WASHINGTON — Under pressure to exercise greater control over private security contractors in Iraq, Bush administration officials outlined stricter rules for these armed guards during a three-hour meeting Wednesday at the Pentagon with 20 companies.
The top executives from the largest security firms working in Iraq attended the meeting, which was hosted by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and Deputy Secretary State John Negroponte.
The session comes nearly four months after a shooting incident involving Blackwater Worldwide that left 17 Iraqi citizens dead. The incident, which created a worldwide furor and put the White House on the defensive, led to a December agreement between the Defense and State Departments that gave U.S. military commanders a stronger hand in managing security workers.
Senior representatives from Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy and Aegis Defence attended. Chris Isleib, a Pentagon spokesman, said the closed-door meeting was an opportunity for both sides to exchange opinions and ideas.
Peter Singer, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said government officials need to deliver a clear and firm message to the security companies.
"These 'summits' are great for talking," Singer said, "but it can't just be, 'Hey, CEOs, this is what we would like you to do.' It's got to be, 'Here are the policies. Here are the laws that we've developed.'"
The military does not want to assume responsibility for guarding large numbers of U.S. officials, and the State Department's own security force is too small and already stretched too thin.
According to the agenda, the meeting included an assessment of the political environment in Iraq from Patrick Kennedy. A senior State Department official, Kennedy led a review team that examined oversight of security contractors in the wake of the Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad.
Iraqi authorities claimed the Blackwater shootings were unprovoked and initially insisted the company's guard be expelled from the country within six months. The Iraqis also want security guards to be subject to Iraqi law.
While U.S. officials have resisted such a move, security contractors are covered by the same code of justice that applies to American military personnel.
Other topics included changes in security contract management ordered by Congress and "contractor accountability and expectations."
Jack Bell, a senior Pentagon official, told a Senate subcommittee last week that portions of the December agreement have already been implemented. Others are still being worked on.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants a progress report by Feb. 28.