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Q&A: Leaked War Logs Raise Questions of Accountability for Military Contractors

When WikiLeaks released a trove of nearly 400,000 military field reports from Iraq last week, much of the initial focus was on civilian deaths and the abuse of detainees in Iraqi custody.

The New York Times pulled out another part of the story—multiple accounts of questionable shootings by private military contractors. One incident report for a July 2009 shooting involving contractors noted, “It is assessed that this drunken group of individuals were out having a good time and firing their weapons.”

Given the big accountability questions that remain regarding the use of private contractors, we contacted David Isenberg, an independent analyst and author of the book “Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.” Isenberg, who also blogs on private contractors for The Huffington Post, gave his take on what the WikiLeaks documents reveal, what the current situation with contractors is in both Iraq and Afghanistan and why he’s often irked by media coverage of the subject.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Maybe we should start by defining “military contractors.” Not all contractors are armed contractors, but do we know roughly what proportion of them are?

The shorthand is that private military firms or contractors refers to people who are doing any of a myriad of functions that military used to do, whether it’s working on water purification, or translators and interpreters; it could be setting up a forward operating base, it could be delivering petroleum.

Private security contractors are the guys with guns, they’re a subset of PMCs. Numerically, they’re a small subset, but they monopolize 90 percent of attention simply because somebody dies when they’re potentially doing what they’re supposed to do.

In a wax and wane, depending on what region and whether forces are increasing or decreasing, but generally, on any given day, PSCs make up somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of all the PMCs out there.

Some of what the WikiLeaks Iraq documents show is previously unreported incidents involving private military contractors. What do you make of these incidents?

I look at it from the perspective of someone who’s been studying this for a while. Over the course of years, much of what happened on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan never made it into reports from the media.

But if you had taken the time to look at the boards or e-mail lists devoted to private security contractors, you would’ve seen discussion of a lot of incidents and a fairly free acknowledgment that most of what happened never saw the light of media day. So in that sense what WikiLeaks reported is confirming what we knew.

What WikiLeaks reveals is that a lot of stuff — a lot depends on how you look at total number of incidents — where shots were fired and reports were subsequently filed and did not get released publicly for people in the media, or they didn’t bother paying attention to it. Some incidents simply happened and the State Department just chose not to report it.

And it’s fair to point out that a lot of the people in the industry weren’t eager to talk about it. The government wasn’t eager to talk. There was some deliberate avoidance.

What about accountability? It seems like in many of these cases, very little action was taken after the incidents.

Bear in mind that some of the incidents that WikiLeaks' revelations are talking about occurred years ago, starting in 2004. What the oversight and accountability framework is now compared to then is totally different universes.

You’ve had modifications to the [Uniform Code of Military Justice], you’ve had the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. You have other measures taking place.

None of that is to say that things are peachy-keen and there won’t be any oversight and accountability issues in future. But compared to the way it was back in 2004, 2005, 2006, even 2007, it’s a lot different now.

The problem has always been, even back then, it was more an issue of political will rather than a lack of law. I’ve always maintained that when it suits [the State Department], it slaps down Blackwater and other security contractors, says their actions have been disgraceful, and then it tells them to shut up and not speak in public about what’s in their contract and what we’ve told you to do, which is get our people safe and do what you've got to do to do that. It’s hypocrisy. There’s a lot of blank space between what the State Department wants contractors to do and what it says about them in public.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai said in August he would ban private security contractors from operating in the country. How does this change the situation over there?

It’s a little bit more complex in Afghanistan because when you talk about PSCs there, you have a higher proportion which are Afghan PSCs, which have been set up by various Afghan people, some of whom are friends or relatives of Karzai or former warlords, but are still working on U.S. government contracts.

So that means that operationally, you’re probably having less quality control with your PSC workforce, because you’re having to take the word of the people who employ them, who have not been vetted by the U.S. government bureaucracy. So in terms of background checks or clearance, none of that is happening, and it presents quality control difficulties.

Don’t we already know that some of our contractors in Afghanistan had ties to the Taliban?

A recent report by the Senate Armed Services Committee was quite explicit on that point, yes. And you can also say the same thing with regard to a report released earlier in the year by [Rep. John] Tierney about the Host Nation Trucking contract.

Warlords who had set up companies to transport and provide security were helping the Taliban, if only to make payoff payments to them, which they had to do to get the convoy through. If that wasn’t an example of Joe Heller Catch-22 irony, nothing is. We were making payments to them [for safe passage] to transport equipment to fight them with.

Given the scale of reliance on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, do you have any sense that contractors are used politically, to say we’ve withdrawn or are scaling down our troops?

It’s not an attempt at deceit. It’s simply a realization that private contractors are so thoroughly intertwined with military forces that it has no other choice. PSCs are the Pentagon’s American Express card. It can’t go to war without them.

They’re long past the day of making a deliberate policy choice. Obama has tried to bring some things back in-house, and some of that has happened, but the government never said it was going to cut it all off because it can’t. That process is too far gone.

You’ve criticized what you consider to be sensational and misleading coverage of private military contractors. Can you give some examples of stuff that irks you?

That whole “private military and security contractors are thinly veiled mercenaries” is just wrong. There is a clear, global definition of what constitutes a mercenary in the 1977 Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. There are six points to that which must be cumulatively fulfilled… None of the people working as private security contractors are legally mercenaries.

That’s not to say they’re great guys. It’s just to say they’re not mercenaries. If you can’t understand that, it just says to me you’re unwilling to do dispassionate and objective reporting on the subject.

Just like on the pro-contractor side, the people who say these guys are just a bunch of patriots. I was in the service. Admittedly, I was in the Navy, not the Army, but no self-respecting contractor — if you had them talking off the record over a beer — they’re not going to say that. They understand it’s all about the money.

Private security contractors and the private military contractors doing logistics work are oftentimes doing fairly rough jobs in not-nice conditions, and some get highly paid, some don’t get paid very well at all. … I’d simply say some of them take advantage of the situation, but most are trying to do the best job they can in difficult circumstances. We don’t need to make them into heroes or vilify them unfairly either.

For more on the subject, check out ProPublica’s series on private contractors, Disposable Army.

It would appear that the only Geneva Convention mercenary test[0] that these combatants fail is test (d): one is a mercenary according to that test if, in addition to passing the other tests, one “is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict”.  So the only thing standing between, say, Blackwater (oh, sorry, Xe Services) combat employees and a legal status of mercenary is their US citizenship, and evidence indicates that companies like this do hire some non-citizens[1].  This legal loophole aside, I don’t think it’s that unreasonable to characterize people who pass the Geneva Convention’s other tests as mercenaries.  This doesn’t seem so controversial, particularly when even Isenberg himself, in the article you referenced, decides at one point to “[a]ccept for a moment, for the sake of argument, that contractors are at least a sort of quasi-mercenary component of the All Volunteer Force”.  He may not be comfortable doing it permanently, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch.

[0] http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/7c4d08d9b287a42141256739003e636b/f6c8b9fee14a77fdc125641e0052b079

[1] http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32419.pdf

Not meeting the “real” definition that constitutes a label of mercenary does not mean there are not mercenary’s there be they Afghan’s, Iraqi’s, American’s or from another country. The dept of defense has surely created a shadow military. I can’t believe it is to late to stop the insane actions. A contractor cost the American peoples more dollars than a military person. Even though a contractor who is our enemy (Afghan or Iraqi) it is still a high price to pay these radical Islamic.
We are being taken to the cleaners.  It is to bad that there is collateral damage but then again . . . . . . they started it.

Well actually John, the definition does matter.

It would be like calling all massage therapists ‘prostitutes’, just because one or two massage therapists might actually meet the definition of prostitute. Of course the massage therapists who are not prostitutes would be highly offended that they would be referred to as such.

So if your intent is to offend those security contractors that are not by definition ‘mercenaries’, you are doing a great job with your loose definition.

Take that a step further. If you are a journalist, is your job to tell the truth and be unbiased. How is purposely using the term ‘mercenary’ as a derogatory to describe security contractors in a story, being honest or unbiased? Hell, even the UN Working Group on the use of Mercenaries is able to tell the difference.

David Isenberg is spot on with his assessment about the matter, and uniquely qualified to comment on such things. John on the other hand?....

Hey matt,
Your analogy to massage therapists and prostitutes is way off base for this reason: mercenaries, whether they fit the legal definition or not, fill the same function as soldiers, to kill, blow things up, guard facilities and people. Massage therapists, on the other hand, fill a totally different function than prostitutes. Your analogy isn’t even close.

If the mercs find that insulting by that, well let’s just call that collateral damage.

AND ANOTHER THING

But seriously, whether they are called mercenaries or security contractors, the fundamental issue is that private contractors are not within the chain of command, not subject to the laws of war, and are totally out of control.

as an aside, I’m married to a massage therapist and she is not threatened by ignorant people who think what she does is prostitution. She knows the truth, and so do the clients whom she has helped to move without pain. The only reason “security contractors” would be insulted by people calling them mercenaries is if, somewhere in their souls, they think it may be true,.

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