Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Making the Mercenaries Accountable

It is starting to look like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is leaning heavily toward taking strident steps toward bringing all armed “security personnel” (read: mercenaries) under single authority, most likely the U.S. military, no matter what branch of government they are contracting with.

Currently, there are approximately 10,000 armed mercenaries running around Iraq, under contract to various branches of the United States government and NGOs. I know it sounds bizarre, but there is no central oversight authority to which they must answer.

Pragmatically, it just makes sense to bring all armed civilians who are under contract to American government agencies and NGOs, as well as the American military under one authority. It would mean, effectively, that those armed civilians would no longer have multiple bosses at multiple levels and a disparate set of rules. Pentagon officials say it would allow for better coordination and communications between the American military and the private security personnel.

When contractors get in trouble, they call on the US military to bail them out. Fully 30% of the incidents in which the military was called on to save mercenary bacon involved movements and convoys that the military was not even aware had mobilized.

[keep reading]

American commanders often perceive the private security personnel in an adversarial light. Civilian casualties, victims of mercenary gunfire, infuriate the Iraqi government and damage the American perception and image among the locals. This frustrates military officers who say the heavy-handed, shoot-first-and-don’t-even-bother-to-ask-questions-later tactics by mercenaries undermine the broader mission.

As details of the Blackwater shootings have emerged in recent weeks, Mr. Gates has signaled his unease with the existing command and legal authorities governing security contractors.

“Do we have the mechanisms and the means for our commanders to exercise a kind of strategic oversight and assure accountability in terms of the behavior and the conduct of these security contractors?” Mr. Gates asked at the Pentagon on Sept. 27.

“It’s very important that we do everything in our power to make sure that people who are under contract to us are not only abiding by our rules, but are conducting themselves in a way that makes them an asset in this war in Iraq and not a liability,” he added.

Gates is said to feel very strongly about the need to rein in the armed civilians that run around the country and frequently run amok and murder civilians, to the point that he has expressed a willingness to go directly to the president if necessary. Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said Mr. Gates “has made clear that he supports his commanders’ assertions that, at the very least, they need greater visibility on the work and movements of armed security contractors in Iraq.”

Gates has been told by senior military commanders in Iraq that there must be a single chain of command, providing oversight for all contract personnel. The commanders argue that the military is the best positioned entity to provide that oversight authority.

No formal proposals have been made, but when they are, they are expected to meet resistance from the State Department, which, while acknowledging that there is a problem, wants to retain authority over their own contract employees.

Gates and Rice enjoy a better relationship than Rumsfeld and Rice did, and Gates is holding off on making sweeping pronouncements and proclamations until he has a chance to sit down face-to-face and discuss the matter with the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor.

But one thing is certain...the issue of contractors and accountability is not going to go away, and there will be oversight.

And it's about damned time, too.