The U.S. government disregarded numerous warnings over the past two years about the risks of using Blackwater Worldwide and other private security firms in Iraq, expanding their presence even after a series of shooting incidents showed that the firms were operating with little regulation or oversight, according to government officials, private security firms and documents.The warnings were conveyed in letters and memorandums from defense and legal experts and in high-level discussions between U.S. and Iraqi officials. They reflected growing concern about the lack of control over the tens of thousands of private guards in Iraq, the largest private security force ever employed by the United States in wartime.
Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department took substantive action to regulate private security companies until Blackwater guards opened fire Sept. 16 at a Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and provoking protests over the role of security contractors in Iraq.
"Why is it they couldn't see this coming?" said Christopher Beese, chief administrative officer for ArmorGroup International, a British security firm with extensive operations in Iraq. "That amazes me. Somebody -- it could have been military officers, it could have been State -- anybody could have waved a flag and said, 'Stop, this is not good news for us.' "
Private security firms rushed into Iraq after the March 2003 invasion. The U.S. military, which entered the country with 130,000 troops, needed additional manpower to protect supply convoys, military installations and diplomats. Private security companies appeared "like mushrooms after a rainstorm," recalled Michael J. Arrighi, who has worked in private security in Iraq since 2004.
Last year, the Pentagon estimated that 20,000 hired guns worked in Iraq; the Government Accountability Office estimated 48,000.
On Feb. 7, 2006, Blackwater guards allegedly killed three Kurdish civilians outside the northern city of Kirkuk. That incident triggered demonstrations outside the U.S. Consulate and led Rizgar Ali, president of the Kirkuk provincial council, to complain to U.S. authorities in Kirkuk and Baghdad, Ali said in an interview. The incident was one of several shootings that caused friction between the U.S. and Iraqi governments..
On Christmas Eve 2006, a Blackwater employee killed the bodyguard of an Iraqi vice president in the Green Zone. Six weeks later, a Blackwater sniper killed three security guards for the state-run media network. On May 24, a Blackwater team shot and killed a civilian driver outside the Interior Ministry gates, sparking an armed standoff between the Blackwater guards and Iraqi security forces in downtown Baghdad.
By June 6, concerns about Blackwater had reached Iraq's National Intelligence Committee, which included senior Iraqi and U.S. intelligence officials, including Maj. Gen. David B. Lacquement, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence. Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, who heads the Interior Ministry's intelligence directorate, called on U.S. authorities to crack down on private security companies.
U.S. military officials told Kamal that Blackwater was under State Department authority and outside their control, according to notes of the meeting. The matter was dropped.
"We set this thing up for failure from the beginning," said T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel who advised the new Iraqi army from January to March 2004. He added that private security guards regularly infuriated his Iraqi staff with their aggressive tactics and that he reported the problems "up the chain of command."
"We're just sorting it out now," Hammes said. "I still think, from a pure counterinsurgency standpoint, armed contractors are an inherently bad idea, because you cannot control the quality, you cannot control the action on the ground, but you're held responsible for everything they do."
U.S. officials argue that security contractors save money and free up troops for more urgent tasks, such as fighting insurgents. "Certainly there have been moments of frustration where people here have said, 'Maybe we should just take over the whole operation, even if it stretches our forces more,' " Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell said. "But the reality is that we think our resources are better utilized taking it to the bad guys than guarding warehouses and escorting convoys."
The State Department investigated previous Blackwater shootings and found no indication of wrongdoing, according to a senior official involved in security matters. He said the U.S. Embassy discussed any concerns the Iraqi government had about the company's conduct. "I'm not aware of the significant warnings," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing investigations related to the Sept. 16 shooting.
The Defense Department has paid $2.7 billion for private security since 2003, according to USA Spending, a government-funded project that tracks contracting expenditures; the military said it currently employs 17 companies in Iraq under contracts worth $689.7 million. The State Department has paid $2.4 billion for private security in Iraq -- including $1 billion to Blackwater -- since 2003, USA Spending figures show.
On Dec. 5, the State and Defense departments signed a memorandum of agreement designed to increase cooperation between the two and better define their authority over private security contractors. The nine-page agreement, which was approved by Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces there, for the first time set common guidelines for reporting serious incidents, the use of deadly force, coordination on the battlefield and possession of firearms.
But the laws governing security contractors still have not been clarified. On Sept. 30, 2006, Congress passed a provision aimed at giving the military authority over all contractors in Iraq, including Blackwater. But the provision has not been implemented by the Pentagon. The 15-month delay "has led to much confusion over who will be covered . . . and has called into question whether the Department plans to utilize this provision," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who sponsored the provision, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates shortly after the Sept. 16 incident.
The Pentagon is studying whether the provision can withstand legal scrutiny, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
Contractors in Combat
In previous wars, the Pentagon had prohibited contractors from participating in combat. But in Iraq, military planners rewrote the policy to match the reality on the ground. On Sept. 20, 2005, the military issued an order authorizing contractors to use deadly force to protect people and assets. In June 2006, the order was codified as an "interim rule" in the Federal Register. It took effect immediately without public debate.
Critics, including the American Bar Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned that the Pentagon had used an obscure defense acquisition rule to push through a fundamental shift in American war-fighting without fully considering the potential legal and strategic ramifications.
The provision enabled the military to significantly raise troop levels with contractors whose "combat roles now closely parallel those of Constitutionally and Congressionally authorized forces," wrote Herbert L. Fenster, a partner with McKenna Long & Aldridge, a Washington-based international law firm that represents several major defense contractors. Fenster questioned the provision's legality in a lengthy comment he filed in opposition. The practice "smacks of a mercenary approach," he wrote in an e-mail.
But neither the military nor the State Department set guidelines for regulating tens of thousands of hired guns on the battlefield. Oversight was left to overburdened government contracting officers or the companies themselves, which conducted their own investigations when a shooting incident occurred. Dozens of security companies operated under layers of subcontracts that often made their activities all but impossible to track. They were accountable to no one for violent incidents, according to U.S. officials and security company representatives familiar with the contracting arrangements.
U.S. officials often turned to the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, a trade group funded by the security companies. Lawrence T. Peter, a retired Navy intelligence officer, served as the association's director while also working as a consultant to the Pentagon's Defense Reconstruction Support Office, which administers contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, said Peter earned "a few thousand dollars a year" as a consultant.
The association operated out of an office inside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Logistics Directorate in the Green Zone. Jack Holly, a retired Marine colonel who heads corps logistics in Iraq, said that Peter and the association play "a critical role to help the private security community improve and regulate itself," adding, "They tried to fill a void that had been left by the U.S. government's failure to recognize the problem."
"The department didn't see him as an advocate" for the security industry, Whitman said, referring to Peter. "They saw him as a conduit for information to understand the role of private security contractors in the reconstruction process."
But others saw a conflict of interest. "It violates all the best lessons of what goes into good policy and smart business," said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who has written a book on private security. "You do not hand over these questions to parties that are not merely mildly interested but they're the ones you are seeking to regulate."
The association sometimes resisted regulation. Earlier this year, Peter opposed the military's efforts to enforce orders requiring private security firms to obtain formal weapons permits from the Iraqi government, arguing that the authorization process was unworkable. Peter did not return messages seeking comment. His deputy, H.C. Lawrence Smith, said during an interview in Baghdad this year that the association sometimes helped the military in "writing the language in contracts relating to the role that private security companies play. We don't care what the contract is about, as long as the companies are treated fairly."
Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Scott, who oversees Pentagon contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the association had never "provided any input on contract language." He said he viewed it as a trade group that made unsolicited comments on policy on behalf of its membership. To employ Peter as a consultant, Scott said, "wouldn't be proper."
Fury and Frustration
On June 27, 2004, one day before he left Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the now-defunct U.S. occupation government, signed CPA Order 17, a decree granting contractors immunity from Iraqi law.
Two years later, Matthew Degn, a then-36-year-old civilian contractor from Seattle, arrived in Baghdad as a senior policy adviser to the Interior Ministry. One of his assignments was to help the Iraqis regulate private security. He started by reading CPA Order 17.
Degn, a no-nonsense Army veteran who had taught national security and terrorism studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, offered a blunt assessment of the document. "You have no power," he told Iraqi officials.
Hostility toward Blackwater was already high in the Interior Ministry, which was dominated by Shiite militias. The February 2006 shooting incident in Kirkuk had damaged U.S.-Iraqi relations in the area, leaving the Americans "hated and ostracized," according to Ali, the provincial council president.
Ali said he "sent official letters to the American and the British consulates and met them in my office to find out who the murderers were. They didn't do anything or give me clear answers. They only said, 'The ones who did it were from the Blackwater company.' "
A Blackwater spokeswoman did not respond to e-mails or phone messages seeking comment. U.S. officials said they could not recall the incident.
Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., was founded in 1996 by a former Navy SEAL, Erik Prince. In Iraq, the company protects the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats. Blackwater has lost 25 employees in Iraq, according to Labor Department figures based on insurance claims. The firm says no one under its protection has been killed.
The State Department's reliance on Blackwater expanded dramatically in 2006, when together with the U.S. firms DynCorp and Triple Canopy it won a new, multiyear contract worth $3.6 billion. Blackwater's share was $1.2 billion, up from $488 million, and the company more than doubled its staff, from 482 to 1,082. From January 2006 to April 2007, the State Department paid Blackwater at least $601 million in 38 transactions, according to government data.
The company developed a reputation for aggressive street tactics. Even inside the fortified Green Zone, Blackwater guards were known for running vehicles off the road and pointing their weapons at bystanders, according to several security company representatives and U.S. officials.
"They're universally despised in the" Green Zone, said Arrighi, who has managed security for several companies since 2004. "That's not an overstatement. 'Universally despised' is probably a kind way to put it."
The Iraqis' fury grew as they realized that Blackwater was untouchable, Degn said. After the May 24 shooting of a civilian Iraqi driver outside the Interior Ministry gates, Blackwater guards refused to divulge their names or details of the incident to the Iraqi authorities. Degn, who was working in the ministry at the time, recalled that the Iraqis were outraged and the American advisers felt threatened.
"After that day, people looked at us a little different," Degn said. "There was a palpable feeling. . . . We knew that something monumental had happened, that we were in deep water. And we felt like we weren't getting anything done. We were going up and coming down, but they weren't listening to a darn thing we were saying."
The State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Blackwater became synonymous with private security, "like Kleenex or Reynolds Wrap" being used to describe generic products, and was blamed for incidents even when it wasn't involved. He said the shootings should be viewed in the context of the several thousand missions that Blackwater conducted safely on Baghdad's dangerous streets.
On June 6, Kamal, the deputy minister, brought up the issue of Blackwater before the National Intelligence Committee. The committee's weekly meetings at the Iraqi parliament were headed by Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, and attended by several U.S. officials, including Lacquement, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence.
A spokesman for Lacquement, who is now commander of the Army Intelligence and Security Command, said that for "reasons of classification and security," he could not address whether Blackwater was discussed.
"Clearly the overall philosophy and tactics of Blackwater were not in keeping with winning hearts and minds," said a senior defense official involved in private security policy. The company's aggressive tactics provoked widespread frustration among U.S. commanders in Iraq, but the complaints "never got out of the brigade level" until after the Sept. 16 incident, he said.
Kamal's pleas to do something about the private security firms went nowhere. "Kamal was ballistic," Degn said. The May 24 shooting "had happened right on Interior Ministry grounds. That's what made it so explosive. But once again, the Americans blew it off, so where are you going to take it after that?"
Degn said he was also frustrated. "We sent many memos up the chain of command," he said. "I thought it was a huge issue. The coalition knew about it, but it was just another part of the war, so nothing was ever done. I felt it was completely ignored."
"I mean, how many of these incidents does it take before you're finally aware?" Degn added.
'An Interesting Question'
In the spring of 2005, while on a one-year tour in Baghdad, Army Maj. Robert Bateman watched a Blackwater convoy barrel through a congested traffic circle, indiscriminately firing warning shots. Bateman, who frequently writes and blogs on military issues, described what he saw to his fiancee, Kate Turner, a first-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
On Dec. 5 that year, Turner decided to ask Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was visiting Johns Hopkins, what laws governed security contractors in Iraq.
"Iraq's a sovereign country. They have their laws, and they're going to govern," Rumsfeld replied.
Four months later, Turner raised the issue with President Bush when he visited the school.
"I asked your secretary of defense a couple months ago what law governs their actions," Turner said, according to a transcript of the exchange.
"I was going to ask him," the president responded, drawing laughter as he issued a mock entreaty. "Go ahead. Help."
"Mr. Rumsfeld answered that Iraq has its own domestic laws which he assumed applied to those private military contractors," Turner said. "However, Iraq is clearly not capable of enforcing its laws. I would submit to you that this is one case that privatization is not a solution. And, Mr. President, how do you propose to bring private military contractors under a system of law?"
"I wasn't kidding. I was going to pick up the phone and say, 'Mr. Secretary, I've got an interesting question,' " Bush replied. "I don't mean to be dodging the questions, although it's kind of convenient in this case."
Turner received a letter two weeks later from the Pentagon's Office of General Counsel. It directly contradicted Rumsfeld: "Contractors are . . . subject to oversight and accountability for their actions on the basis of U.S. law and regulation."
To date, not a single case has been brought against a private security contractor in Iraq. "The reality is the military has not had any oversight on this issue until recently," Arrighi said. "We could hire the Rockettes and give them guns, and they wouldn't know. It was a total wasteland."
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Washington Post