Brian Ross at ABC has aired the results of his investigation into the use of alleged mercenaries by the United States. I was interviewed on the story, though I was obviously not at liberty to discuss it before it aired yesterday. Ross found evidence that private contractors were being used in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq for combat missions — a role that raises very disturbing legal and policy questions.
The ABC storyis based on four current and former U.S. military and intelligence officers. The New York Times has also reported that raids against Iraqi insurgents were conducted “almost nightly” between 2004 and 2006, and “the operations became so routine that the lines supposedly dividing the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and Blackwater became blurred.”
Congress has historically moved against the use of private contractors for such purposes. The Defense Department bars the use of private security contractors (PSCs) for combat operations. In the FY2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress required full reporting on the use and weaponry of PSCs. Such contractors have been involved in controversial shootings such as the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle in Nisoor Square by Blackwater employees.
The debate over PSCs has been over their use in combat areas, not just their use in combat — a role restricted for our regular forces. However, even their use in combat areas is viewed as inimical by military professionals. The executive summary for the U.S. Naval Academy’s 9th Annual McCain Conference on Ethics and Military Leadership stated this position recently:
We therefore conclude that contractors should not be deployed as security guards, sentries, or even prison guards within combat areas. APSCs should be restricted to appropriate support functions and those geographic areas where the rule of law prevails. In irregular warfare (IW) environments, where civilian cooperation is crucial, this restriction is both ethically and
This, however, is not a new position. Congress moved against the use of the Pinkerton Detective Agency after abuses found in crackdown against union organizers. The Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893 (5 U.S.C. § 3108) barred the government from using private police companies and courts in cases like United States ex rel. Weinberger v. Equifax, 557 F.2d 456, 462 (5th Cir. 1977,) have interpreted this law as barring mercenary contracts. However, the government has blurred the line in Iraq and Afghanistan by defining companies like Blackwater as “guards” and security staff who are allowed to use lethal force in self-defense. See 71 Fed. Reg. 34826.
The CIA has always worked on the principle that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. However, this may have gone too far. As I stated to ABC, the descriptions given by its sources indicate the use of private contractors in clear combat operations. That would, in my opinion, raise serious legal questions.
The New York Times is also reporting that contracts with Blackwater have been cancelled and that there has been significant complaints about the work of a company called Xe Services, which was run by a division of the company called Blackwater Select.
The Pentagon has denied the use of contractors in combat missions despite the ABC sources. It, however, has refused to discuss the use of such private soldiers in the Vibrant Fury operation in 2006.
The use of mercenaries by the United States could have terrible consequences. Such soldiers are not covered by such things as the Geneva conventions and would have little protection if captured. Moreover, regular soldiers could be treated as mercenaries when captured if we blur the distinction. Finally, there was once a robust market for mercenaries that the United States played a major role in shutting down. If we are seen as now employing mercenaries, it could encourage other nations to expand their own use of such private soldiers.
For the video of the segment, click here.
For the Xe story, click here.