In an exclusive story, Spencer Ackerman at Wired's Danger Room, reports the State Department is blocking oversight of its mercenary army in Iraq.
As the U.S military withdraws from Iraq, the State Department is recruiting "a mercenary army the size of a heavy combat brigade". The mercenary army's mission is to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq after the military withdraws by the end of the year. By January 2012, 5,500 private security contractors will be guarding the U.S. embassy in Iraq, 104-acre complex in Baghdad's "heavily fortified Green Zone", its up to a 1,000-person embassy staff and as many as 17,000 civilian workers working for the U.S. government in Iraq.
But no one outside State knows anything more, as the department has gone to war with its independent government watchdog to keep its plan a secret.
Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), is essentially in the dark about one of the most complex and dangerous endeavors the State Department has ever undertaken, one with huge implications for the future of the United States in Iraq. “Our audit of the program is making no progress,” Bowen tells Danger Room.
3,650 mercenaries will be guarding the embassy fortress, with the remaining contractors stationed through Iraq (600 in Irbil, 575 in Basra, 335 in Mosul, and 335 in Kirkuk). The State Department will spend between $3 billion and $10 billion over five years to pay for this private army. The 5,500 mercenaries will be provided by at least eight private security companies, including firms State Department auditors have issued warnings about.
The State Department has never commanded a mercenary army before, Ackerman reports. Past attempts by the State Department to control the mercenaries in its pay have proved to be disastrous. For example, a Blackwater USA convoy of State Department officials murdered 17 Iraqis in Baghdad's Nisoor Square in an unprovoked massacre on September 16, 2007. The use of mercenaries by the State Department undermines stability in Iraq and creates a conflict of interest when those being protected oversee their guards. This cozy relationship led to State Department officials blocking any "serious investigation" of the massacre.
For months, Bowen’s team has tried to get basic information out of the State Department about how it will command its assembled army of about 5,500 private security contractors. How many State contracting officials will oversee how many hired guns? What are the rules of engagement for the guards? What’s the system for reporting a security danger, and for directing the guards’ response?
And for months, the State Department’s management chief, former Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, has given Bowen a clear response: That’s not your jurisdiction. You just deal with reconstruction, not security. Never mind that Bowen has audited over $1.2 billion worth of security contracts over seven years.
“Apparently, Ambassador Kennedy doesn’t want us doing the oversight that we believe is necessary and properly within our jurisdiction,” Bowen says. “That hard truth is holding up work on important programs and contracts at a critical moment in the Iraq transition.”
There is a significant potential for abuse and disaster from the combination of this huge mercenary army and the State Department. In addition to shoddy oversight, private security firms have allegedly over-billed by hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. goverment for their services.
State Department officials claim they've "made changes" since the Nisoor Square massacre, including hiring more supervisors and requiring interpreters riding along in convoys. But NPR reported in May of this year, those changes may not be enough:
Grant Green, a member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting created by Congress, says that's not enough. He told a House panel recently that the State Department still isn't ready to assume responsibility for Iraq next year.
"They do not have enough oversight today to oversee and manage those contractors in the way they should be," Green says.
And Kennedy, now the Under Secretary of State for Management, is standing in the way of any oversight the SIGIR office can provide.
Pratap Chatterjee of the Center for American Progress, wrote at ThinkProgress that the State Department should be building its own security bureau instead of paying private contractors. The low cost estimate for the mercenary army of $3 billion over five years is up from $300 million the State Department spent on private security in Iraq in 2008. Chatterjee explained:
But most importantly, State could use the $3 billion to beef up it’s own Bureau of Diplomatic Security (BDS). The Governemnt Accountability Office (GAO) recommended last year that State do a full review of how it handled diplomatic security:
“Diplomatic Security’s ability to fully carry out its mission of providing security worldwide is hindered by staffing shortages in domestic offices — even in light of its workforce growth — and other operational challenges such as inadequate facilities, pervasive language proficiency shortfalls, and host-country constraints, among others.”
It noted that some offices were down to 60 percent of capacity and that “many posts go for years without updating their security training.” In fact, the State Department’s BDS boasts just one professional responsibility investigator for every 2,000 employees, compared to the Drug Enforcement Agency which maintains a 1:288 ratio, and the Department of Justice which maintains a 1:170 ratio.
However, State politely declined the GAO recommendations, saying simply that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s needs are being “adequately considered.” Instead of paying Blackwater-like firms top-dollar to run security, perhaps the Obama administration would be better off spending the $3 billion figuring out how to fix the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and to staff it properly.
Isn't it time the Obama administration stop funneling limited federal resources into the private security company bank accounts? Isn't it time the U.S. stop using mercenaries and hiding the true cost of our nation's wars and occupations?