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Rights Groups Leery of Surge in Wartime Contractors

Three years after Blackwater security guards gunned down unarmed civilians in Baghdad, not nearly enough has been done to improve oversight and accountability of private contractors abroad, says a new report.

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Inter Press Service

Three years after security guards from Blackwater, a private security contractor working for the U.S. Department of State, killed 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad, a leading human rights advocacy group is charging that not nearly enough has been done to improve oversight and accountability of private contractors abroad.

Its findings and recommendations come in a new report, "State of Affairs: Three Years After Nisoor Square," issued by Human Rights First.

The author of the report, attorney Melina Milazzo, told IPS that "the U.S. government has not done nearly enough to protect innocent civilians from trigger-happy contractors."

She added that it was urgent for Congress and President Barack Obama to take action before the planned increase in the number of private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nisoor Square is the major intersection in Baghdad where the killings took place in September 2007. Twenty other unarmed civilians were wounded. The security contractor involved, Blackwater Worldwide – which later changed its name to Xe Services – subsequently was expelled from the country by the Iraqi government and banned from working there in the future.

As the U.S. continues its drawdown of troops in Iraq, the State Department plans to more than double the number of private security contractors it employs from 2,700 to 7,000. An additional 50,000 contractors – primarily working for the Department of Defence (DOD) – will be required to support the Afghan war.

The HRF report acknowledges that the Nisoor Square incident triggered some positive reforms in U.S. law and policy. For example, Congress has mandated greater agency oversight and coordination over private security and other contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Agencies have also, among other things, defined their responsibility for contractor oversight, increased their coordination over contractors, and established common principles governing contractor conduct.

But despite that progress, "serious deficiencies" in U.S. agencies' reporting, investigation, prosecution and oversight of serious contractor incidents persist. Agencies still do not accurately track the number of contractors and subcontractors fielded abroad. Private contractors already far outnumber U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the report charges.

"Many oversight and accountability gaps persist three years after Nisoor Square, putting civilians at risk and undermining U.S. national security," said HRF's Milazzo,

"Congress and the administration must work together to put solutions in place before additional contractors are deployed," she urged.

Among the report's 19 recommendations:

Congress should enact the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) of 2010 (H.R. 4567, S. 2979) to expand criminal jurisdiction over and increase investigative resources for serious crimes committed by U.S. contractors.

Agencies should require oversight bodies to track all serious incidents reported, investigate and remediate when necessary, and maintain all supporting documentation relating to such actions taken.

The Department of Justice should commit additional resources to investigate and prosecute contractor crime and formally announce that prosecution of contractor crime abroad is a Justice Department national priority.

Publication of the HRF report comes barely a week after the NATO command issued new guidelines for awarding billions of dollars worth of international contracts in Afghanistan. A memorandum from U.S. Afghanistan commander David H. Petraeus said that without proper oversight, taxpayer funds earmarked for contractors could end up in the hands of insurgents and criminals.

He added that if "we spend large quantities of international contracting funds quickly and with insufficient oversight, it is likely that some of those funds will unintentionally fuel corruption, finance insurgent organisations, strengthen criminal patronage networks and undermine our efforts in Afghanistan."

With proper oversight, "contracting can spur economic development and support the Afghan government and NATO's campaign objectives," Gen. Petraeus wrote in the memorandum, which was obtained by the Associated Press.

Afghan and foreign private contractors provide a wide range of services to U.S. and NATO forces – everything from food preparation and service to helping to build large capital projects to providing security escorts to traveling government officials and VIP civilians.

No official figures are available from the U.S. government regarding the exact amount of money paid to contractors. But generally accepted estimates put the figure at about 14 billion a year.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been outspokenly critical of individual contractors and of the international contracting process in general. He has charged that much of the money earmarked for important projects is siphoned off by high-priced contractors, subcontractors and brokers. The result, he has said, is that the Afghan people are being denied the benefits of these projects.

As noted by The New York Times, Afghans also complain that too many contracts are awarded to the same contractors.

This issue was also addressed in Gen. Petraeus's memorandum. "Contracts with a broader range of Afghan companies will help break monopolies and weaken patronage networks that breed resentment" among the Afghan people, he wrote.

He said, "In situations where there is no alternative to powerbrokers with links to criminal networks, it may be preferable to forgo the project."

The new guidance said that contracts should go to Afghans first and if the military cannot contract with an Afghan company, the company that is awarded the contract should be encouraged to hire Afghan workers and subcontractors.

Blackwater (Xe) recently agreed pay the U.S. government 42 million dollars for violations that include illegal weapons export to Afghanistan and making unauthorised proposals to train troops in southern Sudan, The New York Times has reported.

The company reportedly struck a deal with the U.S. State Department to pay the fine in order to avoid criminal charges. This will also allow it to continue to obtain government contracts, including work in Afghanistan.

Xe Services still faces other legal troubles, including the indictment of five former executives on weapons and obstruction charges.

Two former guards have also been charged with murdering two Afghan civilians.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Xe's most recent government contract tasked the group with protecting CIA bases in Afghanistan. The report was confirmed by CIA Director Leon Panetta during a TV interview, the newspaper wrote.

Blackwater (Xe) has become a kind of poster-child for suspect business practices in wartime. During Congressional hearings last year, it was revealed that the company's chairman, Erik Prince, has long had close financial and ideological ties to the administration of former President George W. Bush.

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