Pentagon Sees One Authority Over Contractors

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
October 17, 2007
Pg. 1
By Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker
WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is pressing for the nearly 10,000 armed security contractors now working for the United States government in Iraq to fall under a single authority, most likely the American military, in an effort to bring Blackwater USA under tighter control, senior administration officials and Pentagon advisers say.
That idea is facing resistance from the State Department, which relies heavily for protection in Iraq on some 2,500 private guards, including more than 800 Blackwater contractors, to provide security for American diplomats in Baghdad. The State Department has said it should retain control over those guards, despite Blackwater’s role in a September shooting in Baghdad that exposed problems in the current oversight arrangements.
In practical terms, placing the private security guards who now work for the military, the State Department and other government agencies under a single authority would mean that those armed civilians would no longer have different bosses and different rules. Pentagon advisers say it would also allow better coordination between the security contractors and American military commanders, who have long complained that the contractors often operate independently.
Mr. Gates has not publicly stated his final position on any reorganization, but his thinking on how to manage security contractors was described by administration officials, military officers and outside advisers to the Defense Department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The officials said it was not clear whether Mr. Gates would also recommend changes that would make Blackwater contractors in Iraq subject to military law.
Whether Blackwater guards now in Iraq are subject to any kind of legal jeopardy remains unclear, even as the F.B.I. and other American agencies investigate the Sept. 16 shooting, which Iraqi investigators have said killed 17 Iraqis.
In response to the shooting, the State Department has acknowledged the need to tighten controls over Blackwater. But department officials have said that they were tightening controls by sending State Department personnel as monitors on Blackwater security convoys in and around Baghdad, and said that therefore there was no need to shift oversight to the Pentagon.
By contrast, Pentagon and military officials say, Mr. Gates has been told by senior American commanders in Iraq that there must be a single chain of command overseeing the private security contractors working for a variety of United States government agencies in the war zone. The commanders argue that the military is best positioned to be that single authority.
Congress has already voiced its concern over the current legal uncertainty involving American contractors. Earlier this month, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would bring all United States government contractors in the Iraq war zone under the jurisdiction of American criminal law. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.
But Pentagon officials remain divided over whether they might recommend additional changes if the contractors were brought under Defense Department authority. Some military commanders in Iraq favor using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a system they know well and trust. Other Defense officials support the model being considered by Congress, which would make clear that the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act would extend federal law to civilians supporting military operations.
The Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said Mr. Gates “has made clear that he supports his commanders’ assertions that, at the very least, they need greater visibility on the work and movements of armed security contractors in Iraq.”
The civilian casualties from contractor gunfire have infuriated the Iraqi government and damaged the American image in the country, frustrating military officers who say the heavy-handed tactics by contractors undermine broader efforts to win the trust of the Iraqi people.
American commanders have a more specific military complaint, as well: They say the security contractors complicate American combat operations, in part because local commanders sometimes do not even know of armed official convoys moving through their areas. Mr. Gates said this month that 30 percent of the calls for help from security contractors had come from convoys that the military did not know were on the road.
Because of their overseas travel schedules, Mr. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been unable to meet face to face to resolve the issue, officials said. “In no way are we at a point of impasse with the State Department,” said Mr. Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “We have not even begun discussions with them at the secretary level on the way forward.”
A State Department official said the department had not yet received any formal proposal from the Pentagon. “Our interests and theirs is ensuring that the activities of personal security contractors are effectively coordinated between the military and the embassy,” the official said. “We’d certainly be interested in hearing any additional ideas that the Defense Department might have.”
One outside adviser to the Pentagon said Mr. Gates felt so strongly that he told associates he was prepared to go to President Bush to decide the matter.
However, that adviser and Pentagon officials said Mr. Gates would not raise the issue with Mr. Bush until he and Ms. Rice had a chance to discuss it with Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, after Ms. Rice returns from her current foreign travels.
Since Mr. Gates was sworn in as defense secretary in December, he has established a far friendlier relationship with Ms. Rice than was maintained by his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Mr. Gates and Ms. Rice, who worked together in government previously, share views on many significant issues, including on the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, on dealing with Iran and on the broad outlines for the future of the Iraq mission.
However, tensions have emerged, especially over personnel issues. Earlier this year, Ms. Rice asked the Pentagon, whose budget dwarfs that of the State Department, to help supply people to fill State Department reconstruction positions in Iraq.
As details of the Blackwater shootings have emerged in recent weeks, Mr. Gates has signaled his unease with the existing command and legal authorities governing security contractors.
“Do we have the mechanisms and the means for our commanders to exercise a kind of strategic oversight and assure accountability in terms of the behavior and the conduct of these security contractors?” Mr. Gates asked at the Pentagon on Sept. 27.
“It’s very important that we do everything in our power to make sure that people who are under contract to us are not only abiding by our rules, but are conducting themselves in a way that makes them an asset in this war in Iraq and not a liability,” he added.