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Privatizing the War on Terror

The U.S. government has enlisted a large number of private companies to help soldiers, intelligence services, and police fight terrorism at home and around the world. Some experts say such contractors are crucial to the success of U.S. military operations, but critics argue some companies have made mistakes and need closer supervision.

The September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers killed about 3,000 people and sparked an emergency effort to find and deploy large numbers of people with the unique skills needed to find and fight terrorists.

The spokesman for a trade association of security contractors [the International Peace Operations Association] says it takes government bureaucracies a long time to hire people. Doug Brooks says that is why policy-makers turned to private companies to quickly handle a long list of urgent tasks.

"Any military, even the U.S. military, is limited in its resources and if you need a whole bunch of specialties in certain areas, you generally go to the private sector for that sort of thing," says Brooks.

Filling the Gaps

The former head of the Pentagon's financial office, Dov Zakheim, says private contractors are crucial to filling the gaps left by cuts in the U.S. military that followed the end of the cold war. "[U.S.] Military operations will not succeed without contractors on the battlefield."

Zakheim is now a vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, a global consulting company that advises the U.S. government. He says there have been contract employees working for the military for decades, but never before have there been so many workers from private companies doing so many jobs that were once customarily handled by soldiers or police.

In the United States, for example, private contractors ran the hiring process that brought in tens of thousands of workers to screen airline passengers.To free soldiers for combat in Iraq other contractors took up guard posts around U.S. Army bases back in the United States. Still others were hired to be the security guards at the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security.

But government auditors criticized some of those contracts for poor control over spending and a lack of employee screening that allowed 89 people with criminal records to be hired as guards. Still, tens of thousands more contract employees are performing critical tasks for the U.S. government in Iraq and other dangerous areas.

Some protect high-ranking U.S. officials. Others drive and protect military supply convoys in Iraq's most dangerous areas. Still others cook meals and wash dishes to free soldiers from housekeeping tasks for fighting.

Many of these contract employees have been killed by Iraq's insurgents, including four security experts who were shot, burned and then strung up on a bridge. Other contractors are accused of serious mistakes like taking part in the abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

Need for Supervision?

Critics, like Amnesty International's Mila Rosenthal, say the Abu Ghraib incident shows there is too little supervision of the contractors and no effective legal restraint on their activities.

"No civilians have been prosecuted yet for abuses. And yet there are continuous reports from the media and the army's own reports of civilian contractors being involved in abuses ranging from sexual abuse and torture of detainees to deaths of civilians," says Rosenthal.

A spokesman for the federal prosecutor [the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia] says 19 cases of alleged abuse by civilian contractors were referred to the Justice Department. He says two cases do not merit prosecution, while 17 others are still under review.

A number of scholars, former government officials and business leaders have been discussing reforming the way private companies are contracted for security work. Some suggest licensing contract workers, introducing greater competition for contracts and creating a new oversight organization.

Cofer Black, a former CIA officer and head of counterterrorism for the State Department, is now a top official of Blackwater USA, a major security contractor. He says he would welcome such reforms.

"We're not fly by night. We're not tricksters. We believe in these things. We believe in being representative. We believe in providing support. We are ethical. We give training to our employees. This is something that will grow and grow. We want to contribute for a significant period of time," says Black.

But Amnesty International's Mila Rosenthal says there must be more care in picking contract employees and urges that contracts include explicit requirements that employees adhere to human rights standards in their work. She says the government needs the political will to prosecute contractors who break laws.

Industry spokesman Doug Brooks says the companies he represents would appreciate clearer legal guidelines and welcomes more supervision.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.