and your crew filmed Beyond Baghdad. I gather it would be suicide to try that trip now.

Martin Smith: The insurgency and the level of danger ebbs and flows. It has changed a lot since we were first there in 2003. This trip was in April of 05 just as things were heating up. You feel safe in the camps, more or less, but on the roads it is very unnerving. You are correct that the kind of traveling we did for Beyond Baghdad, crossing the country over a 6 week period in unarmored cars with no guards would be inviting disaster.

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Eugene, Ore.: Good Morning, Mr. Smith:

Is there any breakdown of how many ex-military are employed as private contractors? Also, which nation holds a preponderance in this field?

Martin Smith: The U.S. and England are the most active participants in the private security industry. As to logistics functions KBR is the dominant contractor by far and most of the former military hires are American. Peter Singer at the Brookings Institution might have some more insight in his book, Corporate Warriors.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Can you comment on Dick Cheney's recent remarks about Iraq's insurgency being in it's "last throws"?

Martin Smith: I think Dick Cheney has to address this question. But, seems overly pollyannaish to me. General Myers has given a far more sober assessment in saying that the insurgency today is as strong as it was a year ago. Terry Moran of ABC News asked Scott McClellan the other days just what the VP meant by final throes. He didn't get much of an answer.

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Bethesda, Md.: How many people were you traveling with?

Martin Smith: In Iraq I traveled with 2 others. Producer Marcela Gaviria and cameraman Tim Grucza. It's important to travel light. In the U.S. Scott Anger did the shooting.

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Are there bills in Congress to regulate PMIs?: Are there bills in Congress to regulate PMIs? I have asked Sen. Tom Harkin to write a bill to govern these firms but the Democrats seem more concerned with KBR (Halliburton) than writing legislation to govern these firms. Peter Singer wrote an excellent book about private military firms. What evidence is there that these firms are cost savings and what role does high tech weaponry play in their hiring? News reports have the bodyguard business booming in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are there conflicts with the U.S. military? Can you get company records and reports like one can with our government? What is America getting?

Martin Smith: Congressman David Price of North Carolina has introduced a bill but you should get in touch with his office to learn more about it. It has not yet gone to a vote. As to your question about cost savings, the answer is long and complex. See FRONTLINE's Web site - www.frontline.org for more on this. Getting company reports is difficult as they have no real obligation to share. We got hold of some internal documents through a source inside the government and through some attorneys who procured material during discovery in contract related court cases.

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Big Pine Key, Fla.: Martin, I watched the Frontline program last night, and my impression was that generally only armed parties leave the defended bases, and even then they take great risks.

Yet today, the Houston Chronicle quotes Rep. Tom DeLay comparing the security situation in Iraq to Houston, Texas. Mr. DeLay says "Everybody that comes from Iraq is amazed at the difference of what they see on the ground and what they see on the television set." He also suggests that more people go to Iraq to see what's really happening.

I Googled cab rates in Houston, and a 6-mile ride should cost less than $30 with tip, while I've read that the ride from the Green Zone to the Baghdad airport can cost upwards of $5,000.

What's your reaction to Mr. DeLay's Statement, and what did you pay for your ride to the Baghdad airport?

Martin Smith: We are ready to visit Iraq with Tom Delay anytime. Then we'll compare notes. I don't know what he's referring to. Two to three US soldiers die there every single day. As to what it costs to get to the airport, Erinys says they do a one way run for $1,500.

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Arlington, Va.: The show was amazing, thanks so much for putting it together. I just wanted to ask how you felt about being in Baghdad, is this a situation where we can eventually restore some sort of order? Why can't coalition forces secure these roads? That seems to me to be a top priority.

Martin Smith: Eventually things change. But this is far from over. I think that it is very important that the Sunni leadership remains engaged in the political process. If they throw in the towel and abandon the constitutional and legislative process then there is no preventing civil war. As for the securing of roads. We all ask the same question. It is a measure of how far we have to go.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Sir, Is there a gauge on the effectiveness of private contractors versus say the U.S. Army or Marines in providing security and avoiding casualties in Iraq? I'm just curious to see a head-to-head comparison between the two groups taking into account various factors such as number of casualties, man hours spent in reconstruction, etc., etc. Thanks for your time.

Martin Smith: Difficult to say. I have no statistics. All I can say is that several generals and diplomats prefer private contractors. Or they simply can't find enough soldiers to do the job. Some officers tell me private guards are better. But numbers for comparison's sake are impossible to come by as things are so chaotic. Reporting by the companies is spotty.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks so much for this wonderful program. I have been hungry to understand why and how much we have privatized our war and this program helped a lot with the how much. But the why still seems quite mystifying. One might imagine it's to save money, yet if you pay someone $500/day to do something a soldier would do for 10 percent of that, you're not saving money. Do you have any insights beyond that presented in your program.

Martin Smith: Again, I'll refer this to FRONTLINE's Web site which does an excellent job of furthering this discussions. Clearly some things cost more but there are many factors. Peak and off peak demand fluctuations, pensions, training etc. See www.frontline.org.

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Arlington, Va.: It appears that almost all the Americans -- military and civilians -- are isolated from contact with average Iraqis by the security situation and our desire to build big base camps. How can we know what the Iraqis want and what kind of political arrangements they are willing to accept if we can not even engage them? Our base camps do appear to be "Little Americas". The tooth-to-tale logistics footprint appears to be too large because it must also support the "Little Americas." I remember when I was a infantry platoon leader, involved with supporting Nixon's "Vietnamization" of the war by training Vietnamese militia and paramilitary types. We lived in the field with them, trained them in the daytime and went on ambush patrols with them in the nights. We knew who they were and could interact with the people. We could see the conditions under which the people lived. We could collect intelligence and the ground truth. Is anyone doing that in Iraq?

Martin Smith: There are cultural, procedural differences inside the military establishment. The army has led the way in constructing large bases isolated from the population while the Marines have taken a different approach. You will notice that in the program the criticisms of outsourcing come from Marine commanders and from some army soldiers. But, not from former army officers many of whom cycle out into private sector contracting. Your insights are especially valuable given your on the ground experience in Vietnam. Thank you.

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New York, N.Y.: What is the name of the contractor you filmed, who was killed later on, during the filming of your program? It is sad that there was not even a mention of his name. May he RIP.. Thank you.

Martin Smith: We wanted to tell you in order to pay tribute to the man. We had agreed to film under the restriction that we didn't identify the company or its guards. After he died we asked the company again to let us use his name. They refused. We showed his face only after I called and spoke to his wife alerting her that we would be doing so. She was gracious and pleased that we acknowledging his work. We have promised to send her all the footage we shot of her late husband.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Smith, Based upon your travels and research, would you care to judge whether a shift to contractors performing "traditional" military operations was a good concept -- just perhaps poorly executed in Iraq -- or should the public buy back some of the goods we have outsourced to the private sector? Great show. Well done, sir.

Martin Smith: I am not an expert. But just tried to ask the right questions of the right people. I do not subscribe to all the conspiracy theories about the war was for the benefit Halliburton etc.. Certainly if we are going to have an all volunteer force outsourcing seems inevitable. One issue we wanted to get into the program but failed to include was that after downsizing the military in the early nineties many of the people who manage and monitor contractors were let go. Then after 9/11 when outsourcing picked up they were not hired back. On the Web site, www.frontline.org see the interview with Prof. Steven Schooner. He's got some good points to make in regard to this matter.

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Houston, Tex.: On the Marines taking a different approach -- wrong. They live in bases that were established by the Army under OIF 1 and have continued to improve them. On your next visit stop by the bases in Al Asad, and Ar Ramadi. You will find identical facilities to that of the Army.

Martin Smith: This is true. You are correct. The bases at Asad and Ramadi are Marine bases and have the kinds of facilities you see at Anaconda. But if you talk to Marine leadership there is unease at this approach. See the interview with Col. Hammes on the Web site for example.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Do you know if this will be re-broadcast? I missed it on all four of our Georgia PBS stations last night (only got the last 17 minutes!). Thanks..

Martin Smith: You'll have to contact your local PBS station. It will be streamed on line starting this afternoon at www.frontline.org. There is also a producer's commentary available there as well.

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St. Paul, Minn.: We know someone now working in Iraq who says that there are way too many contractors for the amount of work to be done - - this is on a base in support roles and that waste of materials is massive. Did you observe this as well?

Martin Smith: I had a hard time judging in the 5 day embed with KBR whether people were wasting time. Your contact is in a better position to know than me.

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Portland, Ore.: Thank you for being brave enough to go, repeatedly, into a hostile war zone and be brave enough to air this topic on OPB/PBS. It is unbelievable how much certain individuals and companies stand to gain at the expense of a our country's dignity. My question is if we begin outsourcing wars how soon before we begin outsourcing our own police forces, National Guard, etc.? Your thoughts?

Martin Smith: I don't think it's so simple. What are we going to do? The army didn't really downsize, it outsourced. The only way to mount an operation like Enduring Freedom is to use contractors. Or reinstate the draft. Are we ready as a country to have this discussion? Remarkable about this conflict is that most Americans have not been asked to make sacrifices. Unless we count the tax burden on future generations. And of course those families who have lost husbands, wives, sons and daughters, father and mothers.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: How targeted are the insurgent bombings in Iraq, that is, about what percent of the time are the targets U.S. military personnel, what percent are aimed at the private security forces and the people they're protecting, and what percent are targeted towards Iraqi civilians?

Martin Smith: Good question but I haven't done the analysis. FRONTLINE is doing a program for next season on the insurgency which may get into this area.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: You mention in the show that truck drivers are now recommended to carry arms. Civilian contractors, in other words, have become de facto military contractors. Can you describe anything any truck drivers conveyed to you as to how they cope with this - what psychological and practical strategies they employ to get through their work?

Martin Smith: What we found among all the truckers was great reliance on each other for support and comfort. We mention the fact that they are now trained in using weapons to underscore the irony of hiring civilians to replace soldiers and then ending up training them to be soldiers.

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Lansing, Mich.: Mr. Smith, Is it your impression that the U.S. government's reliance on private contractors is likely to increase in the future, given that any reintroduction of a military draft here is unlikely?

Martin Smith: Well, depends how many deployments we are going to undertake. But, I know this is being debated inside the Pentagon. One of the great problems is the revolving door whereby so many officers depend on rotating out into the private sector after "retiring" to make better money. This skews their perception as clients. The whole thing needs looking at. Hard.

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New York, N.Y.: I really appreciate your efforts to picture the real costs of Iraq and the relationship between war and business. Will the real costs will be more or less permanently obscured through complex affiliations and secrecy? It seems hard to take in, quantify, and teach how much damage the "big winners" of war business are able to manage far away our of our sight. Thank you for taking the extensive research/communication risks.

Martin Smith: Thank you.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Are there similar private contractors in Afghanistan as there are in Iraq?

Martin Smith: Yes, Not as many but many of the same companies are involved. Blackwater, KBR etc.

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Houston, Tex.: You asked a COL at Anaconda about the cost of food. What portion of that cost was food cost and what portion was the cost associated with running the mess hall? The provision of food is an Army contract not a KBR contract.

Martin Smith: I don't have it broken down. But the KBR costs include, food costs, shipping, cooking, cleaning, overhead and profit.

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Nashville, Tenn.: I was amazed when I read of the incident involving 16 Zapata contractors in which U.S. Marines seemingly acted against their better interests by locking up the very people who were disposing of explosives used to make I.E.D.'s killing their fellow Marines. If one attributes this behavior to salary envy, what does this portend for Sen. McCain's suggestion to dramatically increase pay to meet recruitment goals? Will war then break out among our own troops over paycheck stubs? What would be the cost of paying our entire military like contractors?

Martin Smith: You've identified a good issue in that by privatizing the military has entered the marketplace and will have to endure all its consequences. Clearly the market will drive the cost of soldiering much higher. Many soldiers serve for patriotic reasons only and are pained and resentful of those private contractors next to them making so much more.

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Orlando, Fla.: I have recently returned from LSA Anaconda, where I worked as a civilian contractor. You hit on one of the questions that I wondered about while over there. I routinely ate at DFAC1 where you filmed and greatly enjoyed the ice cream they served me, but at what cost? Were our soldiers protecting the convoy so I could have ice cream? While the "luxuries" we received were appreciated, could we have survived without them?

My perception of things is that the Army didn't know what to do with their contractors. In a way, we were true volunteers over there, each and every one of us decided that we wanted to be there. but we were not inclined to live our lives according to the military structure. The discipline required to motivate an 19-year old to get in a truck and drive outside the wire where he is like a duck in a shooting range, does not work on their civilian counterparts. When we did not respect them because of rank, they didn't know what to do, so they threatened to fire everyone, daily. The operation I was involved with, production dropped 50-60% when the Army took over daily operations. The business model which works for the military, does not work in other areas of what is going on over there. Former and retired military, who worked as contractors, seemed to adjust better to the military "irregularities" than us who had never enlisted or served in the military.

Will I go back? Yes. Is their waste happening over there? Yes. Is us being over there, both military and civilian, important to the people of Iraq and U.S.? Yes.

Martin Smith: Thanks for sharing this. Your insights are very valuable.

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New York, N.Y.: I read that the issue surrounding meals was solved between KBR and the Gov. Why did you not report that? You only reported the allegation -- not the conclusion.

Martin Smith: Not true. We reported KBR's position they served meals that were not consumed. More response on this question is posted on our Web site.

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Martin Smith: I have to go now. Thanks to all of you for writing. A discussion continues on the FRONTLINE Web site and I'll be reading comments there.

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