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Private Warriors: New PBS Doc Questions Role of Military Contractors in Iraq

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A new PBS documentary titled “Private Warriors,” raises questions about the accountability of the private companies working in Iraq and the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on them. We speak with the producer and correspondent, Martin Smith and Brookings Institution fellow, Peter Singer who is author of “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.” [includes rush transcript]

It’s been two and half years since the invasion of Iraq. Month after month, the army cannot meet its recruitment goals. At the same time, the military has increasingly been outsourcing services to private contractors. Between the logistics giant Halliburton and numerous armed security companies, private military contractors now comprise the second largest force in Iraq, far outnumbering the allied troops.

A new documentary titled “Private Warriors,” gives viewers an unprecedented behind-the scenes look at companies working in Iraq like Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary and Erinys a South African private security company. The film raises questions about the accountability of these companies and the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on them. This is an excerpt that begins with Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes. He served as a base commander in Iraq in early 2004.

  • “Private Warriors,”, excerpt of Frontline documentary premiering June 21 at 9:00pm on PBS.
    Click for more information: “Private Warriors”
  • Martin Smith, producer and correspondent of “Private Warriors.” He has contributed to FRONTLINE over the years as both an award-winning producer and reporter. In recent years, Smith’s focus has been on Al Qaeda and the war in Iraq.
  • Peter Singer, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He is author of “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A new documentary titled Private Warriors, which is airing tonight on PBS, gives viewers an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes look at companies working in Iraq like Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary, and Erinys a South African private security company. The film raises questions about the accountability of these companies and the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on them. This is an excerpt that begins with Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes . He served as a base commander in Iraq in early 2004.

COL. THOMAS X. HAMMES: There were security contractors over there that were just cowboys. They clearly had neither the training nor the experience. Could I identify them? No. They wore a mixed bag of uniforms. Nobody wore name tags. They didn’t have unit logos. You would run into these people in town with really kind of a bad attitude, and there’s nothing you could do about it. How do you identify them? Well, there’s no license plates on their car. They’re driving an S.U.V. These people were simply unsafe. Whether you like it or not, they represent you. To the local population, they’re your hired guns. The Iraqis resented very much and knew quite clearly that if one of these people shot an Iraqi they were not subject to any law. They could simply be extracted from the country.

PETER SINGER: There were reports of literally companies hiring bouncers to do security detail duties in Iraq. That’s a training issue. You also have the question of their —

MARTIN SMITH: You’ve got something against bouncers?

PETER SINGER: In terms of having them on the ground, carrying submachine guns that they’ve never learned how to use, out there getting into fire fights that not only impinge upon that company, but by the way, impinge upon the entire U.S. military operation.

MARTIN SMITH: These companies have training. They have training by former, you know, special forces.

PETER SINGER: Sometimes companies have let in people who have backgrounds that we would not want to be there.

LAWRENCE PETER: There’s always going to be a small percentage of people who don’t do a good job in any industry.

NARRATOR: In 2004 Lawrence Peter was the U.S. official in charge of regulating the security business in Iraq. Now he’s left government and is an industry rep.

MARTIN SMITH: Is there active debate within the business as to what jobs are appropriate and which jobs are not appropriate?

LAWRENCE PETER: Right now you’ve got private security companies that have been asked to do certain missions, and they’re going do those to the best of their ability within the framework in which they’re provided. They operate under clearly defined rules for use of force.

MARTIN SMITH: Was there ever a time when a private security contractor was reprimanded?

LAWRENCE PETER: Well, there may have been. But that typically would be between the contracts officer who hired that private security company and the private security company.

MARTIN SMITH: You would have been in a position to know.

LAWRENCE PETER: I’m not aware of any incidents off hand. I mean, someone could bring up something to me or something like that.

MARTIN SMITH: But that’s the issue. There’s no transparency if there have been any kinds of reprimands, we don’t know about them. And we don’t even know if there have been any.

LAWRENCE PETER: Is is a responsibility for every company to tell me if they’re having a difficulty or not? No. Companies are very self-reliant, independent, and they’re going to do the things that they need to do. This is a business matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Peter, the U.S. official in charge of regulating the security business in Iraq in 2004. This, from an excerpt of a new PBS “Frontline” documentary called Private Warriors. It airs tonight at 9:00 on PBS. We’re joined today in our New York studio by the producer and correspondent of Private Warriors, Martin Smith. In Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Peter Singer, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, author of the book Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. His article “Outsourcing War” appears in the March issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. We’re going to today start with talking about the whole private corporate landscape in Iraq. Martin Smith, you’ve been to Iraq, what, four times now?

MARTIN SMITH: This was my fourth trip. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you focus on this corporate army?

MARTIN SMITH: Well, it was kind of the elephant in the room. You know, after three trips to Iraq I had seen the growing number of private contractors that were running the supply lines, building the bases, running the bases, providing security even for our armed forces. And it seemed an obvious story to us. And it hasn’t gotten much coverage outside of Peter Singer’s book. It’s gotten very little, if any, television coverage. But yet it’s all the correspondents that are over there stay on these bases. They see these private security companies. They hire some of them. So it’s — it was an obvious story. I went to “Frontline” and said we’ve got to look at private contractors.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Singer, you’ve been looking at private contractors for a while, not in film, but in your investigations. Can you talk about how these people in Iraq compare to the military in Iraq? What’s the difference? What’s the same?

PETER SINGER: Well, I think you need to remember that we’re talking at the end of the day about employees, not soldiers. So while they’re carrying out a military role, they’re not part of the chain of command. They don’t take an oath of office, and so they are separate structures. And also, the organizations that they’re in are motivated differently. A Marine unit doesn’t have to turn a profit. It also doesn’t have discretion about when and wear it deploys. And so, on one hand the companies say, 'Oh, but that gives us efficiency. That means we can do jobs that the Marines wouldn't be able to.” In some ways that’s right, but then the opposite side of it is you have them out there performing, what I would argue, the most public role: warfare itself. And yet they’re outside the normal controls. And that should raise some questions, particularly when we are talking about an environment like Iraq which is effectively a lawless zone right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Smith, who carries the guns?

MARTIN SMITH: Well, there are — and the numbers vary widely — anywhere from 6,000 to 20,000 private security guards who are over there, as I mentioned before, protecting General Bostic of the Army Corp of Engineers, General Patreas, who’s in charge of training the Iraqi armed forces and the U.S. ambassadors and all State Department officials. These guys carry the guns. There are probably 60 companies or so, many of them are established companies. But many of them started up just as the war started, and you had a kind of Baghdad bubble, if you will. A lot of companies rushed in. A lot of money on the table. They armed up and started protecting people.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Singer, when do they engage in combat? What are the rules of combat for these private contractors?

PETER SINGER: I think it’s important to take a step back, though, and note what they’re doing beyond just the combat activities themselves. Just like a small percentage of soldiers are in armed combat roles, the private military industry is much larger than that. You have companies that are doing everything from military support and supply, like Halliburton, to actually carrying out training missions, not only for the U.S. military but also for the new Iraqi military. And then finally, these company that are in these tactical combat roles, which range from everything from guarding key individuals like top ambassadors, top leaders, to doing convoy escort, which is obviously one of the most dangerous duties in Iraq right now, because that’s the primary motive of the insurgent attack. And then finally guarding key facilities, guarding both government installations, construction sites, also U.S. military bases on the ground there.

So one of the things that’s happening here is that while contractors are performing a role that if you took them out, the operation would collapse, they’re also performing such important roles that they’ve been involved in some of the most controversial aspects of the war, whether you’re talking about the Halliburton over-billing accusations or the torture accusations at Abu Ghraib. Contractors have been there, so when we take a step back and write the history of the Iraq war, we’re going have to write about private military contractors, as well. And that’s a sea change in warfare

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the contractors at Abu Ghraib, also Blackwater, other companies like Erinys of South Africa. But we have to break. We’ll do that when we come back. Peter Singer is with us from the Brookings Institute. Martin Smith with us who did today’s “Frontline” documentary that will air tonight on PBS on private corporations that are working in Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our discussion about a new documentary on PBS tonight at 9:00 called Private Warriors. Its producer is Martin Smith, in the studio here with us in New York. Peter Singer with us in Washington D.C., well known for his work on private contractors. Peter Singer, talk about military contractors and torture at Abu Ghraib.

PETER SINGER: I think one of the things that was particularly surprising about what happened at Abu Ghraib was the mass presence of contractors there. The U.S. army found that 100% of the interpreters and up to 50% of the interrogators that were onsite there during the abuse period were private contractors; the interpreters from a company called Titan, the interrogators from a company called Khaki. The army also found in one of its reports that the interrogators who were contractors were involved in 36% of the abuse incidents. And one of the things that was disturbing about this, there’s two levels here. The first is that the army looking back found that as many as a third of those contractors who were interrogators didn’t have formal military training as interrogators.

And then on top of it, you have the fact that they specifically identified six of them as individuals who were involved in it, and not one of those people, not one of those six contractors, has yet been even charged with a crime, let alone prosecuted or punished for it. And so you compare what’s happened to the contractors to what happened to the enlisted men and women there who were rightly court-martialed for it, and it illustrates this gap in the law, this legal vacuum that contractors are in. One of the things that was interesting in speaking with a military lawyer about it is, he said, you know, the problem is that contractors exist right now in the same legal vacuum, the same legal netherworld that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are in. Basically, there’s not laws there to create their status and what — how you should deal with them under the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Smith, the issue of companies like Erinys, who they are, where they’re chartered?

MARTIN SMITH: One of the big problems here is that when you privatize war, you take it out of the public realm, and we lose transparency. We don’t know sometimes who somebody might be working for. There are many layers of subcontracts. We saw that in the Blackwater case last year where the four contractors were drug through the streets of Fallujah and two of them hung from a bridge. With the case of Erinys, they have widely been known and reported as a South African company. As we went to air, as we began to go through final fact checking, they insisted they were not a South African company. Sean Cleary, who is a former apartheid-era official, who was one of their — is reported as one of their founders, they say was an advisor, they’re actually incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. Their membership is largely South African, but also the corporate officers that run it are special forces, British special forces, S.A.S. So we report that they’re now a British company. But this is very elusive and is part of the point of all this. It’s a very kind of murky area.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about a new film that’s going to air tonight on “Frontline.” It’s called Private Warriors. You mention Blackwater. You deal with it in your documentary and the lawsuit that family members of those who worked for Blackwater have brought. Can you talk about that?

MARTIN SMITH: Well, we look at that case because that was where contractors really came on people’s radar, when that incident occurred in Fallujah last March 31 of last year. Now, we drilled down on that single event to try to figure out who they were working for. There’s a chain of contracts it moves from. They were working for a Kuwaiti company, Blackwater, the guards were working for Blackwater. That company was working for a Kuwaiti company. The Kuwaiti company was working for a Cypriate company, ESS. ESS refuses to tell us who they were working for. In their contract there’s a mention of Kellogg Brown and Root in a rather mysterious fashion. We never were able to figure out who they were working for. The 82nd Airborne, who they were supposedly delivering supplies for, says they had no contracts with them. KBR says they weren’t involved. Again, lack of transparency, lack of accountability, lack of liability. So the families are left not even knowing who their sons were working for that day.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the family saying? What are they asking for in this lawsuit?

MARTIN SMITH: They’re suing Blackwater for wrongful death. They have a case that the contract stipulated certain security requirements that they say were abrogated. And so they are charging that Blackwater knowingly, willfully sent them into a dangerous zone without proper security protection.

AMY GOODMAN: In October 2003, Congressmembers Waxman and Dingle demanded an investigation into the high prices that KBR was charging for gas transported in occupied Iraq. The firm was purchasing the gasoline in Kuwait for $2.20 per gallon while other contractors were paying $1.18 for gas in Turkey. The company billed the government $2.27 per gallon. A Defense Department audit placed the gasoline overcharge at $61 million. Halliburton claimed it had to buy the gasoline in Kuwait to avoid hauling it through dangerous parts of Iraq. What about this issue of money?

MARTIN SMITH: I think that $61 million has been revised upwards to $108 million. Halliburton lost that contractor — KBR, their subsidiary, lost that contract. So it’s fair to say that there was an agreement that they had underperformed and overcharged on that contract.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet you have Halliburton being rewarded. The latest news that Halliburton is getting a $30 million contract to help build a new permanent prison at U.S. Navy’s controversial detention center at Guantanamo.

MARTIN SMITH: And they built the original Guantanamo Bay prison. KBR, I think, has been overwhelmed by the army’s requests and needs. They performed, by most accounts, fairly well in the Balkans. When it came to Iraq, nobody predicted that we were going to be running supply lines under fire for this long, building bases of this size. And I think it’s fair to say that more than any real chicanery on their part, they had been overwhelmed. They haven’t had enough bean counters to keep track of costs. And things have just gotten out of control for them.

AMY GOODMAN: I was on a plane recently. A soldier sat down next to me. He had just been flying home from Iraq. He talked about working next to the contractors and how angry the soldiers were that the contractors were making some, what, three times at least what the soldiers were making per week. Peter Singer, can you talk about that? And also the fact that these contractors, while they may carry guns, they are not counted in the casualty figures in Iraq.

PETER SINGER: That’s a really good question. There’s actually an incident that happened just a couple weeks ago that illustrates this. You had a company called Zapata that’s based from Charlotte, North Carolina, that was doing ammunition demolition, explosives demolition. And it had a convoy that was moving in the Fallujah area, and the marines in that area claim that that convoy was both firing at civilians and also fired at them, and so they stopped that convoy, that private contractor convoy, and detained the guys in it. Now, the contractors in turn say, 'No, you stopped the wrong convoy. You got the wrong guys.' But one of the things that apparently happened during this detention period is that the marines were, you know, saying things, basically hurling abuse at these guys, yelling at them, saying, 'How do you like it now?' Sort of the tension was bubbling to the surface in terms of the more money that was being made.

And really, the lesson here is that coordinating forces is always tough. It’s going to be tough when you bring marines together with army guys. It’s going to be tough when you have multinational elements, when you bring Americans in with Italians and Brits. But now that friction is even worsened when you’re bringing together public and private forces, and not just one private force, but as many as 60 different companies out there, and these companies where the guys in them are making far more money than the regular guys. So that tension is being created. And it makes coordinating this even tougher than it already is when you take on the fact that you don’t have good oversight in management.

Now, the other problem here that you noted is the lack of just simply good accounting. Not just accountability, but accounting. And so, we don’t, for example, know exactly how many contractors we have working for us. Simply put, the Pentagon doesn’t have the ability to track it right now. But that also means we don’t know how many are being killed and wounded, because they don’t go on public rolls. Now, we’ve tried to track that, and it seems at least from media reports either in Iraq or in the home towns of where these guys are killed that over 200 have been killed and more than 800 have been wounded. And to put that into context, that’s more than any single U.S. army division has taken in terms of casualties and more than the entire coalition combined. So again, these guys are making a contribution, but they’re making a contribution that’s outside the public domain so we’re not tracking it.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Smith, as you go to air tonight, fourth time in Iraq, what were you most surprised by in this investigation?

MARTIN SMITH: I think that the size of the bases that KBR has been building in Iraq. We visited Camp Anaconda, 40 miles north of Baghdad. Some call it Fort KBR. It’s stunning, in the number of trailers behind blast walls, 15-foot-high blast walls, they call them Bremer walls, as far as the eye can see. Four huge dining facilities, swimming pools, rec centers, tai kwon do lessons. You know, a far different picture of what we have on the ground there than had previously. It’s really stunning. And when we tried to question KBR as to what the price of some of these services are, they simply said, 'Well, we don't track costs like that. We don’t know.’ We went then to the military. They knew exactly what they were spending and said they discuss it every week with KBR. So again, lack of accountability, lack of transparency sort of plagued our entire time over there. But yet I think it makes a very — you know, that is the point. If we’re going to go privatizing war, building large, what they call, enduring bases, we have to face the fact that we don’t quite now know in a privatized world what we’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Peter Singer, specifically Dick Cheney’s relationship with Halliburton and this whole push to privatize war.

PETER SINGER: That’s the $13 billion question if you’re talking about revenue related to Iraq for that company. I’m not one of the people that buys into the conspiracy theory in terms of the war was somehow started to help this company profit. No, this company was doing well before. We have to remember this trend started under first President Bush, continued under President Clinton and then expanded under second President Bush, particularly related to 9/11 and Iraq. And I agree with Martin here. Simply put, this industry is here, but we’re not dealing with it either as smart clients, we’re not getting the best bang for our buck, so to speak. But we’re also not dealing with it as smart regulators in terms of what the government is supposed to do when a new industry comes along and setting down the legal structures for things like who’s allowed to work in it and who these companies are allowed to work for and what you do when something goes wrong. Simply put, we have to be smart on both of these areas. And so far we’ve resisted that. And that’s not the way to do it. That’s not how you do good policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Singer, Martin Smith. I want to thank you both for being with us. Peter Singer, a Senior Fellow at Brookings. His book is called Corporate Warriors. The “Frontline” documentary tonight that will air at 9:00 on PBS is called Private Warriors.

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