Hey, weren’t “Blackwater” and “mercenary” a bad words during the Bush administration? Didn’t the left spend an inordinate amount of time demonizing private contract security in Iraq? Weren’t we told that wouldn’t be something we’d see in an Obama administration?
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 U.S. 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?
Yeah, nothing could go wrong with this, could it? Ackerman is asking the right questions. Civilians and diplomats running a quasi-military organization the size of a combat infantry brigade, and trying to keep it secret to boot.
Let’s be honest here – this is a private army. And since taxpayers are obviously paying for it, a little transparency (yeah, you remember that promise too, right?) would be nice.
But that’s not going to happen if the ambassador has his way. Citing jurisdictional conflicts, he’s told the IG to butt out.
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.”
So here we have this secret private army of 5,500 that is way above and beyond what is necessary to guard diplomats (something the State Department has been doing for years and years all over the world). This isn’t just about diplomatic security – not with those numbers:
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 U.S. military is concerned about it as well.”
I would be too if I were the military. This is dangerous stuff and if they do stupid things, it could get other Americans, specifically those in the military, killed.
Of course, with this crew, you also have to ask, “how much am I getting taxed to pay for this debacle looking for an opportunity to happen?”
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 U.S. 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.
And here I thought we were leaving Iraq.