Let's Have Reality Based Discussion on PSC Use

10/18/2010 08:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Isenberg Author, 'Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq'

Periodically I am contacted by a radio or television show booker to see if I can talk about private security contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan. Often they ask me if I can talk about the lack of accountability over PSC.

At that point I take a breath and patiently try to explain that A) yes, there have obviously been problems with the use of PSC; B) there are still some problems and C) the situation is significantly better than it was. Some bookers and interviewers want to argue the point. After all so many people have said or written that PSC are a bunch of thinly veiled mercenaries that surely there must be something to it.

Well,, that has about as much credibility as the Bush administration's original rationale for invading Iraq, i.e., that it was close to developing nuclear weapons.

While I have not been reluctant to criticize PSC when they merit it I am also not inclined to scapegoat them. Sometimes their client, i.e., our taxpayer supported government is as much at fault as the PSC itself.

As I wrote a book on the use of PSC in Iraq let's consider a bit of what has been going on the past few years there.

When we talk about guys with guns the message is a bit mixed but the trend line is upwards. While there is much more regulation on the acquisition, storage, and use of small arms and light weapons by PSC in Iraq than commonly assumed much of the most important processes for ensuring oversight and accountability is of fairly recent origin.

In the early days after the United States invaded Iraq, the CPA issued two orders:


"Small Arms and Defensive Weapons" means Small Arms as defined in CPA Order 3 including pistols, shotguns, and rifles firing ammunition up to an including 7.62mm and Defensive Weapons including crew-served machine guns, non-lethal weapons and riot control agents.

Private security firms may be licensed by the Ministry of the Interior to possess and use licensed Firearms and Military Weapons, excluding Special Category Weapons , in the course of their duties, including in public places.


Notwithstanding any provisions in this Order, Private Security Companies and their employees operating in Iraq must comply with all CPA Orders, Regulations, Memoranda, and any implementing instructions or regulations governing the existence and activities of Private Security Companies in Iraq, including registration and licensing of weapons and firearms.

In addition, the U.S. Combatant Commander provided specific guidance on arming contractor personnel and private security contractors in the USCENTCOM area of responsibility through a series of Fragmentary Orders [FRAGO] and other authoritative guidance.

One can find a listing of PSC relevant FRAGO at the Contractors Operations Centre Cells. (CONOC)

The U.S. Department of Defense [DOD] has made significant efforts to improve the management, oversight, and coordination of PSC]. DOD established CONOC in Iraq and in Afghanistan to coordinate the movement of PSCs. Early in 2008, MNC-I established six CONOC throughout Iraq to coordinate the movement of DOD and DoS PSCs with military units; the central CONOC is located at MNC-I headquarters at Camp Victory, and the other five are located at the five divisions that control the battle spaces in Iraq. These CONOC also respond to incidents involving PSCs. Under DOD's new rules, PSCs are required to give the central CONOC at least 72-hours advance notice prior to entering its area of responsibility. Additionally, DOD gave field commanders the authority to approve, alter, or deny most PSC mission requests in their area of responsibility.

In November 2007 DOD established the ACOD [Armed Contractor Oversight Division] in Iraq (later renamed ACOB - Armed Contractor Oversight Bureau) which became fully operational in May 2008. This directorate is responsible for developing policies for and investigating incidents of the use of force by PSC.

Before the creation of ACOD, the Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Regional Division had Reconstruction Operations Centers [ROC] that provided a similar role to the CONOC.

Prior to the shootings of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors in Baghdad in September 2007, the U.S. military lacked a single structure for managing its PSCs in Iraq. ACOD was to serve as MNF-I's overall point of contact for policy issues relating to PSCs hired by DOD as well as to provide broad oversight over these contractors. According to MNF-I officials, the office's goals include [1] working to reduce the number of incidents of PSCs discharging weapons or behaving in a manner that undermines the credibility of U.S. efforts; [2] developing a mechanism for holding PSCs accountable for their actions; [3] reducing the time that elapses between the occurrence of an incident and the reporting of that incident; and [4] minimizing the impact of an incident on the credibility of U.S. efforts in Iraq.

One of the key efforts of ACOD is to monitor, review, and report all PSC incidents. These incidents include those involving injuries; deaths; negative reports in the media; weapons discharges; complaints from U.S. military commanders, local Iraqi citizens or the government of Iraq; and other allegations of PSC misconduct. PSCs are required to report these incidents in writing to the MNC-I CONOC. The CONOC would review the report for completeness, then forward to ACOD. The office then reviews each incident report to determine whether the incident requires additional investigation. After an investigation is completed by the appropriate unit commander, ACOD tracks corrective or disciplinary actions initiated by the commander or the PSC.

According to MNF-I officials, prior to December 2007 there were between 40 and 50 separate fragmentary orders relating to regulations applicable to PSCs in Iraq. As such, contracting officers as well as military commanders rotating into Iraq may not have been aware of all of the regulations covering PSCs. In December 2007, MNF-I issued Fragmentary Order 07-428, to consolidate the previous fragmentary orders and establish authorities, responsibilities and coordination requirements for MNC-I to provide oversight for all armed DOD contractors and civilians in Iraq including PSCs. The establishment of the consolidating fragmentary order creates a single source for CENTCOM mandated orders, regulations and mandatory contract clauses relating to requirements, procedures, and responsibilities for control, coordination, management, and oversight of PSCs in Iraq. Specifically, the order addresses PSC requirements including arming procedures and responsibilities, rules for the use of force and mandates strengthened serious incident reporting procedures and responsibilities. For example, under the new order when a PSC observes, suspects, or participates in a serious incident such as a weapons discharge, PSCs are required to submit an immediate incident report at the earliest opportunity via the most secure means available to MNC-I and then submit an initial written report of the incident not later than 4 hours after the incident in contrast to the previous 48 hour reporting requirement. The order requires the initial report to contain a highlighted version of the incident, including critical information such as who was involved and when and where the incident occurred. PSCs are required to file a final report with 96 hours of the incident.

The above is hardly a complete list of everything that has been done since Nisoor Square to improve accountability over PSC. Yes, one can argue the situation is not perfect but what is in life? While I'm all for legitimate criticism it should be grounded in reality, and not on a frozen in time depiction of PSC.