Article

The Dark Truth about Blackwater

Peter W. Singer

On Sept. 16, 2007, a convoy of Blackwater contractors guarding State Department employees entered a crowded square near the Mansour district in Baghdad, Iraq. But versions of what caused the ensuing bloodshed diverge. Employees from the firm claim they were attacked by gunmen and responded within the rules of engagement, fighting their way out of the square after one of their vehicles was disabled. Iraqi police and witnesses instead report that the contractors opened fire first, shooting at a small car driven by a couple with their child that did not get out of the convoy’s way as traffic slowed. At some point in the 20-minute gunfight, Iraqi police and army forces stationed in watchtowers above the square also began firing. Other Iraqi security forces and Blackwater quick-reaction forces soon reportedly joined the battle. There are also reports that one Blackwater employee may even have pointed his weapon at his fellow contractors, in an effort to get them to cease firing.

Since then, the Iraqi and U.S. governments have launched separate investigations, likely ensuring that the differing versions of the story will never meet. The only thing agreed upon is the consequences: After a reported 20 Iraqi civilians were killed, including the couple and their child, who was subsequently burned to the mother’s body after the car caught fire, the Iraqi government and populace exploded with anger.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the killings a crime, announcing that his government was pulling Blackwater’s license to operate in Iraq and would prosecute any foreign contractors found to have been involved in the killings. But there were two problems: Despite its mission of guarding U.S. officials in Iraq, Blackwater had no license with the Iraqi government. Secondly, the murky legal status of the contractors meant they might be considered exempt from Iraqi law because of a mandate left over from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. governing authority in Iraq that was dissolved more than two years prior.

The Blackwater mess has roiled Capitol Hill and shined light on the many questions surrounding the legal status, management, oversight and accountability of the private military force in Iraq, which numbers more than 160,000 — at least as many as the total number of uniformed American forces there. The debate will heat up again Tuesday with hearings by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee led by Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California. The problem is, some of the most critical questions may yet go unasked.

I’ve done a decade’s worth of research and writing on the military’s use of private contractors, including hundreds of interviews and discussions with everyone from employees of private military firms to active and retired soldiers, ranging from four-star generals down to line infantry. I have reported my findings to audiences including the U.S. military, the CIA and the State Department. Although I’ve been approached with multiple offers (as well as varied threats) from those in the private military industry, I am not paid either to lobby for the industry or to attack it, and the findings in this report are my own.

When we evaluate the facts, the use of private military contractors appears to have harmed, rather than helped, the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. mission in Iraq, going against our best doctrine and undermining critical efforts of our troops. Even worse, the government can no longer carry out one of its most basic core missions: to fight and win the nation’s wars. Instead, the massive outsourcing of military operations has created a dependency on private firms like Blackwater that has given rise to dangerous vulnerabilities.

On Tuesday, among those testifying on Capitol Hill will be Erik Prince, the chairman and owner of Blackwater, as well as a series of State Department officials who were supposed to have overseen the firm’s activities. We can expect that Prince will wrap himself in the flag, discussing all the vital missions that Blackwater conducts in Iraq, while downplaying the recent killings. State Department officials are likely to say that they had no other option but to use the firm, given their lack of Diplomatic Security forces — conveniently ignoring that the department has chosen to hollow out its Diplomatic Security corps and instead hand over the task to a consortium of private firms led by Blackwater under a multibillion-dollar contract.

Waxman’s committee, which has already been focused on politically connected companies and contracting corruption in Iraq, has disclosed a series of documents in recent days that reveal some dark patterns with Blackwater. The documents appear to show that the firm cut corners that may have contributed to employee deaths, it may have tried to have documents classified in order to cover up corporate failures, and the State Department’s own inspector general may have tried to impede investigations into Blackwater, including threatening to fire any of his inspectors who cooperated with Congress.

Prince will take his shots, and State officials will point to new investigations they are now launching to try to mollify congressional anger. But regardless of whether the Blackwater contractors were justified in the shooting, whether there was proper jurisdiction to ensure accountability, or even whether using firms like Blackwater saves money (the data shows it does not), there is an underlying problem that everyone is ignoring.

Our dependency on military contractors shows all the signs of the last downward spirals of an addiction. If we judge by what has happened in Iraq, when it comes to counterinsurgency and the use of private military contractors, the U.S. has locked its national security into a vicious cycle. It can’t win with them, but can’t go to war without them.

When the U.S. military shifted to an all-volunteer professional force in the wake of the Vietnam War, military leaders set up a series of organization “trip wires” to preserve the tie between the nation’s foreign policy decisions and American communities. Led by then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams (1972-74), they wanted to ensure that the military would not go to war without the sufficient backing and involvement of the nation. But much like a corporate call center moved to India, this “Abrams Doctrine” has since been outsourced.

The use of contractors in Iraq is unprecedented in both its size and scope. Estimates of the number of contract personnel in Iraq vary widely. In 2006, the United States Central Command estimated the number to be around 100,000. (That it turned out to be such a perfectly round figure indicated that the estimate was actually what researchers call a “WAG,” short for “wild ass guess.”) In 2007, an internal Department of Defense census on the industry found almost 160,000 private contractors were employed in Iraq (roughly equal to the total U.S. troops at the time, even after the troop “surge”). Yet even this figure was a conservative estimate, since a number of the biggest companies, as well as any firms employed by the State Department or other agencies or NGOs, were not included in the census.

What matters is not merely the numbers, but the roles that private military contractors play. In addition to war gaming and field training U.S. troops before the invasion, private military personnel handled logistics and support during the war’s buildup. The massive U.S. complex at Camp Doha in Kuwait, which served as the launch pad for the invasion, was not only built by a private military firm but also operated and guarded by one. During the invasion, contractors maintained and loaded many of the most sophisticated U.S. weapons systems, such as B-2 stealth bombers and Apache helicopters. They even helped operate combat systems such as the Army’s Patriot missile batteries and the Navy’s Aegis missile-defense system.

Private military firms — ranging from well-established companies, such as Vinnell and MPRI, to start-ups, such as the British Aegis — have played an even greater role in the post-invasion occupation. Halliburton’s Kellogg, Brown and Root division, recently spun off into its own firm, currently runs the logistics backbone of the force, doing everything from running military mess halls to moving fuel and ammunition. Other firms are helping to train local forces, including the new Iraqi army and national police.

Then there are the firms such as Blackwater that have played armed roles within the battle space. These firms do everything from helping guard facilities and bases to escorting “high-value” individuals and convoys, arguably the most dangerous job in all of Iraq. Such firms are frequently described as “private security” or “bodyguards,” but they are a far cry from rent-a-cops at a local mall, or bodyguards for Hollywood celebrities. They use military training and weaponry to carry out mission-critical functions that would have been done by soldiers in the past, in the midst of a combat zone against fellow combatants. In 2006, the director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq estimated that just over 48,000 employees from 181 of such “private security companies” were working in Iraq.

As it has been planned and conducted to date, the war in Iraq would not be possible without private military contractors. Contrary to conspiracy theories, the private military industry is not the so-called decider, plotting out wars behind the scenes like Manchurian Global. But it has become the ultimate enabler, allowing operations to happen that might otherwise be politically impossible. The private military industry has given a new option that allows the executive branch to decide, and the legislative branch to authorize and fund, military commitments that bypass the Abrams Doctrine.

It is sometimes easier to understand this concept by looking at the issue in reverse. If a core problem that U.S. forces faced in the operation in Iraq has been an insufficient number of troops, it is not that the U.S. had no other choices other than using contractors. Rather, it is that each of them was considered politically undesirable.

One answer to the problem of insufficient forces would have been for the executive branch to send more regular forces, beyond the original 135,000 planned. However, this would have involved publicly admitting that those involved in the planning — particularly then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — were wrong in their slam of critics like Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, who warned that an occupation would require far more troops. Plus, such an expanded force would have been onerous on the overall force, creating even more tradeoffs with the war in Afghanistan, as well as broader global commitments.

Another option would have been a full-scale call-up of the National Guard and Reserves, as originally envisioned for such major wars in the Abrams Doctrine. However, to do so would have prompted massive outcry among the public (as now the war’s effect would have been felt deeper at home) — the last thing leaders in the executive branch or Congress wanted as they headed into what was a tight 2004 election season.

Some proposed persuading other allies to send their troops in to help spread the burden, much as NATO allies and other interested members of the U.N. had sent troops to Bosnia and Kosovo. However, this would have involved tough compromises, such as granting U.N. or NATO command of the forces in Iraq or delaying the invasion, options in which the administration simply had no interest. This was the war that “was going to pay for itself,” as leaders like then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz infamously described in the run-up to the invasion, and to share in the operation was to share in the spoils. Plus, much of the world was vehemently opposed to the war, so it was unlikely that NATO allies or the U.N. would agree to send the needed number of troops.

The private military industry was an answer to these political problems that had not existed in the past. It offered the potential backstop of additional forces, but with no one having to lose any political capital. Plus, the generals could avoid the career risk of asking for more troops.

That is, there was no outcry whenever contractors were called up and deployed, or even killed. If the gradual death toll among American troops threatened to slowly wear down public support, contractor casualties were not counted in official death tolls and had no impact on these ratings. By one count, as of July 2007, more than 1,000 contractors have been killed in Iraq, and another 13,000 wounded. (Again, the data is patchy here, with the only reliable source being insurance claims made by contractors’ employers and then reported to the U.S. Department of Labor.) Since the troop “surge” started in January 2007, these numbers have accelerated — contractors have been killed at a rate of nine per week. These figures mean that the private military industry has suffered more losses in Iraq than the rest of the coalition of allied nations combined. The losses are also far more than any single U.S. Army division has experienced.

Hence, while private losses were just the “cost of doing business” for a firm in Iraq, they actually had an undisguised advantage to policymakers. The public usually didn’t even hear about contractor losses, and when they did, they had far less blowback on our government. For all the discussion of contractors as a “private market solution,” the true costs that they hope to save are almost always political in nature.

And when we weigh the devastating consequences that the Iraq war has had on America’s broader security and standing in the world, this enabling effect of the private military industry may be its ultimate cost. The underlying premise of the Abrams Doctrine was that, if a military operation could not garner public support of the level needed to involve the full nation, then maybe it shouldn’t happen in the first place.

That debate over the ultimate costs of Iraq is one for historians to weigh now. What is clear, however, is that the enabling effect of the military contractor industry is not simply in allowing the operation to occur, but also in how it reinforces our worst tendencies in war.

Lobbyists for military contractors like to talk up how the U.S. war effort is the best supplied and supported military operation in history. Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association, an industry trade group, says, “The fact that troops are going to Iraq right now and actually, in 120 degree weather, putting on weight, kind of shows we are doing too much to support.” Brooks is correct on many counts. The operation is one of the most lavishly supported ever, and most of that has been due to contractors to whom we have outsourced almost all the logistics, and the protection of that enormous supply chain.

But it has proven to be remarkably inefficient, all the while undermining our counterinsurgency efforts. According to testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the Defense Contract Audit Agency has identified more than a staggering $10 billion in unsupported or questionable costs from battlefield contractors — and investigators have barely scratched the surface.

Such corruption doesn’t just represent lost funds; it represents lost opportunities for what those funds could have been used on to actually support the mission: everything from jobs programs to get would-be insurgents off the streets to flak vests and up-armored vehicles for our troops. The situation got so bad that in August the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (SIGIR) dubbed corruption as the “second insurgency” in Iraq.

While no one would argue that our uniformed soldiers do not deserve the utmost in support, contractors appear to have used this opening to drive a gold-plated train through (or, in the slang of KBR truckers, an opportunity to ship “sailboat fuel,” meaning charge for nothing). Halliburton’s contract has garnered the firm $20.1 billion in Iraq-related revenue and helped the firm report a $2.7 billion profit last year. To put this into context, the amount paid to Halliburton-KBR is roughly three times what the U.S. government paid to fight the entire 1991 Persian Gulf War. When putting other wars into current dollar amounts, the U.S. government paid just this one firm about $7 billion more than it cost the United States to fight the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the Spanish American War combined. (More, the $2.2 billion that the U.S. Army has claimed Halliburton overcharged or failed to document is almost double the amount in current dollars that it cost the U.S. to fight the Mexican-American War, which gained the territories of Arizona, New Mexico and California.)

Turning logistics and operations into a for-profit endeavor helped feed the Green Zone mentality problem of sprawling bases, which runs counter to everything Gen. David Petraeus pointed to as necessary to winning a counterinsurgency in the new Army/USMC manual he helped write. As retired Marine Col. and expert on “4th generation” war T.X. Hammes described the effect of a profit-seeking approach in an interview with “Frontline”: “We get a little carried away, and then we gold-plate … They could do it, so they did, because it’s just money.”

Basically, the bigger the bases, the more fast-food franchises, the more salsa dance lessons — and the more money the firms make, while wrapping themselves in the flag. But while bigger bases may yield more money for stockholders, they disconnect a force from the local populace and send a message of a long-term occupation, both major negatives in a counterinsurgency. Moreover, it puts more convoys on the roads, angering the Iraqis and creating more potential targets for insurgents. “It’s misguided luxury … Somebody’s risking their life to deliver that luxury,” Hammes says, adding, “Fewer vehicles on the road creates less tension with the locals, because they get tired of these high-speed convoys running them off the road.”

For all the hubbub over the recent Blackwater incident, the American public remains largely unaware of the private military industry. While private forces make up more than 50 percent of the overall operation in Iraq, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, they have been mentioned in only a quarter of 1 percent of all American media stories on Iraq.

Yet, at the same time, contractors are one of the most visible and hated aspects of the American presence in Iraq. “They seal off the roads and drive on the wrong side. They simply kill,” Um Omar, a Baghdad housewife, told Agence France Press about Blackwater in a report in mid-September. A traffic policeman at Al-Wathba square in central Baghdad concurred: “They are impolite and do not respect people, they bump other people’s cars to frighten them and shout at anyone who approaches them … Two weeks ago, guards of a convoy opened fire randomly that led to the killing of two policemen … I swear they are Mossad,” he said, referring to the Israeli spy service, which is a catch-all for anything perceived as evil in the Arab world.

It is also important to note that Iraqi civilians do not differentiate the acts of the private military contractors from the overall U.S. military effort, just because they are outside the chain of command.

The point here is not that all contractors are “cowboys,” “unprofessional” or “killers,” as Blackwater and other contractors are often described. Most are highly talented ex-soldiers. However, their private mission is different from the overall public operation. Those, for example, doing escort duty are going to be judged by their corporate bosses solely on whether they get their client from point A to B, not whether they win Iraqi hearts and minds along the way. Ann Exline Starr, a former Coalition Provisional Authority advisor, described the difference between when she traveled with a U.S. military escort and with guards from Blackwater and another State Department-contracted security firm, DynCorp. While the uniformed soldiers kept her safe, they also did such things as playing cards and drinking tea with local Iraqis. The private contractors had a different focus. “What they told me was, ‘Our mission is to protect the principal at all costs. If that means pissing off the Iraqis, too bad.'”

This “protection first and last” mentality has led to many common operating practices that clearly enrage locals. In an effort to keep potential threats away, contractors drive convoys up the wrong side of the road, ram civilian vehicles, toss smoke bombs, and fire weaponry as warnings, all as standard practices. After a month spent embedded with Blackwater contractors in Baghdad, journalist Robert Young Pelton said, “They’re famous for being very aggressive. They use their machine guns like car horns.”

As far back as 2005, U.S. officers in Iraq such as Col. Hammes were worried that while contractors may have been fulfilling their contract, they were also “making enemies each time they went out.” U.S. Army Col. Peter Mansoor, one of the leading experts on counterinsurgency, similarly noted in January 2007, that “if they push traffic off the roads or if they shoot up a car that looks suspicious, whatever it may be, they may be operating within their contract — to the detriment of the mission, which is to bring the people over to your side. I would much rather see basically all armed entities in a counter-insurgency operation fall under a military chain of command.”

The formula for failure isn’t hard to calculate. An Iraqi is driving in Baghdad, on his way to work. A convoy of black-tinted SUVs comes down the highway at him, driving in his lane, but in the wrong direction. They are honking their horns at the oncoming traffic and firing machine gun bursts into the road, in front of any vehicle that gets too close. The Iraqi veers to the side of the road. As the SUVs drive by, Western-looking men in sunglasses point machine guns at him. Over the course of the day, that Iraqi civilian might tell X people about how “the Americans almost killed me today, and all I was doing was trying to get to work.” Y is the number of other people that convoy ran off the road on its run that day. Z is the number of convoys in Iraq that day. Multiply X times Y times Z times 365, and you have the mathematical equation of how to lose a counterinsurgency within a year.

And these are standard occurrences that go on in the regular course of contractor operations, where no one is actually harmed. Unfortunately, however, contractors have also been involved in a pattern of abuses that go far beyond the recent Blackwater incident.

For example, a reported 100 percent of the translators and up to 50 percent of the interrogators at the Abu Ghraib prison were private contractors from the Titan and CACI firms, respectively. The U.S. Army found that contractors were involved in 36 percent of the proven abuse incidents from 2003-04 and identified six particular employees as being culpable in the abuses. However, while the enlisted U.S. Army soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib abuse were properly court-martialed for their crimes, three years later not one of the private contractors named in the U.S. Army investigation reports has been charged, prosecuted or punished.

In another incident in 2005, armed contractors from the Zapata firm were detained by U.S. forces, who claimed they saw the private soldiers indiscriminately firing not only at Iraqi civilians, but also at U.S. Marines. Again, they were not charged, as the legal issues remained murky.

Other cases in 2006 included the Aegis company’s “trophy video,” in which contractors set video of them shooting at civilians to Elvis’ song “Runaway Train,” and put it on the Internet, and the alleged joyride shootings of Iraqi civilians by a Triple Canopy supervisor (which became the subject of a lawsuit after the two employees, who claim to have witnessed the shootings, lost their jobs).

Blackwater is thus not the only company to be accused of incidents that negatively impact the battle to win hearts and minds. But Blackwater has earned a special reputation among Iraqis. Much of this stems from the highly visible role it has played in escorting U.S. officials. Iraqi government officials claim that there have been at least seven incidents of civilian harm in which the company has been involved. The most notable that has been reported in the press was on Christmas Eve 2006, when a Blackwater employee allegedly got drunk while inside the Green Zone in Baghdad and got in an argument with a guard of the Iraqi vice president. He then shot the Iraqi dead. The employee was quickly flown out of the country. Nine months later, he has not been charged with any crime. Imagine the same thing happening in the U.S. — an Iraqi embassy guard, drunk at a Christmas party in D.C., shooting a Secret Service agent guarding Vice President Cheney — and you can see some potential for how Blackwater’s Christmas tidings were not happy ones for U.S. efforts at winning hearts and minds.

In May 2007, there were two more reported shootings of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors, including an Interior Ministry employee, which led to an armed standoff between the firm and Iraqi police. Thus, many felt the great tension between the firm and the locals would soon erupt. In the weeks before the September killings, Matthew Degn, a senior American civilian advisor to the Interior Ministry’s intelligence directorate, described Blackwater as giving rise to “a powder keg” of anger.

U.S. military officers frequently express their frustrations with sharing the battlefield with such private forces operating under their own rules and agendas, and worry about the consequences for their own operations. As far back as 2005, for example, Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, deputy commander of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division (responsible for security in the Baghdad area at the time), tried to keep track of contractor shootings in his sector. Over the course of two months, he found 12 shootings that resulted in at least six Iraqi civilian deaths and three more wounded. As Horst tellingly put it, “These guys run loose in this country and do stupid stuff. There’s no authority over them, so you can’t come down on them hard when they escalate force. They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath.”

Several weeks before the most recent Blackwater incident, an Iraqi official explained how the contractors’ actions were reverberating against the wider U.S. effort in Iraq and beyond. “They are part of the reason for all the hatred that is directed at Americans, because people don’t know them as Blackwater, they know them only as Americans. They are planting hatred, because of these irresponsible acts.”

The Iraqi official’s view is echoed by many. Jack Holly is a retired Marine colonel who, as director of logistics for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has worked with several firms in Iraq. As an example of the costs to key efforts, he described how Iraqi employees of the national rail system were so intimidated by Blackwater escorts that they refused to meet with State Department officials there to help them with the reconstruction effort. Of the Blackwater contractors he noted, “Their aggressive attitude is not what you would say is trying to mitigate disagreements between two societies.”

These perceptions of a contractor force run amok help to undermine the very justification for the U.S. effort in Iraq. As an Interior Ministry official said of the Blackwater contractors hired by the U.S., “They consider Iraqis like animals, although actually I think they may have more respect for animals. We have seen what they do in the streets. When they’re not shooting, they’re throwing water bottles at people and calling them names. If you are terrifying a child or an elderly woman, or you are killing an innocent civilian who is riding in his car, isn’t that terrorism?”

This statement is by an official ostensibly working with the U.S. Even worse is that incidents of contractor abuse have given America’s foes yet another weapon in the war of information so critical to winning in a counterinsurgency. Much like the Abu Ghraib affair, the episode in which the civilians were killed by Blackwater employees may have been an anomaly. But it proved to be a perfect fact around which adversaries could wrap their wider propaganda.

For example, the same week that the Blackwater shooting incident occurred, radical Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr was planning the withdrawal of his coalition from the government. Instead of having to justify the act, which potentially could collapse the government and plunge the nation into civil war, he was able instead to focus his propaganda and recruiting efforts on the Blackwater episode, describing it as “a cowardly attack committed by the so-called security company against our people without any justification.” As with others, he was clear to blame not merely the firm, but the wider American policy, describing how the firm had been allowed to recruit “criminals and those who have left American jails.” That this part is not truthful misses the point; the episode gave the other side a factual point on which to leverage their wider propaganda operations.

The effort in Iraq is just one theater within a larger effort against extremist forces, in which the “war of ideas” is the critical battleground. The global war on terrorism is not a traditional military conflict made up of set-piece battles, but rather made up of a series of small wars and insurgencies in places ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan and Egypt, where the U.S. must sway a broader population from hostility to support if it ever wants to oust terror cells and shut down recruiting pipelines. As the newly revised foreword to the famous U.S. Marine Corps Small Wars manual notes, “Small wars are battles of ideas and battles for the perceptions and attitudes of target populations.” Within these wars, it is non-kinetic tools (as opposed to fielded weaponry) that make up “the fire and maneuvers of small wars. They frequently are the main effort simply because of the criticality of the functions they perform.”

Unfortunately, here again contractors have proven to be a drag on efforts to explain and justify the already highly unpopular U.S. effort in Iraq.

The Blackwater episode resonated negatively not merely inside Iraq, but throughout the Muslim world. Every single media source led with the episode in the days that followed, focusing on how the U.S. could hire such “arrogant trigger-happy guns for hire, merce