NEWS

Congress Tries to Get a Grip on Private Security Firms

By Matthew Harwood

Congress today tackled the U.S. military's growing reliance on private security contractors (PSCs) and how to regulate and hold them accountable when deployed overseas to support U.S. military operations.

The hearing comes after the September 17, 2007 incident in which Blackwater Worldwide contractors guarding a U.S. State Department convoy fired into a crowd in Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqis. According to reports from the department of Justice and Defense (DoD), at least 14 deaths were unprovoked.

The incident led Congress to investigate the U.S. military's growing reliance on private security contractors and the lack of oversight and accountability standards governing their conduct. As the military shrinks, non-combat functions such as guarding critical infrastructure, protecting American and foreign officials, and escorting convoys has been outscourced to PSCs.

Estimates suggest some 30,000 PSCs operate in Iraq, according to Professor Laura A. Dickinson of the University of Connecticut School of Law. In the first quarter of 2008, the DoD reports it has nearly 10,000 private security agents under contract, 76 percent of whom are third-country nationals.

"The rapid growth in their use has been ad hoc," said Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Goverment Affairs Committee, "and without a comprehensive framework for the hiring, training, vetting, or even use of their services."

Jack Bell, deputy undersecretary of defense, told the committee that DoD and the State Department recently signed a memorandum of agreement defining a regulatory framework for PSCs.

The framework would, among other things, create "core standards for the vetting, training, and certification of all [U.S. government] PSC contractor personnel," ensuring that PSCs comply with the rules and regulations of the Iraqi government, multinational forces, and the U.S. Embassy Baghdad. The framework would also require that U.S. PSCs use only authorized weapons and ammunition and adopt common standards governing use of force, Bell testified.

The departments of Defense and State have also placed a priority in registering PSCs in their Synchronized Pre-deployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT) system, which tracks contractor personnel movements in Iraq and Afghanistan, validates a contractor's association with a specific contract, verifies contractors' access to Defense facilities, and checks contractor eligibility for certain Defense tasks. This is necessary, because Dickinson told the committee, "neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense, nor any arm of the government, keeps sufficient track" of PSCs.

Another area of controversy raised by the Blackwater incident this past September is the legal immunity afforded PSCs, who fall outside the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs service members' conduct.

In her opening statement, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) said the United States cannot maintain other nations' trust it if it "cannot impose clear constraints and enforce serious legal consequences for illegal conduct by private security contractors - as we do with federal civilian employees or the military."

Both the department of State and Defense support pending legislation extending legal accountability to PSCs when it acts unlawfully abroad. "We would very much like to see this critical legislation enacted as soon as possible," Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary for management at the State Department, told the committee.

James D. Schmitt, senior vice president of ArmorGroup North America, Inc. and the lone industry representative to testify, said his company "absolutely" supports government regulation. Government-imposed standards, he said, would help the industry grow professionally. Companies that follow the rules should be rewarded with more government contracts while those companies that violate performance and regulatory requirements should lose their existing contracts and be ineligible to bid on new ones.

By rewarding ethical PSCs, the United States improves its image abroad, Schmitt argued, because "how private security contractors conduct themselves directly impacts how we are perceived as a country by a local population."

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