May 17th, 2010
03:18 PM ET

Security Brief: A field trip to grapple with wartime contracts, accountability

A team of six has arrived in Iraq with a mission few would envy. They are looking for new insights into how to deal with the contractor phenomenon. The Congress-appointed Commission on Wartime Contracting is trying to figure out how the U.S. government can do a better job overseeing the virtual shadow army that has arisen from the private sector in less than a decade.

The bipartisan committee, co-chaired by Michael Thibault and Christopher Shays, is housed in a modest office facility in Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. On a recent visit, I was struck by the enormity of the task they've been given, to report back to Congress on better ways to manage this force multiplier. It's a huge task, seeing as how there are now more contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than there are U.S. troops.

"American taxpayers are paying for billions of dollars' worth of services from private security contractors," said Thibault, "but there are a lot of troubling questions about contract management and oversight, use of force, interagency coordination, use of subcontractors, and transition planning as the United States prepares to exit Iraq. We'll be looking at all of them to add to the knowledge gained from our stateside research and public hearings."

The government has been playing a game of catch up since private contractors were hired by the tens of thousands to do everything from logistics support to security in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

But accountability has always been an issue, as there have been no clearly followed lines of legal accountability for contractors who do something wrong. Though there have been efforts to address that glaring gap over the years, there is still a stunning lack of prosecutions rising up from the contractor community. One of the questions that commission members and staff on the ground in Iraq this week are trying to get their heads around is just what work should be hired out in the first place. When it comes to hired guns, literally, should the U.S. be putting security on the battlefield in hired hands?

"There's a vigorous debate in policy circles whether or to what extent security can or should be contracted out in combat zones," said Shays. "As we saw in 2007 at Nisur Square in Baghdad, when private security guards killed or wounded 34 Iraqi civilians, contractor incidents can have a direct and devastating effect on United States objectives and public support for our presence. At the same time, properly managed contractors can reduce the strain on U.S. military personnel."

In September 2007, guards from the private security contractor Blackwater were involved in a shootout in the Baghdad neighborhood of Nisoor Square. 17 Iraqis were killed when the guards opened fire in the busy traffic circle. U.S. prosecutors tried to bring charges against 5 of the men after another one agreed to cooperate, but the case was thrown out earlier this year when a judge cited a lack of evidence. While there have been no prosecutions, the deadly incident fueled a passionate debate about how the U.S. should be using contractors overseas.

One of the men who has testified before the wartime committee, is Doug Brooks. As an early observer of the contractor phenomena, he was the push behind the development of the International Peace Operations Association, of which he is now president. He is a strong believer in the use of private contractors, but he insists that government has to realize its own obligations and there are limits to what IPOA can do.

"We can't throw anyone in jail," said Brooks, "ultimately governments have to step up to the plate."

Brooks notes that contractors aren't just taking risks and doing the dirty work in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they're all over Africa as well. On a recent visit to Sierra Leone, Brooks observed private contractors flying armed helicopters on resupply missions for United Nations troops. In Somalia, DynCorp offers support for the African Union peacekeeping mission. He worries that the Wartime Contracting Commission might come back with recommendations that could limit the extent of U.S. involvement abroad.

"You don't want to handicap U.S. policy by drawing a thick line so that we can't do work," said Brooks. "Whatever they decide how they will redefine inherently governmental, we have to be very careful not to step on our own feet and undermine U.S. International policy.

The committee is expected to make their recommendations to Congress next summer.

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Filed under: Afghanistan • Iraq • U.S.
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Alejandro

    Contractors are necessary to supplement the peacetime military force in the middle east but they are inefficient, controversial, and outside regular chains of command. The standing military of the U.S. is 40% smaller than it was in 1991 and congress expects to fight five wars on top of maintaining national defense.

    If America is at war, get rid of the contractors and put out a draft, not this BS. They are paid six times the going rate of a conventional military force, and the reason they are used is because nobody cares about them. (I mean no disrespect)

    Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, Colombia, and Pakistan are all becoming proxy wars in which battles are fought by privet citizens rather than a standing army.

    I admit that Plan Colombia has been successful and Iraq is beginning to stabilize, but their isn't enough control over the PMC's in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

    May 17, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doug Brooks


      Interesting points, but it should be noted that most contractors are actually local nationals – 80% in Afghanistan. They are infinitely less expensive than military personnel (which Newsweek claims are costing $1m per year). There is an enormous cost effectiveness that should not be ignored – and utilizing locals also helps the economy, creates jobs and develops capacities vital to long-term stability.

      The military is designed to be capable and effective – and the U.S. may have the best trained, most motivated force ever, but it is not designed to be cost-effective. It makes sense that the military be enabled -and allowed – to focus on its core mission of making vital U.S. policies successful – the ancillary tasks including infrastructure development, site security, logistics, bodyguard services, food services and other things can be done more efficiently by private firms.

      -Doug Brooks, IPOA

      May 18, 2010 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  2. hamed

    america is at war !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 17, 2010 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Smith in Oregon

    It is abundantly clear that Dick Cheney's buddy in Haliburton are not held liable nor accountable for their actions, in-actions, deaths of American soldiers, deaths of Iraqi Civilians, nor the current wave of pulmonary health problems caused by the Haliburton toxic burn pits maintained by Haliburton thru-out Iraq and Afghanistan.

    And as thousands of US Veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious pulmonary breathing problems, you think Haliburton is going to pay for their chronic condition and life-time health care needs? Of course not, American taxpayers will be forced to foot their health care costs even when traced back to Haliburton's burn-pits.

    May 17, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. brown

    The Congress has betrayed the American people!

    May 17, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Valjean

    A few years ago I'd have to pay someone for this ifnormiaotn.

    July 28, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |