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Congress Investigates Private Military Contracts in Iraq

February 7, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: While Congress focuses on the future of 150,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, new questions are being raised about at least 100,000 private contractors who are also critical to the war effort. Some are cooks, dishwashers, drivers, but many are armed and do not work behind the scenes.

Since early in the war, U.S. civilian leaders have been guarded by private contractors, everyone from Paul Bremer to U.S. senators to Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Many of the contractors have been killed: four in a helicopter crash two weeks ago, and six others in this helicopter shot down in 2005.

U.S. officials say nearly 800 non-military contractors have died since March of 2003. The presence of these workers, not all of them American citizens, is a major element of the president’s plan to ramp up security in Baghdad.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: Gen. Petraeus is well-known to this committee.

GWEN IFILL: The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told a Senate hearing last month that, in Baghdad alone, about 85,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces are on the ground or headed there. Private security swells those numbers.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. Army: You then should add in tens of thousands of additional forces that are over there that provide, of all things, contract security for our embassy. Myself, I was secured by contract security in my last tour there. And that frees up uniformed forces to perform other missions. And those have to be factored in, as well.

GWEN IFILL: But relatives of the four contractors who were killed in Fallujah in 2004, one of the most gruesome attacks of the war, told a House committee today their sons and husbands were exposed to unnecessary risk.

KATHRYN HELVENSTON WETTENGEL, Mother of Stephen Helvenston: Our four men were told that they would be working in armored vehicles with no less than six operators at each detail. There were supposed to be at least three people in each vehicle. This would have provided for a driver, a navigator, and a rear gunner, who would have heavy machine guns to fight off any attacks.

Our men were also told that they would be able to learn the routes through Iraq prior to going on any missions and to conduct a risk assessment of each mission to determine if it was too dangerous to go.

Blackwater did not provide our men with any of these protections. We’re subcontracting out our war. As I understand, there’s 100,000 contractors over there, and there doesn’t seem to be a law that applies.

GWEN IFILL: Representatives of several companies who employ the contractors said their work is essential.

ANDREW HOWELL, Blackwater General Counsel: Blackwater professionals, most of whom are military veterans, voluntarily go in harm’s way at the request, direction, and control of the United States government.

Chances are, if and when you as members of Congress and your staffs travel into Iraq, your lives will be protected for at least part of the trip by Blackwater. Areas of Iraq are among the most dangerous places on Earth, where violence against Americans is endemic. Our people choose to put their lives on the line daily in the service of our country.

GWEN IFILL: During questioning, Democrat Elijah Cummings tried, and failed, to get an Army official to divulge how many contractors are even on the ground.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), Maryland: Why does the administration rely on so many private contractors, do you know? And we can’t even count them?

HEARING WITNESS: No, sir, I do not.

GWEN IFILL: But North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx said come committee members are demanding too much.

REP. VIRGINIA FOXX (R), North Carolina: What we should be doing is being focused on the way the systems operate in all these areas. And what we’ve got here is a gotcha situation, it seems to me.

There’s a tragic loss of life that’s occurred. And every life that’s been lost in any of our wars, I am sorry for. What we ought to be about is asking for how the systems works, what’s wrong with the systems now, and how do we get at it, instead of spending all this time trying to get people on issues that are irrelevant to much of what we should be concerned about.

GWEN IFILL: But in a letter sent to two committee Democrats today, the Pentagon confirmed one element of the problem: Many layers of government contracting and subcontracting make it difficult to determine exactly how much money is being spent.

Role of private contractors

Robert Young Pelton
There is over 70,000 armed contractors working in Iraq ... that provide critical security for a number of the reconstruction projects. So our entire effort would fail if we did not have contractors.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on the role of private military contractors in Iraq, we turn to Robert Young Pelton, an author and filmmaker. His latest book is "Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror." He spent last summer in Iraq, working on a documentary on security contractors.

And Doug Brooks, founder and president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade association for military services companies.

Robert Young Pelton, we heard the Army official today tell members of Congress that she couldn't exactly say how many people are on the ground. How extensive is this private military force or this contractor force in prosecuting this war?

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON, Author and Filmmaker: Well, in the war in Iraq, it's essential. Soldiers cannot eat, they can't go to the bathroom, they can't do much of anything without a private contracting company providing their services.

More importantly, there is over 70,000 armed contractors working in Iraq -- half of those are Iraqis, half of those are expats -- that provide critical security for a number of the reconstruction projects. So our entire effort would fail if we did not have contractors.

GWEN IFILL: On balance, is that a good or a bad thing?

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON: It is both good and bad. There are some terrible things going on in the name of security contracting, and there are some very important things going on. But the problem is, as these hearings showed today, how do you know the difference between a good contract and a bad contract, a good contractor or a bad contractor?

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Doug Brooks that question. How do you know the difference?

DOUG BROOKS, International Peace Operations Association: I think there are companies that are anxious to make sure that they are seen properly, to have the kind of oversight and accountability that we'd like to see as taxpayers.

They provide enormous services. I mean, the security aspect, which is what everybody focuses on, is maybe 5 percent of the industry. Our numbers would actually be a lot smaller, in terms of security contractors, maybe 25,000, which most of them are Iraqis.

And that's, you know, who should be doing security in these countries. But they're working for Western companies. They have Western management and training, and I think that's really important. They're critical to this mission.

GWEN IFILL: As the president and Gen. Petraeus and others promote this notion of adding additional troops to Baghdad, just Baghdad to enhance security there, how essential is that plan -- how much does that plan depend on the presence, as well, of this private security force?

DOUG BROOKS: I couldn't say, but with the security force does do is free up the soldiers, the U.S. military soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, essentially to focus on their core mission of going after the insurgents. The security contractors are not allowed to do offensive combat operations; that's reserved for the military. And so there's that important element.

Who contractors answer to

Robert Young Pelton
The problem is, on December 24th, we had a murder in the Green Zone, an American contractor gunned down, an Iraqi bodyguard. We had somebody working for Triple Canopy shooting Iraqis for fun.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mr. Pelton, you are traveling with these security contractors last year. What's the difference between -- if I fly to Baghdad tonight, and I am guarded by someone from a private security force, as opposed to a member of the U.S. military, what's the difference?

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON: Well, the one thing that didn't come out in these hearings, which is absolutely critical, the entire and full responsibility of a private security company is to their clients, not to the foreign policy of the U.S., not to any sort of regional or local peacekeeping or security effort.

And that means, if two security contractors are passing each other, and one poses a threat to one, they can fire on each other. In other words, the security element of what we're providing over there is a for-profit, very specific to the client's needs. And that's a very, very big difference between what the military is doing over there.

GWEN IFILL: Unaccountable to the military?

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON: Absolutely unaccountable to anyone. And I'm sure Doug will oppose this, but the problem is, on December 24th, we had a murder in the Green Zone, an American contractor gunned down, an Iraqi bodyguard. We had somebody working for Triple Canopy shooting Iraqis for fun.

These are things that just are rumors and need to be investigated. Keep in mind the Fallujah incident is almost three years old, and many, many things have transpired since then, and all of them need investigation.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Brooks, are these any more than rumors?

DOUG BROOKS: No, there's some incidents that are going on. When you have 100,000 contractors, you're going to have bad things happening. And, of course, contractors are not just working in Iraq. They're working all over the world. And these issues of operating in post-conflict environments are going to come up.

There is no effective, internationally recognized legal system within Iraq at this point, and that's a problem, when essentially --- normally, contractors would operate under local government authority. But, in Iraq, essentially, the legal system isn't up to international standards at this point.

GWEN IFILL: So they're not accountable to the Iraqi government?

DOUG BROOKS: There are two rules now that apply to contractors. One is the MEJA, Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which says that anybody, any contractor working in support of a U.S. mission, can be brought back to the United States, of any nationality, which is interesting, can be brought back to the United States and tried.

That has not been enforced, and this is a problem from our industry, because it's good for us if you have effective accountability. The other thing that's been mentioned is the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the military system. And there's been a change. It's supposed to impact contractors, but we're not sure they're actually going to use that.

GWEN IFILL: What kind of change? You're saying there's a way that contractors can be held responsible...

DOUG BROOKS: They could be under military law, is what it says. The issue is that, in the past, this has been struck down by the Supreme Court, because it only applied to wars. And this is -- they changed the wording so that it applies to contingency operations, such as Iraq, as well.

It's not clear that they'll use it. I mean, essentially, theoretically, it could apply to any contractor. Most of the contractors are Iraqis. So is the U.S. government going to put an Iraqi in U.S. military court? I don't think that's going to happen.

Efforts to increase accountibility

Doug Brooks
International Peace Operation Assoc.
For the military, they can use force to two things... to compel somebody to do something and to prevent somebody from doing something. For the contractors, it's the second. They're allowed to use force to prevent people from doing something.

GWEN IFILL: What about the point Mr. Pelton just made about coordination between the military and these contractors? Are they basically shooting past each other sometimes?

DOUG BROOKS: Well, OK, again, in terms of the security contractors, you're talking maybe 5 percent of the number. It's not that large. But, nonetheless, there has been issues.

And when you have such a volatile environment, you have people that are armed, you do have situations where they can shoot at each other. Now, there's been some measures taken -- an IPOA has actually been working along these lines, as well -- to ensure that there is better coordination.

There's something called "the rock," which is a center that keeps track of civilian convoys, private security details, and so on. And the military has access to that, so they can see where all the private elements are. The actual numbers of sort of friendly-fire incidents, as they're called, have gone way down.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Pelton, how about the rules of engagement? Are the military contractors -- are they bound by, say, the same rules for use of force as a member of the military would be?

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON: No, the rules of engagement in Iraq are very simple. For private contractors, you're allowed to warn people off if they get within 100 feet. You're allowed to fire warnings shots. If they continue at you, you're allowed to fire shots directly in front of them or try to disable the vehicle. And then if they continue, you're allowed to take out the driver. That's, obviously, because of VBIEDs, or car bombs.

But the real problem is that there are a number of convoys cruising through Baghdad using machine guns like we use horns. Those people don't have to stop and explain themselves. They don't stop at police checkpoints. They don't carry identification in their car.

So there is a problem. And I think Doug is also agreeing that there needs to be some type of accountability and clarity in what these people do.

GWEN IFILL: And what would you recommend that accountability and clarity be?

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON: I think what Mr. Waxman is doing is exactly what we need. We need to subpoena the people who run these companies, the people who have beefs -- and that includes Iraqis -- who have had relatives murdered or shot down by contractors, and we need to show that, if you do something illegal, either in the name or on the payroll of the U.S. government, you will be held accountable.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Brooks?

DOUG BROOKS: We're good with the accountability. In fact, it's sort of odd that, as a trade association, we're the ones who have actually been pushing, I think, to get effective accountability. Again, for the good companies, good accountability helps them, essentially makes it harder for the low-end companies to actually -- IPOA, essentially, companies have to apply for membership.

And once they're allowed in, they have to operate at a higher level. We have an online code of conduct, and anybody can bring a complaint against our members.

I did want to touch a bit on the rules of engagement. Essentially what the Pentagon has done now is they've separated it out. And they say, OK, you have rules of engagement, that's military. But for the contractors, it's rules for use of force. They call it something different.

Essentially, for the military, they can use force to two things, which is, one, to compel somebody to do something, and, two, to prevent somebody from doing something. For the contractors, it's the second. They're allowed to use force to prevent people from doing something.

So it boils down to sort of three points, if you look at their rules for use of force. One, they can defend themselves, which Robert talked about. Two, they can defend whatever is in their contract, which a noun, a person, place, a thing, a convoy, a building, or whatever. And, three, it's quite interesting, they are allowed to use force to defend Iraqi civilians under imminent threat.

Information available to the public

Doug Brooks
International Peace Operation Assoc.
We have seen a number of instances where the government has basically told the companies, OK, we don't want you talking right now.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Pelton, how much of what private contractors are doing, especially the security contractors in Iraq, is unknowable? How much of it is classified? How much of it is caught up in the web of contracting, subcontracting, sub-subcontracting, that we heard about at this hearing today?

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON: Well, in my book, "License to Kill," I bring back the '60s, in which the CIA actually used corporations -- what they called CIA proprietaries, like Air America, to conduct covert operations. And it is the distinct desire of some of these companies to be involved in covert activities.

Now, they don't necessarily have to be in a combat capacity, but they can be sort of as false fronts for intelligence-gathering, logistical support.

Secondly, I challenge any journalist to simply pick up the phone and call Blackwater, call Triple Canopy, and say, "I want to work and live with you guys for six months, and I want to get into your business and write a book." I did it for three years, and I can tell you that I think I saw a window that opened briefly and closed.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Mr. Brooks? How closed is the window?

DOUG BROOKS: It really depends. Companies are willing to talk to some journalists more than others. But when you think about a small company, which may have only four or five people in their back office, and sometimes, you know, they can...

GWEN IFILL: Well, less about the journalists, and more about the general public, and what they can know about how their taxpayer money is being spent?

DOUG BROOKS: A lot of this comes down to the client. And I think this is interesting, and I think Robert makes a good point here. I mean, essentially the client has a lot -- in this case, in most cases is the U.S. government, either the State Department or Department of Defense -- has a lot of say over what the company is actually allowed to say, how open it is allowed to be.

And we have seen a number of instances where the government has basically told the companies, OK, we don't want you talking right now. We are going to control the message, which doesn't look particularly good for the industry, but it's a reality that we have to deal with.

GWEN IFILL: Doug Brooks and Robert Young Pelton, thank you both very much.

DOUG BROOKS: My pleasure.