At Large

Choir Boys Not Needed

Civilian security contractors provided essential services in Iraq, in a context that should not be forgotten.

By 9.4.09

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The Justice Department has charged five former Blackwater security contractors with manslaughter in the killing of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad's Nisour Square in September 2007. There is more to the story than that particular event; it relates to the overall use of civilian security contractors.

It was from the murderous environment of post-Saddam Iraq that sprung the plan to assign civilian contract personnel to assist in security operations. Security was an aspiration, not a fact. Shia militia killed Sunni and rival Shia while the Sunni were doing the same in reverse. Al Qaeda in Iraq killed and kidnapped anyone of note they could get to, while numerous criminal enterprises duplicated these actions in pursuit of profit and just plain perverse pleasure. In short, the security situation was near chaotic.

Civilian advisers, diplomats, and high government officials were high value targets. The highest priority was placed on strengthening the protection provided them. It all seemed so logical at the time. The U.S. Government would pick up the bill for creating the security that would allow these non-combatants to proceed with the necessary economic and social reconstruction, political negotiation, and the myriad of other required activities in an after-battle environment.

Enter private civilian contractors: Private security firms offered trained and experienced contract personnel to serve as bodyguards and provide protection to reconstruction projects and other facilities. American and British firms rushed to the fore with ex-special forces members and select Iraqis. This solution held a particular attraction. Civilian security contractors created the impression that a sense of civil normalcy existed rather than the ever presence of martial law.

More importantly, the civilian contractors were singularly focused on their professional security role as opposed to uniformed soldiers who had been just assigned to do a job like so many other jobs in the military. The civilian security personnel were advertised as specifically trained and professionally experienced in personal and physical protection. It was argued that bodyguard teams and facility security were specialties in which military personnel could be trained, but the U.S. and U.K. armies did not have sufficient troop strength to devote to these tasks.

The problem was that these strictly civilian contractors were viewed by local citizens as having an official status. In fact, they had every reason to think so. These private contractors acted in a manner that implied, if not actually stated, they had, at the very least, quasi-governmental authority. In fact, there was no rigid chain of command leading from U.S. officialdom to and through the civilian contract structure. It was a business deal just like all the other defense contracts signed by departments of the U.S. Government with private firms. The firm provided a service; the U.S.G. paid for the service. There was an official contact point, but the private firm and its individual contractors ran their own show.

This last point is now being argued, but more for political reasons than operational. In any case, there is little argument over the fact that civilian security contractors have far greater leeway in their approach to doing their job than regular military personnel. And thus it has been in Iraq. The civilian contractors, American or British, have been quick and deadly in their responses to attack or perceived potential of attack. As a result, they have been feared by Iraqis of all persuasions. But that, after all, was their aim.

A heavy hand is the methodology of the Middle East and elsewhere in the world where violence is the basic tool of politics. The requirement exists when utilizing these non-uniformed security specialists, however, to place them under a command that is even more hard and demanding than they are. Among the basic rules of protection, one of the leading instruments is discrimination. To be able to discriminate between what is and is not a danger is key, if for no other reason than to ensure that other good guys do not end up as collateral damage -- physically or legally!

In a worst case scenario, the men on trial by the Justice Dept. killed seventeen innocent Iraqi civilians in error. Notwithstanding that supposition, the five contractors were operating fully within their mandate to protect their State Department charges in the manner they believed necessary.

Baghdad in 2007 was in the midst of Gen. Petraeus's "surge" and the city was in the throes of partisan warfare. For security contractors the pressure was at its highest. Firing at the first verification of danger was standard operating procedure and the only policy possible in an environment in which every corner, every square, holds a deadly potential. Five hundred twenty foreign contractors of all types have been killed in Iraq since 2003.

Ultimate responsibility for those hired to provide security service lies with the government agency that employed them. Why is this matter being pursued now?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.