The deadly shooting of Iraqi civilians by guards working for Blackwater USA in Baghdad on Sept. 16 should raise many questions about the role of private contractors in U.S. national security. So, too, should the Bush administration's opposition to a House bill that seeks to place all private contractors in Iraq and other combat zones under the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
The Defense Department's use of a significant number of private contractors for jobs normally done by military personnel started when Washington ended the draft, in 1973. Since the Pentagon no longer relied on the hidden tax of conscription, volunteers had to be paid a reasonable wage. To keep the number of military people small -- and hold down personnel costs -- the Pentagon began contracting out support activities like preparing food for the troops (soldiers call these duties K.P. or kitchen police) and routine maintenance. This trend was accelerated by the assumption of many federal, state and local officials that the private sector was, by definition, more efficient than the government. So government agencies began contracting out as many functions as possible.
In the 30 years since the draft ended, the US military began to rely increasingly on the private sector, even using contractors in combat zones and to provide security or force protection. Yet, the Pentagon did not develop any official policies as to what could and could not be contracted out, or how to hold private individuals accountable for actions outside the U.S.
Because there were no such guidelines, the Bush administration felt free to use contractors to make up for its own failure to send enough troops to stabilize Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, or to increase the size of ground forces so that they had sufficient strength to combat the insurgency. Now, there are more private contractors in Iraq than U.S. military personnel (180,000 contractors versus 160,000 military personnel). And these contractors are not just doing just KP, but jobs that should be done only by agents of the U.S. government - like security and interrogation of prisoners.
For example, the security services that Blackwater provides to State Department officials can and should be provided by Army personnel. Moreover, given the dangerous security situation in Iraq, these private contractors are far more expensive than military personnel. The full cost (salary, housing, and subsistence) for an Army sergeant would be from $140 to $190 per day. But the government is paying Blackwater six to nine times that amount. Moreover, since many of these freelance warriors were originally trained by the U.S. military, taxpayers are actually paying for them twice.
The important role these contractors play in Iraq was demonstrated during the confirmation hearings for Gen. David Petraeus. When Petraeus was confronted by the fact that, even with the surge, he would not have enough troops to implement his counterinsurgency plan, he insisted that he did -- because he was including the private contractors. Indeed, more private contractors have been killed in Iraq than all the non-U.S. members of the multinational force combined.
Though the deadly shootings of Sept, 16 (at least 13 Iraqi civilians were killed), triggered outrage in Congress and in Iraq, this is not the first case of questionable conduct by private contractors. For example, in December, 2006, a drunken Blackwater contractor killed the guard of Iraq's vice president, Adel Abdul Mehdi. In March, 2004, four armed Blackwater employees blundered into Fallujah in the middle of an U.S. military operation. They were caught and killed by insurgents -- forcing the administration to retaliate against the wishes of American military commanders.
Nor is Blackwater the only private military company causing problems. Personnel from companies like Triple Canopy and Zapata have also engaged in questionable activities.
The House bill is a useful first step to provide accountability. So is the order from Secretary Rice on Friday that special agents from the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security ride with Blackwater agents.
But we should not stop there. We need to begin decreasing the role of these contractors in providing security right now, and start turning these operations over to the military's special forces.
The longer we rely on these private security forces, the more difficult it will be for us to accomplish our objectives. When we do finally extricate ourselves from this quagmire in Iraq, Washington needs to put the contractors back into the kitchen. The government -- and only the government -- must have a monopoly on the use of force.
We know that using private contractors in a combat zone does not save money. If we need a bigger military or a return to conscription to wage preventive wars, let's do it.