Exclusive: US Blocks Oversight of Its Mercenary Army in Iraq
September 4, 2011
Spencer Ackerman / WIRED Magazine
By January 2012, the State Department will do something it's never done before: command a mercenary army the size of a heavy combat brigade. And no one outside the State Department knows anything more, since top officials have gone to war with the government's independent watchdog to keep secret its plan to finance, arm, equip and oversee its assembled army of about 5,500 private security contractors.
(July 22, 2011) -- By January 2012, the State Department will do something it's never done before: command a mercenary army the size of a heavy combat brigade. That's the plan to provide security for its diplomats in Iraq once the US military withdraws. And 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.
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."
This isn't an idle concern or a typical bureaucratic tussle. The State Department has hired private security for its diplomats in war zones for the better part of a decade. Poor control of them caused one of the biggest debacles of the Iraq war: the September 2007 shooting incident in Nisour Square, where Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
Now, roughly double those guards from the forces on duty now, and you'll understand the scope of what State is planning once the US military withdraws from Iraq at the end of this year.
"They have no experience running a private army," says Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who just returned from a weeks-long trip to Iraq. "I don't think the State Department even has a good sense of what it's taking on. The US military is concerned about it as well."
So far, the Department has awarded three security contracts for Iraq worth nearly $2.9 billion over five years. Bowen can't even say for sure how much the department actually intends to spend on mercs in total. State won't let it see those totals.
About as much information as the department has disclosed about its incipient private army comes from a little-noticed Senate hearing in February. There, the top US military and civilian officials in Iraq said that they’d station the hired guard force at Basra, Irbil, Mosul and Kirkuk, with the majority -- over 3,000 -- protecting the mega-embassy in Baghdad. They’ll ferry diplomats around in armored convoys and a State-run helicopter fleet, the first in the department’s history.
But there are signs of even deeper confusion as State prepares to take the lead in Iraq. An internal State Department audit from June faulted top officials for "a lack of senior level participation" (.pdf) in an "unprecedented" transition to civilian control.
The result is that "several key decisions remain unresolved, some plans cannot be finalized, and progress in a number of areas is slipping," the audit concluded. It raises the prospect that the US military will leave Iraq the same way it entered it -- without any planning worthy of the name.
Bowen has minimal visibility into State's planning process. His teams of auditors are in Iraq, reviewing reconstruction contracts for waste, fraud and abuse, as they have since the early days of the war. They just can't see anything about the guard force. As far as Bowen is concerned, even though there's been a nearly 90 percent drop in violence since the surge, State's hired army still acts like Iraq is a killing field, with death squads and insurgents around every corner.
"Have the standards for convoy travel changed at all from the worst moments of Iraq civil war? The answer's no," Bowen says. Diplomats are allowed an hour for meetings outside secured US fortresses. Then it's time to hit the road, in armored cars full of men armed to the teeth and wearing black sunglasses.
The State Department says it's learned its lessons from Nisour Square and now places stricter rules on contractors, like putting cameras in contractor vehicles and revising "mission firearms policies," as Kennedy told a congressional panel last month. (.pdf) It's an issue Kennedy's well-versed in handling: He ran the department's internal investigation into Nisour Square in 2007. Now, according to Bowen, he's shielding State's plans from scrutiny.
State wouldn't comment for this story, saying it would be "inappropriate" to discuss an internal matter concerning Bowen. A department official who wouldn’t speak on the record merely said that it provides him with "extensive materials in response to their audit requests for documents and information falling within its statutory responsibilities."
But Congress is showing signs of restiveness over State's stonewalling. A bill that the House Foreign Affairs Committee crafted this week includes a provision specifically instructing State to let Bowen's office to do its job: "SIGIR should audit military, security, and economic assistance to Iraq during the term of SIGIR's existence," the language reads, inserted at the behest of the panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
But it'll take months for that bill to pass. Until then, Bowen is shut out of State’s ad hoc foray into generalship. "From my conversations with State Department people," Mardini says, "they really don't have a sense of how difficult this is going to be." And it doesn’t look like they want to know.
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• Accused Blackwater Shooters Turning Themselves In
Spencer Ackerman is Danger Room's senior reporter, based out of Washington, D.C., covering weapons of doom and the strategies they're used to implement.
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