Blackwater Hearings Ain’t No Superbad

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

October 3, 2007

Today, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on private security contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given recent events in Iraq (the shooting involving Blackwater contractors that left as many as 20 dead) and the hearings’ star witness (Erik Prince, chairman of the controversial firm) it was expected to be an important and even heated event. Indeed, the line of people waiting to attend the session this morning wrapped down the entire hallway corridor, like it was the premiere of a hit movie. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, and even scored a seat on the front row. I should have gone to see Superbad instead.

Writing now a few minutes after the first panel of the hearing has ended (some 4 hours later!), below are a few of my quick-hit observations.

The best encapsulation of the entire hearings on this important matter of national security was that offered by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA).  He led his remarks by saying, “Hopefully, we will get to serious discussion.” Then he proceeded to talk about everything from diabetes drugs to — as opposed to the issues at hand.

Much of the air was taken out of the hearing by the decision made to restrict from discussion the events of September 16th. There was a sensible reason for this: The FBI opened an investigation the day before (coincidentally or not, depending how much of a conspiracy theorist you are). No one wanted to say anything to contaminate an ongoing investigation. But it sure made things less exciting and less important, since September 16th was what had prompted the hearings in the first place.

The hearing revealed a fascinating, but also disturbing, lack of awareness in Congress about the private military industry. Members on both sides repeatedly struggled with the most basic facts and issues that surround the over 160,000-person contractor force in Iraq: Everything from the number and roles of contractors to their status and accountability, or lack thereof. It was quite clear that this was the first time that many had been forced to think much about the issue (even though the industry is over a decade old and the supplemental funds have been paying for the use of contractors in Iraq, year after year).

What I found especially telling, given the consistently weak grasp of the issues, was that multiple representatives opened their remarks by talking about how Blackwater contractors protected them while on visits to Iraq. They often meant this as a compliment to the firm, and also a way of establishing their credentials on the issue.  But it usually backfired, revealing a lack of simple curiosity.  It showed that they’ve known about the massive use of contractors for years – they just didn’t bother to ask any questions, even when the issue was in their faces.

Many representatives questioned the issue of legal status of contractors and why they weren’t being held accountable. No one had a good handle on this.  Prince, for one, frequently mentioned how he had fired employees who may have violated some law, but could not go beyond such an action.  And no one was there from the Department of Justice to explain why they have avoided prosecuting these same employees.

The lack of clarity on the legal issues was perhaps illustrated best in an odd exchange between Representative Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and Mr. Prince. The Congressman pressed Prince about what laws contractors might be held accountable under; the chairman of one of the leading firms in the industry found himself unable to give an immediate reply. (Note: This discussion also left aside the cold, hard fact that none of the various laws they pondered have actually been used for a battlefield contractor in Iraq.)

Time and again, there were exchanges over whether contracting our military services to firms like Blackwater was saving money.  Prince forcefully argued it was cost efficient; many representatives cited payment and profit figures that cast doubt on such a claim. That Prince could not (or would not) give even a ballpark figure for the overall profits his firm was making didn’t exactly help his cause.

Those exchanges had a bigger problem. The comparisons were often of the apples-and-oranges type, so they were never fully resolvable.  One side would discuss overall pay versus contracted pay — ignoring the differences between sunk costs of training, who ends up paying benefits, etc., etc.  Second, the use of private military contractors has never really been about financial cost savings.  Rather, it’s been about political cost savings. No one was able to point to a single decision to outsource some function to Blackwater that happened because of a cost differential analysis. Instead, each of these choices was made because a policymaker wanted to try to avoid spending political capital on an otherwise difficult decision, and a contractor was now there to enable this political cost avoidance.

Finally, the hearings did not deal with the crucial question, which is not one of oversight, of money savings, or even of legal accountability. It is becoming clear that many roles now outsourced, including the armed escort of government officials, assets, and convoys in a warzone, not only are inherently government functions, but that the outsourcing of them has created both short and long-term negative consequences. I found several statements of Prince intriguing in this light. For example, he assiduously claimed, “We are part of the ‘total force’ in trying to get the mission done.” But then he went on to discuss how his contracted mission was often at odds with the military’s counterinsurgency mission, for example, discussing how his employees explicitly avoid stopping for Iraqis who may have been mistakenly shot. “Our job is to get them off the X,” referring to getting client away from a potential danger site. Again, even if the firm was performing its roles properly and there was perfect oversight and accountability, that different sense of “our job” and “the mission” is the fundamental disconnect between a private vs. public mission, which everyone seems to be avoiding.