Blackwater USA, the private security firm that has been publicly castigated without the benefit of a completed investigation regarding the Sept. 16 shooting incident in Iraq is responsible for safely moving diplomats, visiting government officials, members of Congress, and others through the dangerous streets of Baghdad and beyond. Ironically, Blackwater has protected some of its greatest critics from harm.
Not surprisingly, the tone for this recent public flogging was set when immediately following the incident the Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MoI) accused Blackwater of firing first. The MoI is the same organization the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq only two weeks ago called a “ministry in name only” because it is ineffectual, inefficient, and sectarian. It is common knowledge that the MoI, infested with corruption and extortion, now is fully infiltrated by Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. But somehow, this dysfunctional collection of Iraqi thugs is now the most credible body in the Iraqi government, at least with regard to the Sept. 16 attack on Blackwater’s convoy. What is clear is that the Ministry of Interior has exploited this incident for political gain in an attempt to recover even a shred of credibility.
Blackwater’s professionals have conducted over 16,000 diplomatic movements since 2005 but only discharged their weapons 195 times; about 1.2% of the time. Given that Blackwater protects the highest profile people in Iraq and given that the MoI is notorious for passing on to militias any information it learns about these movements, 1.2% is staggeringly low. Perhaps it is a testament to Blackwater’s experience and discipline.
Claims of “high-profile” behavior and twice the amount of engagements than other security companies (Blackwater defines a mission as a round-trip movement while other security companies use a one-way metric) are sexy, but other companies aren’t protecting the US ambassador or members of Congress who attract more attention from insurgents. Other companies may have the luxury of going “low profile”, but Blackwater doesn’t. Blackwater reports to the Regional Security Officer (RSO) in Baghdad and ultimately to the Ambassador. Its daily movements are dictated by the embassy and their rules for the use of force (which includes the escalation of force) are dictated to them by the Department of State.
Before we hang Blackwater in the public square and use them as political fodder for more Administration bashing in an election year we should consider that each day at the government’s request they go into harm’s way. Thirty Blackwater men have died while serving our government in Iraq and Afghanistan, but all of their protectees have gone home without even serious injury.
The broader and more important story is bigger than Blackwater. The American capacity to respond to humanitarian and security challenges worldwide has always depended on the private sector’s partnership for its responsiveness, cost-effectiveness, and quality. Since the American Revolution when George Washington wrote IOUs for supplies to sutlers and merchants to Vietnam where over 80,000 professional contractors served the country, the private sector has played a significant role in supporting U. S. national security and foreign policies.
But the challenge has always been when and where to integrate civilian expertise into government operations. Blackwater and others have been operating under the rule set given to them, but it is not the private sector that has been reticent to discuss sensible regulation, improved accountability and oversight, and better integration going forward. In fact, for years, Blackwater and other private sector companies through the International Peace Operations Association have advocated to Congress and other federal agencies for an extensive dialogue to discuss all of the challenges and their sensible solutions.
Without a national discussion among lawmakers, policymakers, academics, legal scholars, the military, homeland security, the private sector, and the American public that clearly defines the challenges and a way forward, we will continue to put contractors at risk with unclear mechanisms for accountability and enforcement. However, that conversation cannot take place only in politically charged hearings that first look to blame someone rather than to learn. Those don’t generally reveal much truth.
Blackwater’s professionals are retired or former military and law enforcement, mostly working middle-class Americans who want to continue to support their elected government and they deserve much more than a partisan sideshow. The dearth of informed debate on this and other related issues, and the lack of empirical analysis deprives taxpayers and lawmakers of the discussion necessary to learn and make sound democratic choices about our national security.
The loss of innocent life is tragic in any case, but media attention and specious claims by the Iraqi MoI do not turn an armed insurgent into a civilian. The responsibility for any loss of innocent lives on Sept. 16 rests squarely with the insurgents who chose to attack a diplomatic convoy, needlessly endangering nearby civilians.
The future of the private sector’s role in national security is a necessary and important discussion but it is unconscionable that the discussion is happening for political gain at the expense of one company of men who put themselves in harm’s every day way to protect American citizens and others.
The Washington uninformed will continue to ride the Blackwater Bandwagon ‘til the wheels fall off as they rush to judgment, rush to print, and then rush to happy hour. At least they can enjoy the weekend knowing the next time they go to Baghdad, brave men will keep them alive.
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