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May 23, 2007

Iraq Contractors in
Beltway Battle


by Tom Griffin

Private military companies have been engaged in an intense struggle in recent months over a $475 million deal billed, perhaps optimistically, as the last major security contract in Iraq.

The contract, originally due to be awarded on April 10, involves a wide range of services, from the provision of personal security details to the management of six regional reconstruction operation centers (ROCs) interfacing between coalition forces and private contractors, as well as a national reconstruction operations center that distributes sanitized intelligence to contractors.

One current method of intelligence distribution is an ROC Web site, which is supposed to be password-protected, although the site's main page appears to be accessible as the top Google search result for the phrase "Reconstruction Operation Center." Material designated "For Official Use Only," including information about patterns of insurgent activity, is publicly accessible under the headings "ROC National Weekly Summary" and "Special Intel Products."

The site is run by Aegis Defense Services, the controversial British company that has held the ROC contract since 2004.

Aegis is among the bidders for the new contract, but it emerged earlier this month that the company's existing arrangement has instead been extended for six months, after rival bidders lodged protests against the army.

According to the Washington Post, objections by U.S. firm Blackwater and British company Erinys are currently being considered by the Government Accountability Office.

Armorgroup, a British firm that has recently beaten Aegis to several major contracts in Afghanistan, is also reportedly a bidder.

The struggle over the new contract comes as private contractors in Iraq face growing congressional scrutiny. The Aegis deal was heavily criticized earlier this year by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) during a hearing of the House Defense Appropriations Committee.

"Both in closed door meetings and in public, I have yet to find a person other than the auditor, who is able to shed any light on how it was that Aegis, a foreign corporation, was given a contract where now we have the second-largest force in Iraq, larger than the Brits, headed by someone named Tim Spicer," Kaptur said.

The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction has agreed to launch a new audit of the Aegis contract, following a request by Kaptur.

An investigator for the inspector general's office last week told the committee that a previous audit found Aegis had not fully performed its contract responsibilities and had failed to sufficiently document employees who carry weapons in Iraq.

Aegis' attempts to win business from other governments have also sparked controversy in recent months. The company was the subject of a critical documentary by Italian public broadcaster RAI in March, after it bid for a contract to protect Italian workers in southern Iraq.

The British government has been threatened with legal action if it allows Aegis to bid for future contracts.

The warning comes from Belfast resident Jean McBride, whose son Peter was murdered in 1992 by soldiers under the command of current Aegis CEO Tim Spicer, who was then a battalion commander in the British Army's Scots Guards regiment.

After Aegis bid unsuccessfully for a British government security contract in Afghanistan last year, Irish human rights group the Pat Finucane Center (PFC) wrote to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on Mrs. McBride's behalf.

In its letter, the PFC criticized Lt. Col. Spicer's role in the McBride case:

"In his sworn affidavit and again in his autobiography Spicer has sought to portray an entirely fictitious and untruthful version of the events preceding, during, and following the actual murder. It is essential to point out that the version of events as described by Spicer, which constituted the defense offered by the soldiers, has been totally rejected by the courts and described as a 'concoction of lies' by the trial judge. The original judgment has been upheld in subsequent appeals."

The Foreign Office reply conceded that "as CEO of Aegis, Lt. Col. Spicer's conduct is relevant to our consideration of bids received from Aegis," but added, "We are aware of the comments that Lt. Col. Spicer made in his autobiography and elsewhere to the effect that he disagreed with the convictions of Guardsmen Wright and Fisher.  However, we do not consider that these views constitute grounds for denying Aegis participation in FCO tender processes."

The reply also dismissed concerns related to Spicer's previous company, Sandline. Among the issues raised by the PFC was Sandline's abortive attempt to intervene in the Bougainville conflict in 1997, which inadvertently caused the overthrow of the government of Papua New Guinea, and its involvement in importing arms into Sierra Leone in 1998, in violation of a UN embargo.

The latter episode sparked the so-called Arms-to-Africa Affair, which led to serious criticism of FCO officials in the British Parliament and briefly threatened to force the resignation of the then foreign secretary. Nevertheless, the FCO has said the affair is not a reason to rule out doing business with Spicer.  

The Foreign Office's response to the Finucane Center stated:

"You refer to activities of Lt. Col. Spicer's previous company, Sandline, in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone.  The FCO does not consider that the information you refer to in relation to Sandline's activities in either country, taken individually or together, justifies the giving of the assurances that Mrs. McBride seeks."

The PFC also raised concerns about Aegis's record in Iraq, including an episode in 2005 when videos released on the Internet appeared to show company employees shooting at Iraqi civilians. The Foreign Office responded: 

"The FCO accepts that Aegis's conduct in Iraq, and the manner in which it has discharged its responsibilities to the DOD may be relevant to the FCO's consideration of any tender submitted by Aegis for future contracts. However, the FCO does not consider that that conduct justifies Aegis' being excluded from tendering, as Mrs. McBride suggests."

In the wake of the negative response from the FCO, the PFC has announced that lawyers for Mrs. McBride are considering a possible judicial review in the British courts."We welcome the fact that the FCO has accepted that Tim Spicer's conduct and Aegis' record in Iraq are relevant matters for future contract bids," a spokesman said. "However, the FCO reply otherwise fails completely to address the issues of concern around Tim Spicer and Aegis."

The spokesman continued:

"Tim Spicer has proved on numerous occasions that he is unfit to command troops empowered to use lethal force. The public should not be asked to fund this man's private army. That is why lawyers for Mrs. McBride will initiate legal action in the UK, and why we are asking our supporters in the U.S. and around the world to lobby against the renewal of the Pentagon's contract with Aegis."

If Mrs. McBride gets her day in court, it is likely to mean an extensive examination of Aegis' record, something that may yet overshadow the company's attempts to hold on to its lucrative U.S. contract.


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Tom Griffin writes for the Irish World and the Asia Times. See more of his work here. He is also a researcher for Antiwar.com.

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