Outsourcing the War

Jeremy Scahill, bestselling author and investigative reporter for The Nation, testified May 10 before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on the impact of private military contractors on the conduct of the Iraq War. This is the full text of his remarks:

My name is Jeremy Scahill. I have submitted my full remarks and request they be entered into the record. I am an investigative reporter for The Nation magazine and the author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. I have spent the better part of the past two and a half years researching privatized warfare. I have interviewed scores of sources, filed many Freedom of Information Act requests, obtained government contracts and private company documents of firms operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

As this Committee is well aware, we are now in the midst of the most privatized war in the history of our country. This is hardly a new phenomenon, but it is one that has greatly accelerated since the launch of the "global war on terror" and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Many Americans are under the impression that the US currently has about 145,000 active duty troops on the ground in Iraq. What is seldom mentioned is the fact that there are at least 126,000 private personnel deployed alongside the official armed forces. These private forces effectively double the size of the occupation force, largely without the knowledge of the US taxpayers that foot the bill.

But despite the similarity in size of these respective forces in Iraq, there are key differences with the way our government approaches the active-duty military and these private war contractors. For instance, we know that nearly 3,400 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq and more than 25,000 wounded. We do not know the exact number of private contractors killed or wounded. Through the US Department of Labor, we have been able to determine that at least 770 contractors had been killed in Iraq as of December 2006 along with at least 7,700 wounded. These casualties are not included in the official death count and help to mask the human costs of the war. More disturbing is what this means for our democracy: at a time when the administration seems unwilling to subject its war strategy to oversight by the Congress, we face the widespread use of private forces seemingly accountable to no effective system of oversight or law.

While tens of thousands of these contractors provide logistical support, thousands are heavily armed private soldiers roaming Iraq. We do know that there are some 48,000 employees of private military companies in Iraq alone.

These forces work for US companies like Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp as well as companies from across the globe. Some contractors make in a month what many active-duty soldiers make in a year. Indeed, there are private contractors in Iraq making more money than the Secretary of Defense and more than the commanding generals. The testimony about private contractors that I hear most often from active duty soldiers falls into two categories: resentment and envy.

They ask what message their country is sending them. While many soldiers lack basic protective equipment--facts well-known to this committee--they are in a war zone where they see the private soldiers whiz by in better vehicles, with better armor, better weapons, wearing the corporate logo instead of the American flag and pulling in much more money. They ask: Are our lives worth less?

Of course, there are many cases where war contractors have hoarded the profits at the top and money has not filtered down to the individual contractors on the ground or the armor to protect them.

The second reaction is that the active-duty soldiers see the "rock star" private contractors and they want to be like them. So we have a phenomenon of soldiers leaving active duty to join the private sector.

There is slang in Iraq now for this jump. It is called "Going Blackwater." To put it bluntly, these private forces create a system where national duty is outbid by profits. And yet these forces are being used for mission-critical activities. Indeed, in January Gen. David Petraeus admitted that on his last tour in Iraq, he himself was protected not by the active-duty military but by private "contract security."

Just as there is a double standard in pay, there is a double standard in the application of the law. Soldiers who commit crimes or acts of misconduct are prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There have been some 64 courts martial on murder-related charges in Iraq alone. Compare that to the lack of prosecution of contractors. Despite the fact that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have streamed in and out of Iraq since March of 2003, only two private contractors have faced any criminal prosecution. Two. One was a KBR employee alleged to have stabbed a co-worker, the other pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography images on his computer at Abu Ghraib prison. In four years, there have been no prosecutions for crimes against Iraqis and not a single known prosecution of an armed contractor.

That either means we have tens of thousands of Boy Scouts working as armed contractors or something is fundamentally wrong with the system. Brig. Gen. Karl Horst of the 3rd Infantry Division became so outraged by contractor unaccountability that he began tracking contractor violence in Baghdad. In just two months he documented twelve cases of contractors shooting at civilians, resulting in six deaths and three injuries. That is just two months and one general.

They have not been prosecuted under the UCMJ, under US civilian law or under Iraqi law. US contractors in Iraq reportedly have their own motto: "What happens here today, stays here today." That should be chilling to everyone who believes that warfare, above all government functions, must be subject to transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

These are forces operating in the name of the United States of America. Iraqis do not see contractors as separate from soldiers--understandably, they see them all as "the occupation." Contractor misconduct is viewed as American misconduct.

While there is currently a debate in Congress about how to hold these private forces accountable, the political will to act remains shockingly absent.

Given the vast size of this private force, spread across the most dangerous war zone in the world, it is not at all clear how effective oversight would work. We already know that auditors cannot visit many reconstruction sites because of security concerns. Journalists are locked in the Green Zone. The army is stretched to the max. So what entity then is supposed to have the capacity or ability to oversee the men who have been brought to Iraq to go where no one else will?

Members of Congress tell me they have been stonewalled in their attempts to gain detailed information about the activities of these companies. I think it is a disturbing commentary that I have received phone calls from several Congress members asking me for government documents on war contractors and not the other way around.

In the current discussion in the Congress on this issue, what is seldom discussed is how this system, the privatization of war, has both encouraged and enabled the growth and creation of companies who have benefited and stand to gain even more from an escalation of the war.

In closing, while I think this Congress needs to take urgent action on issues of oversight, accountability and transparency of these private forces operating with our tax dollars and in the name of the United States, there is a deeper issue that often gets overlooked. This war contracting system has intimately linked corporate profits to an escalation of war and conflict. These companies have no incentive to decrease their footprint in the war zone and every incentive to increase it.

As the country debates current and future Iraq policy, Congress owes it to the public to take down the curtain of secrecy surrounding these shadow forces that often act in the name and on the payroll of the people of this country. Thank you for your time. I am prepared to answer any questions.

To see a video of this testimony: here.

Jeremy Scahill is the author of the New York Times bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is currently a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.

(c) Copyright 2007 Jeremy Scahill

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