Gates Addresses Private Security Contractor Issues
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
BOGOTA, Colombia, Oct. 3, 2007 Into his second day of a five-day, five-country trip to Central and South America, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has faced as many questions from the press about private security contractor issues in Iraq as he has regional security issues in the Americas.
Gates said yesterday that he read the report delivered to him by the team he dispatched to the country to survey Defense Department contractor policy and practices in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has said that he wants the State Department’s largest private security contractor, Blackwater USA, out of the country.
In an on-the-record interview with Pentagon press traveling with him, the secretary said today that removing the company from the country is not practical, and it could be counterproductive to the efforts there.
“I don’t know whether other firms could cover. I just don’t know what the practical implications of that would be, if it were limited to one firm. So I think we’ll just have to wait and see. The question is, what (the) State (Department) would do in the mean time? So it’s really more of a challenge for the Department of State in the short term,” Gates said.
Gates sent the team to Iraq after a shooting incident involving Blackwater USA a few weeks ago. The purpose, officials said, was to gather information about how Defense Department contractors operated in the area and what oversight is applied to their contracts.
“One of the things that surprised me was that many, if not most, of the contracts that are executed in Iraq are not processed through (Multinational Force Iraq),” Gates said. “They’re done in the states, even though they are going to be executed in Iraq. So one obvious suggestion is -- how do we get MNF-I a greater clarity and more of a role and knowledge about the contracts that are going to be executed in their area of operation?”
Suggestions from the team included better coordination among the contractors in theater.
For example, one report cited that about 30 percent of the calls for help needing quick-reaction forces come from convoys that are not coordinated through, and are unknown to MNF-I officials, Gates said.
“So the idea is -- how do you coordinate this so MNF-I has a better picture of what is going on in its own area?” Gate said.
Gates said there are also suggestions about selectively using the Uniform Code of Military Justice to prosecute some offenses by contractors, but there are many legal issues that still need to be worked. He said that Congress has given the department the authority to prosecute under UCMJ, but that the applicable authority level is still in question.
“Would it be exercised at General (David) Petraeus’ level, and only by General Petraeus … or maybe somebody else?” the secretary said.
Gates said officials need to review the issue more thoroughly with departmental lawyers.
Gates said that department officials may meet with contractor officials to discuss the situation, department expectations and ground rules.
The secretary said the suggestions submitted by the team were “common sense” but that he has not discussed them with senior department or contractor officials, and he is not ready to make any commitments for action.
The defense department has thousands of contractors working in Iraq doing jobs that free soldiers up for military duties. Gates said that the alternatives to limiting contractors are not practical.
“If there were significant limitations on contractors doing security work, the two alternatives are, either we have to use soldiers, or you have significant less mobility on the part of the Department of the State and the civilian side of the government, which is a huge component of what we’re trying to accomplish in Iraq right now so that would be, it seems to me, very counterproductive,” Gates said.