After Blackwater

There are few options if the besieged security contractor is phased out of Iraq.

From the moment Blackwater guards opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square on Sept. 16, killing 17 civilians and injuring two dozen others, the security contractor's departure from Iraq was put into motion. Congressional oversight was swift and fierce, the media coverage relentless, and pressure from the Iraqi government surprisingly forceful.

The conviction among Democratic lawmakers and top Iraqi officials was that Blackwater had to go. The firm's Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract to protect infrastructure and diplomats in Baghdad is up for renewal in May, and many industry experts suspect that the State Department is anxious to extricate itself from Blackwater's increasingly weighty baggage. Two other American firms, DynCorp International of Falls Church, Va., and Triple Canopy of Herndon, Va., also operate under the contract.

But, if the Bush administration decides to move in a new direction with security in Iraq, the choices will be limited.

Essentially, the State Department has three options if it wants to phase out Blackwater. The protective security detail could be segued to the Marine Corps, brought in-house to the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, or transferred to one or more contractors.

A governmental solution presents overwhelming challenges. "The solution is simple. If you don't like the private sector, take it back in-house," says David Isenberg, senior analyst with the British American Security Information Council, an advocacy group in London and Washington that examines global security issues. "But you will need a much larger military and it will be much more costly. . . . Unless you are willing to do that, you are stuck with contractors."

The Marine Corps does provide security guards at U.S. embassies and has experience protecting civilians during armed conflicts, but the service already is stretched thin and has neither the capacity nor the interest in taking on added responsibilities. And the State Department is not keen on having uniformed soldiers escort their people around Iraq for fear their efforts be viewed as more military than diplomatic.

A military solution would carry its own risks. "Once Marines start doing the personal security detail . . . what happens when the Humvee with the 50-caliber, or an individual with an M-16, opens fire for the same reasons, but mistakenly? What kind of damage is that going to cause?" asks Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group in Washington that represents private security contractors. "More power to the Marines. It's the greatest military assault outfit in the world. But nobody trains a Marine to be a [personal security detail] person. I think you would be wasting an enormous amount of talent to do it."

The other governmental solution, relying on State's internal security service, could not be done in the short term. The Diplomatic Security Service has only 1,450 agents stationed at more than 285 posts worldwide. Blackwater alone employs nearly 1,000 armed guards in Iraq. Hiring and training enough DSS agents to assume a lead security role would take several years and cost many millions of dollars.

In late October, an independent review panel focused on examining regulations and improving accountability with security contractors in Iraq reached the conclusion that private industry remains the only feasible option. The panel, appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, did not specifically recommend removing Blackwater, stating only that once the FBI concludes its investigation of the September shooting, "the embassy should submit its recommendation" as to whether it wants to continue working with the North Carolina-based firm. The New York Times reported on Nov. 14 that federal agents had found that at least 14 of the 17 killings were not justified and violated the rules of deadly force.

Pressure seems to be mounting for the State Department to divest itself of Blackwater's services. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is examining the company's taxes, its justification for several sole-source contracts and its handling of the shooting of a bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president last Christmas.

But if Blackwater is booted from Iraq, can DynCorp or Triple Canopy pick up the slack? DynCorp was the lone contractor on the original March 2000 Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract, but after a disagreement regarding the amount of training that security personnel would receive, the State Department spread the work among three firms.

Of the nearly 1,400 guards operating under the WPPS II contract, Blackwater provides about 70 percent of the manpower, according to a July Congressional Research Service report (RL32419). DynCorp's 150 guards protect facilities and infrastructure in the relatively secure northern Kurdish region while Triple Canopy's 250 employees operate in southern Iraq.

Despite its relatively small contingent of security contractors, DynCorp officials say they would be ready if the State Department calls on them to take over for Blackwater. Company spokesman Gregory Lagana suspects that DynCorp would have little difficulty recruiting enough trained professionals to fill the positions, although he insists that the firm is not actively preparing for such a scenario. "It would take some time to ramp up, but we have the experience and the capacity to do it," he says.

Of course, Blackwater's security guards, many of whom have military backgrounds and operate as independent contractors, could take jobs with whatever company is assigned the work, This would be a natural development, though some equate it with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. "If Blackwater leaves, a huge percentage of the employees will just move to whichever company gets the new contract, and the change will be minimal," says Deborah Avant, a political science professor and director of international studies at the University of California, Irvine.

A wild card is the Iraqi Cabinet's recent decision to revoke Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17, which grants security contractors immunity from prosecution for actions taken in the course of their contracts. The Iraqi parliament still must approve the legislation, but it is expected to pass. A bill that passed the House of Representatives in early October would allow those same contractors to be tried in U.S. courts under the 2000 Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.

Opinions differ on the impact of immunity. Brooks suggests that removing it could force American companies out of the region or compel them to hire Iraqi workers, who comprise the bulk of private security staffs working in the country. Americans, he says, would not want to consign their fate to Iraqi courts. Avant, however, believes the consequences could be minimal because "Iraqis aren't so able to catch and prosecute anyone right now."

No matter the outcome, major change is on the horizon for security contractors. For the first time since the 2003 invasion, a spotlight has been placed on how the use of armed contractors is affecting the military and reconstruction operations. The answer to that question could dictate industry's next move.

"We have the most phenomenal security going on for our diplomats," Brooks says. "Nobody is getting killed, which is great. The problem is, is it undermining the larger mission? That's not something our industry has to decide."

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