Transcript

Private Armies: Security Contractors in Iraq

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Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Steve Fainaru was online Monday, July 30 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his coverage of the hidden, parallel war private security companies are fighting in Iraq.

Cutting Costs, Bending Rules, And a Trail of Broken Lives| For Abducted Guards, Iraq Wasn't Just About Money (Post, July 29-30)| Archive: Coverage of Private Contractors at War

The transcript follows.

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Steve Fainaru: Hi everyone. This is Steve Fainaru in Baghdad. I'm here to discuss private security contractors and their role in Iraq. Thanks for your questions. Here goes....

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Pensacola, Fla.: How many personnel from private security companies are currently in Iraq and the Middle East? Are these personnel exempt from U.S. laws (including the Uniform Code of Military Justice)? And if they do operate "outside the law," are there any efforts being made to make them accountable for their activities?

Steve Fainaru: We really don't know the answer to this fundamental question. The commonly used number is 20,000, but that has been circulating for more than three years. The issues are the lack of regulation and the diffuse nature of the contracts -- which are written by the military, the State Department, and various companies, and often are under many layers of subcontracting. So it's hard to count.

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San Francisco: Good morning, Mr. Fainaru, and thank you for chatting with us today. Is there evidence that there was a contractor surge accompanying the current troop surge? What's your reckoning of how many contractors are part of our occupation force in Iraq now?

Steve Fainaru: We looked at this issue in a recent story. The security companies seem to mirror the military in many respects, in response to the threat environment and the work. A lot of these companies operate on the main supply routes, where many of the attacks against coalition forces take place, and so as the surge has gotten underway the companies have surged in their own way, increasing manpower, acquiring more armor, etc.

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washingtonpost.com: Iraq Contractors Face Growing Parallel War (Post, June 16)

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Irbil, Northern Iraq: I have spotted few good stories reporters have written about private security contractors in Iraq, but too often stories are focusing only on those "bad apples" and Rambo impersonators who only drive their colleagues and clients into harms way. It would be nice to see more articles about the PSCs and the industry with proper research, foot- and brain-work used. Another thing that irritates me is the way certain newspapers and other media organizations despise companies with non-U.S. ownership -- don't get me wrong, we are not keen on seeing our company in headlines, but it would be nice to see once in a while more stories written about Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians and companies from other countries. I do not think that versatility would harm coverage -- it would bring a wider perspective about the industry.

Steve Fainaru: My own view is that the coverage has been all over the map. Part of the problem is that the companies are by definition private (except for rare exceptions like ArmorGroup), and so they're not seeking out a lot of publicity. It still amazes me that so little is known about the industry, given its importance to the mission in Iraq. Without private security, for example, the reconstruction effort, the buildup of the Iraqi security forces, force protection -- all of that implodes without private security, or there would need to be tens of thousands of additional troops. Our goal is to explain how the industry works, who participates, regulatory issues, the nature of the fighting in which the contractors are engaged. ... It's not really negative or positive, although of course many people see it that way, depending on the story.

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Aliso Viejo, Calif.: Steve, thank you for reporting on this. I am an active-duty Marine Officer. I have done one tour in Ramadi. The private security contractors make me and my friends sick. Without getting into a philosophical discussion, I do believe that killing in the name of profit is murder (as a Marine I do understand that some think any form of killing in murder -- I however do not). Profit and war are two things that never should coexist. Anyway, please keep the public informed on what really is going on in Iraq. Thanks.

Steve Fainaru: I think one of the more interesting issues here is the relationship between the security contractors and the military, which occupy the same battle-space -- and in many cases do the same jobs -- but operate under vastly different rules and are paid much differently. It has not been explored adequately yet.

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Fort Bragg, N.C.: Three sentences, if nothing else, sums up the attitude people have against contractors: "I hate to say it, but I am so thankful for this war. ... I only came over here for the money, and I didn't even know I could do this job until two years ago. I didn't know it was available to me." The attitude of contractors, even if it's just a financially mercenary few, helps turn off American support for the war -- and turn on a view that we're an occupying force -- regardless of who's employing the contractors. That said, if the locale is a war zone, then contractors are vulnerable to what happens in a war zone -- their status be damned -- and the occupying force (in this case the American military and now Iraqi government forces) have every right to rein them in and treat them as a hostile force.

Steve Fainaru: I agree that this was the most mind-blowing statement in both of our stories -- and it points up a larger issue, which is that the primary reason that security contractors are here is to make money. It's not a judgment, but simply a fact, and I think in many cases it skews the way they view the war and the American mission here.

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Arlington, Va.: My daughter was a friend of Jon Cote's in high school. Is there a possibility that Jon and his comrades are still alive?

washingtonpost.com: Video: Jonathon Cote on Why He Took the Job

Steve Fainaru: Yes, I think there is a possibility that Jon and his four colleagues are still alive. As the U.S. government said, there's no indication that they have been killed. Crescent's owner says he is convinced they are still alive. On the other hand, they have not been seen since a video that was aired on Jan. 3.

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Overseas: The news indicates two British security companies are in the lead to secure a $450 million U.S. contract. Most jobs in Iraq, especially security-oriented position require a Secret Security Clearance. How does the U.S. military, which interfaces with private security personnel, know they are dealing with qualified, vetted and cleared personnel?

washingtonpost.com: Two British Firms Are Finalists for U.S. Job in Iraq (Post, July 28)

Steve Fainaru: The contracting issue is extremely opaque, so it's hard to know. When you ask to see the contracts, the government often responds that they cannot be released because they relate to private companies. In addition, many of the contracts are actually subcontracts of primary contracts with Defense or the State Department.

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Tegucigalpa, Honduras: How much do you know about companies such as Triple Canopy and the fact that they have recruited and trained guards from countries such as Honduras? And guess what they pay these guys? $950 per month. Do you have any idea what the government pays Triple Canopy for these guards?

washingtonpost.com: Four Hired Guns in an Armored Truck, Bullets Flying, and a Pickup and a Taxi Brought to a Halt. Who Did the Shooting and Why? (Post, April 15)

Steve Fainaru: Hola Tegucigalpa. ... Another interesting phenomenon about the private security business model is exactly this. Companies such as Triple Canopy, but also many others, hire so-called "ex-pats" -- contractors from the U.S., Britain, and other Western countries -- and pay them up to $15,000-$20,000 a month. They then fill out the security teams with contractors from places such as Honduras and Fiji -- and Iraq -- and pay them a tenth of that. Crescent's owner explained it this way in our story (reciting from memory, but this is close): "To have 12 white people on a team, it's not economically viable." What companies then turn around and bill the government for those guys -- which is a great question -- I have not yet been able to answer.

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Orlando, Fla.: Did you interview any other Crescent Security contractors other than Cote, Reuben, Munns and Young? Do you think that may have made them more attractive targets for abduction, the kidnappers thinking that there would be a lot of publicity?

Steve Fainaru: I think there are any number of reasons Crescent got attacked, but I don't think publicity is one of them (although Crescent had been previously featured in a book, "A Bloody Business," and a Rolling Stone article). I was with them two weeks before the attack, and the situation on the border was extremely tense, with Iraqi border police randomly confiscating trucks (stealing is actually the appropriate word) and seizing drivers. Crescent had a lot of problems with the local authorities. The company also had many problems with its own Iraqi guards, which it paid a tenth of what it paid the Western guys. Iraqi employees were spotted among the attackers by two Western contractors who were later freed.

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New Orleans: Do you detect any major tensions between private security forces and American combat troops in carrying out combat operations, or even in disparities in salary, as the private security forces are likely earning tens of thousands more than the volunteer Army? Are there tensions about some private forces' disregard for rules of warfare, as they are not held to the same standards as U.S. forces?

Steve Fainaru: My sense is that, yes, there is some frustration in the military about the pay discrepancies and how some contractors operate. I think the biggest concern is that, in the case of contractors who operate aggressively, they make it more difficult for coalition forces operating in the same battle-space. They just make the locals angry. This is a minority -- there are a lot of operators who play by the rules -- but all it takes is one. I heard a story of a contractor who shot a civilian near Hilla south of Baghdad, and it stirred up an area that had been quiet for months.

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Washington: Mr. Fainaru: It's my understanding that regulation and scrutiny of security contractors by Defense and State have increased significantly in the past year or two. I notice that many of the stories on "contractors running wild" are about situations several months in the past; indeed, Crescent, the firm you've just reported on, disbanded some months ago. Being in Baghdad, do you observe continuing major problems with security contractors, or do you think the atmosphere has changed significantly?

Steve Fainaru: I don't think it's sorted out, no. There is movement in Congress and the military for better regulation, but it hasn't really taken root yet. The laws for contractors are still unclear. The military has been more aggressive on weapons issues -- the companies are not supposed to carry offensive weapons, like the rocket launchers and grenades that Crescent was caught with. The Iraqi government also has been more aggressive on licensing issues. But I still think there's a long way to go.

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McIntosh, Fla.: Why are private security contractors used to guard generals, among other military officials, rather than our own troops? Would not our own troops be the most trustworthy and more cost-effective?

Steve Fainaru: The military's argument is that it's more cost-effective, and that troops who aren't guarding a general can be diverted to more urgent tasks, like fighting the insurgency.

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Baghdad, Iraq: We know we're dealing with people who have a security clearance because we request verification of their clearance through the government agency that issues clearances in that person's home country.

Steve Fainaru: Here's one answer to question above. I wonder about the many companies like Crescent; a lot of their guys didn't have security clearances. Their director of security had a domestic violence conviction -- it's a felony for him to carry a firearm under U.S. law, which was adopted by the Department of Defense. There's a lot of companies like Crescent out there. Are they getting security clearances? Are they required to? Even if they're operating on sub-sub-subcontracts?

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Munich, Germany: I've always had the impression that the private security workers in Iraq were stereotypical mercenary men, who after stints in the armed forces return to the fray in the private sector, not only for the money but also for the camaraderie and the so-called male bonding. But in your article, Crescent takes criticism for cutting corners, paying mediocre wages and not vetting its applicants well enough. How do you think that the men that you spoke to at Crescent compare with employees from the larger security outfits that are operating in Iraq?

Steve Fainaru: Honestly, I think they weren't as experienced -- and, in some cases, as professional. The larger companies tend to hire contractors with more year in the military, and in some cases experience in special forces units. Most of the Crescent guys I met either were young and had done relative brief stints in the military, or were older and had been out of the military for some time.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Do I understand correctly that our government has absolved security contractors from liability for their actions? If so, what limitations are placed on them? Surely they are not allowed to torture, shoot civilians or shoot even our own troops.

Steve Fainaru: Under Order 17, a law created by the old U.S. occupation authority, contractors are immune from Iraqi law -- that is, they can't be prosecuted in Iraq. One Triple Canopy guy said he was told by the company that if something went awry he would be spirited out of the country in the back of a truck. The U.S. laws are more confusing. There's been efforts to place the contractors under military law (UCMJ), or a law that applies to civilians under contract to the military (Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act). There's a MEJA case ongoing, but the issue really hasn't been resolved. It's murky, for sure.

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Washington: If Crescent paid its Iraqi guards a tenth of what it paid its American guards, how does that compare to what The Post pays its Iraqi stringers compared to its American reporters in Iraq? Does The Post use Iraqis for its own security?

Steve Fainaru: What a great question! I honestly don't know what we pay our Iraqi employees, but I can tell you that whatever it is, it's not enough. As for security, we use an Iraqi security team that largely was assembled after our bureau was established in 2003. I don't have enough words to express how grateful I am for them.

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Barcelona, Spain: Steve, you referenced the financial incentive in a previous question -- can you elaborate on how much money is being made by private contractors from the States, as well as the money paid to those from other countries, particularly Iraq, who are hired by the firms? Thank you.

Steve Fainaru: It's a scale, depending on the job. The most lucrative job is private security details -- protecting people. The numbers have dropped, but for awhile it was more than $15,000 for some companies, for Westerners. Convoy protection is the next most lucrative; ArmorGroup, the leading convoy protection company in the country, pays its contractors $13,500 a month or thereabouts. Then static security -- protecting a stationary object. As a rule of thumb, TCNs -- otherwise known as third country nationals -- and LNs -- local nationals (aka Iraqis) make a tenth of their Western counterparts.

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Washington: Steve, can you tell us a bit more about reporting this article? It seems like you happened to have been with them before the attack -- was it just happenstance, or did you somehow learn about this and then go back and fill in the details afterward? Great job with this. I know you've been over there several times. Please be careful if you go back.

Steve Fainaru: It was coincidence, really. I was introduced to Crescent by Gerald Schumacher, a retired Special Forces colonel, who had written a book on private security contractors. The goal was to write about the culture of the contractors from a small company. I spent a week with them. Within days of returning home, the four men I had spent the most time with were taken hostage. I've been filling in the details since then.

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Steve Fainaru: Thanks everyone for these great questions. Sorry I didn't get to all of them. Signing off from Baghdad, home of the mighty Iraqi soccer team.

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