THE BLOG
07/20/2010 10:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Oversight, Accountability Needed for Contractors in War Zones

By Melina Milazzo, Pennoyer Fellow, Law and Security Program

The Washington Post has launched an investigative series looking into the United States' vast, secretive national security industry created in response to the 9/11 attacks. After conducting a two-year investigation, the Post found an extensive, unwieldy system of government and private companies that work in secret with little oversight on counter-terrorism and intelligence operations within the United States. Today, the series focused on the U.S. government's extensive reliance on private contractors to perform highly sensitive functions across a multitude of platforms.

To better understand the U.S. government's reliance on private contractors, as well as the possible consequences associated with that reality, one only needs to look at a small, but highly volatile segment of this population -- private contractors in war zones.

There are more private military contractors than U.S. military troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of March 2010, there were 207,600 total contractor personnel compared to 175,000 uniformed personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. For every one U.S. troop serving in Iraq, there is one private contractor. In Afghanistan, the reliance on contractors increases even more -- for every one U.S. troop, there are approximately 1.42 contractors.

While the vast majority of these contractors perform logistical functions, private security contractors -- that is, those providing protection to convoys of vital supplies to U.S. bases, guarding the perimeter of the U.S. embassies and consulates, and performing personal security detail for U.S. diplomats -- are on the rise in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, even while the overall number of contractors in Iraq has steadily decreased since June 2008, the number of private security contractors (PSCs) in Iraq has actually increased by 26% over that same time period. Indeed, the number of PSCs has increased by 4% and 14% respectively in Iraq and Afghanistan over last quarter. PSCs in Iraq and Afghanistan now total more than 28,000 and nearly all of them are armed. This represents the highest percentage of armed contractors in DoD's contractor workforce in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2007.

Similarly, the State Department testified during a June hearing before the Commission on Wartime Contracting that by the time U.S. military forces exit Iraq it will need to more than double the number of private security contractors in Iraq -- from about 2,700 to approximately 7,000.

With this increased reliance on contractors have come increased incidents of serious criminal violations. Contractors have been implicated in a range of abuses across theaters and in multiple capacities. They have been accused of participating in torture and of imposing wanton violence on local civilian populations. Yet, only a handful of U.S. contractors have been prosecuted for criminal misconduct. The most notorious incident -- the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square in 2008 by Blackwater employees -- symbolizes the "culture of impunity" that Human Rights First reported on in 2008.

There are, however, clear steps to end contractor abuse and impunity -- one of which is to ensure meaningful accountability for serious abuses committed by U.S. contractors abroad are in place. This is not only imperative to the United States' reputation as a nation committed to the rule of law, but also to the success of its military missions.

Currently, there is legislation in both chambers of Congress which would provide the needed legal clarification, mechanisms and resources. The Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) would clarify and expand U.S. criminal jurisdiction over contractors fielded abroad, increase oversight, and allocate necessary investigatory and prosecutorial resources. CEJA would provide a meaningful step towards closing the accountability gap and preventing future abuses of contractors deployed by the United States abroad.

As Human Rights First noted in our written testimony before the Commission on Wartime Contracting, "Private security contractors are being asked to function in active combat zones in ways that dangerously blur the line between civilians and the military." Therefore, "[c]ontractors must also be held responsible by a robust and adequately-resourced judicial system when they commit crimes, and additional, credible, oversight must be in exercised in the field."

The Washington Post's segment today on the government's reliance on private contractors to perform critical national security functions reminds us that effective control and oversight are needed in order to guard against waste and government brain drain. Oversight and accountability, however, are even more important when private contractors are used in war zones and lives are at stake.