Security Contractors in Iraq: Tactical and Practical Considerations

MIN READOct 10, 2007 | 20:00 GMT

Members of a private security company pose on the rooftop of a house in Baghdad, 18 Sept., 2007. Iraq declared today it will review the operations of all security firms working in the war-ravaged country following a deadly shootout involving private U.S. contractor Blackwater.

(PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Specific geopolitical forces have prompted changes in the structure of the U.S. armed forces — to the extent that private contractors have become essential to the execution of a sustained military campaign. Indeed, in addition to providing security for diplomats and other high-value personnel, civilian contractors conduct an array of support functions in Iraq, including vehicle maintenance, laundry services and supply and logistics operations. Beyond the military bureaucracy and the geopolitical processes acting upon it, another set of dynamics is behind the growing use of civilian contractors to protect diplomats in Iraq. These factors include the type and scope of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the country; the nature of the insurgency and the specific targeting of diplomats; and the limited resources available to the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). Because of these factors, unless the diplomatic mission to Iraq is dramatically changed or reduced, or the U.S. Congress takes action to radically enlarge the DSS, the services of civilian security contractors will be required in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Those contractors provide flexibility in tailoring the force that full-time security officers do not.

Civilians in a War Zone

Although it is not widely recognized, the protection of diplomats in dangerous places is a civilian function and has traditionally been carried out by civilian agents. With rare exceptions, military forces simply do not have the legal mandate or specialized training required to provide daily protection details for diplomats. It is not what soldiers do. A few in the U.S. military do possess that specialized training, and they could be assigned to the work under the DSS, but with wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, they currently are needed for other duties.

For the U.S. government, then, the civilian entity responsible for protecting diplomatic missions and personnel is the DSS. Although the agency's roots go back to 1916, Congress dramatically increased its size and responsibility, and renamed it the DSS, in 1985 in response to a string of security incidents, including the attacks against the U.S. embassies in Lebanon and Kuwait, and the security debacle over a new embassy building in Moscow. The DSS ranks swelled to more than 1,000 special agents by the late 1980s, though they were cut back to little more than 600 by the late 1990s as part of the State Department's historical cycle of security booms and busts. Following 9/11, DSS funding was again increased, and currently there are about 1,400 DSS agents assigned to 159 foreign countries and 25 domestic offices. The DSS protects more dignitaries than any other agency, including the U.S. Secret Service. Its list of protectees includes the secretary of state, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the approximately 150 foreign dignitaries who visit the United States each year for events such as the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) session. It also provides hundreds of protective details overseas, many of them operating day in and day out in dangerous locations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Colombia, the Gaza Strip, Pakistan and nearly every other global hot spot.

The DSS also from time to time has been assigned by presidential directives to provide stopgap protection to vulnerable leaders of foreign countries who are in danger of assassination, such as the presidents of Haiti and Afghanistan. The DSS is charged by U.S. statute with providing this protection to diplomats and diplomatic facilities overseas, and international conventions such as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations permit civilian agents to provide this kind of security. Because of this, there has never been any question regarding the status or function of DSS special agents. They have never been considered "illegal combatants" because they do not wear military uniforms, even in the many instances when they have provided protection to diplomats traveling in war zones.

Practically, the DSS lacks enough of its own agents to staff all these protective details. Although the highest-profile protective details, such as that on the secretary of state, are staffed exclusively by DSS agents, many details must be augmented by outside personnel. Domestically, some protective details at the UNGA are staffed by a core group of DSS agents that is augmented by deputy U.S. marshals and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Overseas, local police officers who operate under the supervision of DSS agents often are used. It is not unusual to see a protective detail comprised of two Americans and eight or 10 Peruvian investigative police officers, or even a detail of 10 Guatemalan national police officers with no DSS agents except on moves to dangerous areas. In some places, including Beirut, the embassy contracts its own local security officers, who then work for the DSS agents. In other places, where it is difficult to find competent and trustworthy local hires, the DSS augments its agents with contractors brought in from the United States. 

Well before 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the DSS was using contractors in places such as Gaza to help fill the gaps between its personnel and its protective responsibilities.

Additionally, for decades the DSS has used contract security officers to provide exterior guard services for U.S. diplomatic missions. In fact, contract guards are at nearly every U.S. diplomatic mission in the world. Marine Security Guards are also present at many missions, but they are used only to maintain the integrity of the sensitive portions of the buildings — the exterior perimeter is protected by contract security guards. Of course, there are far more exterior contract guards (called the "local guard force") at critical threat posts such as Baghdad than there are at quiet posts such as Nassau, Bahamas.

Over the many years that the DSS has used contract guards to help protect facilities and dignitaries, it has never received the level of negative feedback as it has during the current controversy over the Blackwater security firm. In fact, security contractors have been overwhelmingly successful in protecting those placed in their charge, and many times have acted heroically. Much of the current controversy has to do with the size and scope of the contractor operations in Iraq, the situation on the ground and, not insignificantly, the political environment in Washington.

The Iraq Situation

With this operational history in mind, then, we turn to Iraq. Unlike Desert Storm in 1991, in which the U.S. military destroyed Iraq's military and command infrastructure and then left the country, the decision this time was to destroy the military infrastructure and effect regime change, but stay and rebuild the nation. Setting aside all the underlying geopolitical issues, the result of this decision was that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has become the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, with some 1,000 Americans working there.

Within a few months of the invasion, however, the insurgents and militants in Iraq made it clear that they would specifically target diplomats serving in the country in order to thwart reconstruction efforts. In August 2003, militants attacked the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad with large vehicle bombs. The attack against the U.N building killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights in Iraq. The U.N. headquarters was hit again in September 2003, and the Turkish Embassy was attacked the following month. The U.S. Embassy and diplomats also have been consistently targeted, including by an October 2004 mortar attack that killed DSS Special Agent Ed Seitz and a November 2004 attack that killed American diplomat James Mollen near Baghdad's Green Zone. DSS Agent Stephen Sullivan was killed, along with three security contractors, in a suicide car bombing against an embassy motorcade in Mosul in September 2005. The people being protected by Sullivan and the contractors survived the attack. And diplomatic targets continue to be attacked. The Polish ambassador's motorcade was recently attacked, as was the Polish Embassy. (The embassy was moved into the Green Zone this week because of the continuing threat against it.) The Polish ambassador, by the way, also was protected by a detail that included contract security officers, demonstrating that the U.S. government is not the only one using contractors to protect diplomats in Iraq.

There also are thousands of foreign nationals working on reconstruction projects in Iraq, and most are protected by private security contractors. The Iraqi government and U.S. military simply cannot keep them safe from the forces targeting them. In addition to the insurgents and militants who have set their sights on U.S. and foreign diplomats and businesspeople, there are a number of opportunistic criminal gangs that kidnap foreigners and either hold them for ransom or sell them to militants. If the U.S. government wants its policy of rebuilding Iraq to have any chance of success, it needs to keep diplomats — who, as part of their mission, oversee the contractors working on reconstruction projects — safe from the criminals and the forces that want to thwart the reconstruction.

Practical motivations aside, keeping diplomats safe in Iraq also has political and public relations dimensions. The kidnappings and deaths of U.S. diplomats are hailed by militants as successes, and at this juncture could also serve to inflame sentiments among Americans opposed to the Bush administration's Iraq policy. Hence, efforts are being made to avoid such scenarios at all costs.

Reality Check

Due to enormity of the current threat and the sheer size and scope of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the DSS currently employs hundreds of contract security officers in the country. Although the recent controversy has sparked some calls for a withdrawal of all security contractors from Iraq, such drastic action is impossible in practical terms. Not only would it require many more DSS agents in Iraq than there are now, it would mean pulling agents from every other diplomatic post and domestic field office in the world. This would include all the agents assigned to critical and high-terrorism-threat posts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon; all agents assigned to critical crime-threat posts such as Guatemala and Mexico; and those assigned to critical counterintelligence-threat posts such as Beijing and Moscow.

The DSS also would have to abandon its other responsibilities, such as programs that investigate passport and visa fraud, which are a critical part of the U.S government's counterterrorism efforts. The DSS' Anti-Terrorism Assistance and Rewards for Justice programs are also important tools in the war on terrorism that would have to be scrapped under such a scenario. Although the current controversy will not cause the State Department to stop using private contractors, the department has mandated that one DSS agent be included in every protective motorcade. Since 2003, contractors working for the DSS in Iraq have conducted many successful missions in a very dangerous environment.

Motorcades in Iraq are frequently attacked, and the contractors regularly have to deal with an ambiguous opponent who hides in the midst of a population that is also typically heavily armed. At times, they also must confront those heavily armed citizens who are fed up with being inconvenienced by security motorcades. In an environment in which motorcades are attacked by suicide vehicle bombs, aggressive drivers also pose tactical problems because they clearly cannot be allowed to approach the motorcade out of fear that they could be suicide bombers. The nature of insurgent attacks necessitates aggressive rules of engagement. Contractors also do not have the same support structure as military convoys, so they cannot call for armor support when their convoys are attacked. Although some private outfits do have light aviation support, they do not have the resources of Army aviation or the U.S. Air Force.

Given these factors, the contractors have suffered remarkably few losses in Iraq for the number of missions they have conducted. It is clear that unless the United States changes its policy in Iraq or Congress provides funding for thousands of new special agents, contract security officers will be required to fill the gap between the DSS' responsibilities and its available personnel for the foreseeable future. Even if thousands of agents were hired now to meet the current need in Iraq, the government could be left in a difficult position should the security situation improve or the United States dramatically reduced its presence in the country. Unlike permanent hires, the use of contractors provides the DSS with the flexibility to tailor its force to meet its needs at a specific point in time. The use of contractors clearly is not without problems, but it also is not without merits.

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