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.
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.