The Mix

Contract employees shooting at civilians?

Looks like our hired guns may be up to no good. What will the U.S. government do about it? Probably the usual: a whole lot of nothing.
It's no secret that we're short on troops in Iraq. It's also no secret that our troops are being bolstered by private contractors who are hired by the U.S. to provide security detail. Corporations such as Inveco International, Halliburton, Blackwater, and Triple Canopy have been recruiting retired military personnel (some former paramilitaries from Latin American countries) -- folks just itching to get back into the action.

Private contactors are not legally considered combatants, but once given a contract by the U.S., adopt the same rules for opening fire as the military. Yet, regulation of these hired guns, and accountability of their actions, is sorely lacking.

Nothing illustrates this better than a recent incident in which a "trophy video" was posted on the internet. The video shows alleged private security contractors shooting at Iraqi citizens. The video first appeared on www.aegisIraq.co.uk -- a site run by "the men on the ground who are the heart and soul of the company." Aegis, run by former Scots Guard officer Lt. Col. Tim Spicer (back in 1998, his private military company Sandlines International was accused of violating UN sanctions by selling arms to Sierra Leone) is a private contracting company hired by the US to provide security detail in Iraq. Aegis is taking refuge in the defense that www.AegisIraq.co.uk is not the official company site. Spicer recently posted a message of warning on the site: "Please think twice about posting your happy snaps and whilst I am not concerned about this site as yet, if it develops into something other than a light hearted pressure valve I will take a much greater interest." Interesting version of light-hearted. True, the site showcases "the SheTeam" -- scantily clad female bodybuilders. But, this is also alongside of much more sobering material such as videos of manned checkpoints exploding.

Aegis claims that it is looking into the incident, but the British Foreign Office has passed the buck on to the U.S., rightfully pointing out that it is "a matter for the American authorities because Aegis is under contract to the United States." Yet, aside from the Christian Science Monitor and CorpWatch, the story hasn't seemed to find an outlet here in the U.S.

This is all disturbingly familiar. When the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed, it was because a soldier from the inside, disgusted by behavior that went counter to the code of conduct he was taught in training, came forward with evidence. The evidence was then passed on to the Army Criminal Investigative Command (CID). But there are no such enforceable regulations with private contractors. Indeed, back in February, four contract workers (all retired U.S. military veterans) left the company they were working for (Custer Battles) because they claimed they had witnessed coworkers firing on innocent civilians. The four came forward to NBC in an interview to explain what they had observed because, presumably, they didn't feel their claims were being taken seriously. When contacted, the Army CID claimed that they had passed the case on to the FBI. And there hasn't been a word about it since.

What's most disturbing about private contract workers is that we aren't hearing much about them -- both the number of casualties (and there are plenty of them), as well as the reports of wrongdoing. Heck, we don't even hear about it when these folks do something good. It's a hidden contingent of mercenaries that aren't being afforded protection. Indeed, as the Washington Post pointed out earlier this year, private security contractors' work is as dangerous, if not more so, than that of the U.S. military. Some contract workers note that they have been shot at repeatedly by U.S. forces.

Not only are they not afforded the same protection as combat soldiers, they are similarly overlooked when it comes to rules and regulations. It's about time the U.S. government figure out a way to better regulate contract employees. Let's face it, with the kind of wars we fight these days, private contactors -- the ready, willing and well paid -- are going to be around long after our troops go home.

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Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an editorial intern at AlterNet.