America's use of corporate mercenaries in Iraq
is under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the Nisour
Square massacre in Baghdad on Sept. 16. Employees of Blackwater
USA stand accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians.
There is reason to believe that commercial and bureaucratic rivalries played
a part in bringing the episode to public attention, after four years in which
contractors have routinely shot at Iraqi civilians with impunity.
Blackwater is the main security contractor for the State Department in Iraq.
If it is expelled, as
the Iraqi government has demanded, the most obvious beneficiaries will be
two smaller companies employed by the Department, DynCorp
and Triple Canopy.
However, the scale of the work undertaken by Blackwater means that the State
Department may have to turn to larger companies to fill the void, including
Current Defense Department contractors may be particularly well-placed to
pick up the slack in the wake of moves
to give the military a larger role in contract oversight. The largest of
these is Britain's Aegis Specialist Risk
Aegis and its chief executive, Tim Spicer, featured heavily in a recent London
Times article on the scandal:
"'Doing this job for me is an opportunity to get ahead because
of the amount of money that you earn,' one South African security contractor
"Insisting that he performed with consideration for the local population,
he conceded that not all guards acted in the same way. Noting Blackwater
in particular, he said: 'You can't tell those guys anything because they
think that they know best.'
"Mr. Spicer defended the industry's role, noting that Aegis, as a contractor
to the U.S. Department of Defense, adheres to about 15 layers of regulatory
control and constraint to ensure that it is fully accountable."
Aegis is notable for employing a PR
agency, which gives it the ability to insert its spin in certain media outlets.
It is tempting to read Spicer's contrast between Aegis and Blackwater in that
The Times also spoke to Jack Holly, a retired Marine colonel who oversees
a number of DoD security contracts as director of logistics for the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers. In a separate interview
with the Washington Post, Holly was highly critical of Blackwater:
"Holly said the State Department was partly to blame for what he described
as Blackwater's 'heavy-handed, almost arrogant' tactics. 'It's obviously condoned
by State and it's what State expects, because they have contract oversight and
if they didn't like it they would change it,' he said."
Last month, the Post
published leaked military reports that found Blackwater personnel opened
fire without provocation and used excessive force against civilians.
The military's intervention, along with that of the Iraqi
Interior Ministry, was crucial in undermining Blackwater's version of events.
By contrast, the State Department's initial report was written
by a Blackwater employee and did not mention civilian casualties.
This situation has fueled support for a proposal by Defense Secretary Robert
Gates to centralize
contractor oversight under a single military authority.
Yet the military's record of investigating its own contractors is little better
Aegis came under scrutiny in 2005 when one if its employees, Rod Stoner, released
a video taken inside
a contractor vehicle that showed members of a security
team firing on Iraqi civilian traffic.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Division subsequently "reviewed the facts
available concerning the incident to determine if there was any potential criminality
that falls within CID's investigative purview," according to a statement issued
to the Washington
Post. "The review determined that no further investigative effort on
the part of Army CID was warranted."
No further details of the investigation were released. It was never clear whether
Iraqi civilians involved had been traced or, indeed, whether any witnesses had
Stoner claimed that neither he nor any of the other occupants of the vehicle
had been spoken to by investigators. His
offer to testify was passed on to the U.S. government by Irish human rights
group the Pat Finucane Center
but was not taken up.
The Pat Finucane Center has heavily
criticized the Aegis contract because of Spicer's military record. The Aegis
CEO served as a battalion commander in Belfast in 1992, when two of his soldiers
shot dead an 18-year-old civilian, Peter
McBride. The Aegis Web site recently suggested
the soldiers were wrongfully convicted of murder, prompting a complaint
from the dead man's mother, who has also appealed
to Iraqi authorities to ban the company from operating in the country.
Aegis currently coordinates
all Department of Defense contractors in Iraq, a role that may expand with
increased military oversight of firms employed by other parts of the U.S. government.
That outcome would represent a bureaucratic victory for the Pentagon over the
State Department, and possibly
the CIA. It would not solve the problems revealed by the Blackwater affair.