Gates calls for crackdown on contractors

Times Staff Writers

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has ordered U.S. military commanders in Iraq to crack down on any abuses they uncover by private security contractors in the aftermath of a deadly shooting involving American guards that infuriated Iraqis.

Gates took the step after concluding that the thousands of heavily armed private guards in Iraq who work for the Pentagon may not be adequately supervised by military officers.

In a three-page directive sent Tuesday night to the Pentagon’s most senior officers, Gates’ top deputy ordered them to review rules governing contractors’ use of arms and to begin legal proceedings against any that have violated military law.

Gates’ order contrasts with the reaction of State Department officials, who have been slow to acknowledge any potential failings in their oversight of Blackwater USA, the private security firm that protects U.S. diplomats in Iraq and was involved in a Sept. 16 shooting that left at least 11 Iraqis dead.

For years, there have been tensions between mid-level military officers who operate under strict rules and private security firm employees who work in Iraq under less-rigorous guidelines. But Pentagon officials emphasized they do not believe that wrongdoing is widespread among the agency’s 7,300 security contractors or that the armed guards operate with impunity.


However, one senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing internal department debates, said a five-man team that Gates sent to Iraq over the weekend discovered that military commanders there were unclear about their legal authority.

Commanders were not certain whether they had the authority to enforce existing laws, including the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice. The officers requested a clarification, the official said, prompting Gates to issue the directive.

“Commanders have UCMJ authority to disarm, apprehend and detain DoD contractors suspected of having committed a felony offense” in violation of the rules for using force, said the memo, written by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England and obtained by The Times.

The Pentagon directive does not affect private security guards under contract to other agencies, including the State Department, which is investigating the Blackwater shooting.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered her agency to review its security practices in Iraq but has not taken action to change any of its policies. The State Department’s 842 Blackwater guards have resumed the job of protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq, despite Baghdad’s efforts to bar the company from operating in the country.

State Department officials have defended the firm, saying its guards were ambushed while escorting a motorcade.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte again defended the department’s oversight of Blackwater. He said the agency provided “close in-country supervision” of the firm.

“I personally was grateful for the presence of my Blackwater security detail, largely comprised of ex-Special Forces and other military, when I served as ambassador to Iraq,” he said.

The Pentagon’s move to step up its enforcement activity came after Gates requested a briefing last week on policies toward security contractors but was dissatisfied with the information available. He sent the five-man team of officials from his office to find out whether regulations were being enforced.

“We’ve tried to answer the question from afar,” said the senior Pentagon official, describing the reasoning behind the fact-finding team. “Let’s get some ground truth.”

Facing questions about private security contractors during a Senate hearing Wednesday, Gates said his primary concern centered on whether Defense Department officials had been keeping a close enough eye on operations. “I think that we have the proper procedures, the proper rules and the proper legal authorities in order to prosecute contractors who violate the law,” Gates said. “My concern is whether there has been sufficient accountability and oversight in the region over the activities of these security companies.”

The Pentagon official said that Gates’ team was now investigating whether commanders in Iraq need additional resources -- including more investigators or military lawyers -- to carry out more intensive oversight of contractors. It is expected to report back by the end of the week.

Gates’ testimony came during a sometimes-chaotic hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which must consider a $189.3-billion request to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008.

The request, which has not been formally presented by the Bush administration, is $47.6 billion more than the Pentagon originally estimated and would make 2008 the most expensive year of the wars. The Pentagon was given $173 billion for the conflicts this year.

The funding request was overshadowed, however, by the debate over Blackwater and by antiwar protesters’ outbursts in the committee room.

Small numbers of protesters, organized by the group Code Pink, have attended war-related congressional hearings for months. But since the high-profile testimony this month by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, the group has become more vocal.

The hearing Wednesday -- involving Gates, Negroponte and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- was the most turbulent yet, prompting Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to close the panel room to public observers.

Gates emphasized during his testimony that the Pentagon still needed security contractors to perform duties once carried out by military personnel, and said that most were performing non-security functions.

In the past, Petraeus has credited contractors with providing armed support that has helped carry out his counterinsurgency strategy.

Gates placed the role of private contractors in the context of the post-Cold War shrinkage of U.S. armed forces.

“One of the consequences of the drawdown in the size of the American ground forces in particular over the past 15 years is the fact that we don’t have the number of people that we require to perform logistics and transportation and cooking and laundry and the various kinds of mundane things that have to be done on a daily basis,” Gates said. “That’s why we have 137,000 contractors in Iraq to carry out all these functions.”

Gates said he had asked Pentagon lawyers to consider the use of “noncompete clauses” that could prevent contractors from recruiting active-duty troops to join their firms.

“I worry that sometimes the salaries that they are able to pay in fact lure some of our soldiers out of the service to go to work for them,” Gates said.