W O R L D / I R A Q When Private Armies Take to the Front Lines The security contractors killed in Fallujah represented a little known reality of the war in Iraq By MICHAEL DUFFY
KARIM SAHIB / AFP / GETTY
FIERY END: A mob in Fallujah exults as an SUV that carried the slain Americans burns
Monday, Apr. 12, 2004
A nation that goes to war on principle may not realize it will then
have to hire private soldiers to keep the peace. The work of the four
American civilians slaughtered in Fallujah last week was so shadowy
that their families struggled to explain what exactly the men had
been hired to do in Iraq. Marija Zovko says her nephew Jerry said
little about the perils of the missions he carried out every day. "He
wouldn't talk about it," she says. Even representatives for the
private security company that employed the men, Blackwater USA, could
not say what exactly they were up to on that fateful morning. "All
the details of the attack at this point are haphazard at best," says
Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for Blackwater. "We don't know what they
were doing on the road at the time."
What the murder of the four security specialists did reveal is a
little known reality about how business is done in war-torn settings
all over the globe. With U.S. troops still having to battle
insurgents and defend themselves, the job of protecting everyone else
in Iraqfrom journalists to government contractors to the U.S.
administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremeris largely being done by
private security companies stocked with former soldiers looking for
good money and the taste of danger. Pentagon officials count roughly
20 private companies around the world that contract for security
work, mainly in combat areas. They are finding plenty of it in Iraq.
Scott Custer, a co-director of Custer Battles, based in Fairfax, Va.,
says as many as 30,000 Iraqis and "several thousand expats" are
working for private outfits in Iraq. Security contractors make a lot
more than the average soldier, but last week's events suggest that
they may also be turning into more attractive targets for insurgents.
"If they can chase us out," says Custer
co-director Mike Battles, "then in a void, they become more
Among the various professional security firms, none is as renowned as
Blackwater USA. Based in Moyock, N.C., the firm gets its name from
the covert missions undertaken by divers at night and from the
peat-colored water common to the area. It was founded in 1996 by
former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, who saw a growing need for private
security work by governments overseas and private firms. Since then,
the company has trained more than 50,000 military and law-enforcement
personnel just south of the Virginia border, near Norfolk, at its
6,000-acre facility, which it calls "the finest private
firearms-training facility in the U.S." The facility boasts several
target ranges and a simulated town for urban-warfare training. It is
so advanced that some of the U.S. military's active-duty special-ops
troops have trained there. Next month Blackwater will host the World
SWAT Challengean Olympic-style competition among 20 SWAT teams from
around the countryset to be broadcast on ESPN.
The security firm's website notes that "Blackwater has the people to
execute any requirement." Blackwater recruits from the ranks of
active-duty special-forces unitsparticularly Navy SEALs, Army
Rangers and Delta Force troopsmany of which are based in nearby Ft.
Bragg, N.C. The best and brightest among private security consultants
earn salaries that run as high as $15,000 a month. And as various
commitments have strained the military's capacity to provide
day-to-day security for relief workers and diplomats, Blackwater has
prospered by filling the void. Since 2002, Blackwater has won more
than $35 million in government contracts.
The current business boom is in Iraq. Blackwater charges its clients
$1,500 to $2,000 a day for each hired gun. Most security contractors,
like Blackwater's teams, live a comfortable if exhausting existence
in Baghdad, staying at the Sheraton or Palestine hotels, which are
not plush but at least have running water. Locals often mistake the
guards for special forces or CIA personnel, which makes active-duty
military troops a bit edgy. "Those Blackwater guys," says an
intelligence officer in Iraq, "they drive around wearing Oakley
sunglasses and pointing their guns out of car windows. They have
pointed their guns at me, and it pissed me off. Imagine what a guy in
Fallujah thinks." Adds an Army officer who just returned from
Baghdad, "They are a subculture."
Indeed, the relationship between the private soldiers and the real
ones isn't always collaborative. "We've responded to the military at
least half a dozen times, but not once have they responded to our
emergencies," says Custer. "We have our own quick-reaction force
now." But the private firms are usually cut off from the U.S.
military's intelligence network and from information that could
minimize risk to their employees. Noel Koch, who oversaw terrorism
policy for the Pentagon in the 1980s and now runs TranSecur, a global
information-security firm, says private companies "aren't required to
have an intelligence collection or analytical capability in house.
It's always assumed that the government is going to provide
intelligence about threats." That, says Koch, means "they are flying
blind, often guessing about places that they shouldn't go."
It's still unclear whether the four Blackwater employees found
themselves in Fallujah inadvertently or were on a mission gone awry.
Even by Pentagon standards, military officials were fuzzy about the
exact nature of the Blackwater mission; several officers privately
disputed the idea that the team was escorting a food convoy. Another
officer would say only the detail was escorting a shipment of
"goods." Several sources familiar with Blackwater operations told
TIME that the company has in some cases abbreviated training even for
crucial missions in war zones. A former private military operator
with knowledge of Blackwater's operational tactics says the firm did
not give all its contract warriors in Afghanistan proper training in
offensive-driving tactics, although missions were to include
vehicular and dignitary-escort duty. "Evasive driving and ambush
tactics were notrepeat, were notcovered in training," this source
said. Asked to respond to the charges, Blackwater spokesman Bertelli
said, "Blackwater never comments on training methods and operational
At the Pentagon, which has encouraged the outsourcing of security
work, there are widespread misgivings about the use of hired guns. A
Pentagon official says the outsourcing of security work means the
government no longer has any real control over the training and
capabilities of thousands of U.S. and foreign contractors who are
packing weapons every bit as powerful as those belonging to the
average G.I. "These firms are hiring anyone they can get. Sure, some
of them are special forces, but some of them are good, and some are
not. Some are too old for this work, and some are too young. But they
are not on the U.S. payroll. And so they are not our responsibility."
But with Congress and the Bush Administration reluctant to pay for
more active-duty troops, the use of contractors in places like Iraq
will only grow. A Pentagon official who opposes their use nonetheless
detects an obvious if unsentimental virtue: "The American public
doesn't get quite as concerned when contractors are killed." Perhaps.
But that may prove to be yet another illusion that died in Fallujah
With reporting by Brian Bennett and Vivienne Walt/Baghdad, Paul Cuadros/Chapel Hill and Timothy J. Burger and Sally B.