They guard U.S. officials. They patrol the Green Zone, the U.S. headquarters in Iraq. They supply the food, the oil, clean the barracks and fix the machines. They aren't U.S. soldiers; they are private contractors.
The Bush administration has privatized war. The second biggest army in Iraq consists of armed security forces supplied by private contractors.
They act above the law — and with unclear lines of authority. They work abroad, so they are largely beyond the reach of U.S. law. On contract from the U.S. government, they are beyond the reach of Iraqi law, as established in an order issued by the U.S. authority before turning power over to the Iraqi government. When the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandals were revealed, private security forces and interrogators were at the center of it, but none were held accountable under law.
It isn't only the United States that privatizes war; the British have followed suit as well. The British charity, War on Want, reported last year that there are three British private security guards to every one British soldier in Iraq.
Congressional investigators are about to unearth massive abuses and corruption in Iraq, but the mercenaries operate across the world. In 1998, for example, DynCorp security agents in Bosnia were implicated in a highly publicized sex-slave scandal. The firm quickly recalled at least 13 agents from the country; none faced criminal prosecution.
The modern day mercenaries also operate largely free of government scrutiny or oversight. Their contracts and their activities are shrouded in secrecy. Companies, unlike government agencies, are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and often stonewall Congressional inquiry. Members of Congress have sought — thus far without success — an explanation of the contracts that Blackwater U.S.A security officers have in Iraq.
Under George W. Bush, the payment of private contractors generally has doubled to about $400 billion a year in 2006, as the administration is driven by a philosophy that would privatize everything it can. Finally, with Democrats reviving congressional oversight, questions are being asked.
Private contractors claim to provide savings and efficiency because of the benefits of competition. In fact, the GAO now suggests, in most areas, that contractors have little competition. Sole source, no-bid contracts are the rule, not the exception. And the contractors — as we saw in the bribing of Rep. Duke Cunningham and the other scandals of the DeLay Congress — spend millions wining, dining and rewarding the legislators who provide them with their immensely profitable contracts. Instead of saving money, taxpayers are likely getting fleeced.
The top 20 service contractors, according to The New York Times, have spent nearly $300 million since 2000 on lobbying and have donated some $23 million to political campaigns.
The whole thing gets incestuous. The New York Times reports that, in June, the General Services Administration, short of employees to review cases of incompetence and fraud by federal contractors, actually hired a private contractor to do the investigation. And the contractor — CACI International — had itself barely avoided suspension from federal contracting for its role in Abu Ghraib's crimes. For the GSA, CACI supplied six people at $104 an hour – more than $200,000 per person annually.
These private armies now may themselves become a problem. The Guardian reports on a bizarre plot in Equatorial Guinea, where 67 foreign mercenaries were arrested in what may have been a foiled attempt to overthrow the dictator of that oil-rich nation. Former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide charged private guards that were supposed to be defending him with abandoning him under orders from the U.S. government when he was overthrown.
If privatization doesn't produce savings and offers such scope for abuse, why has it continued to grow? Part of the reason is simply the animus for government by modern day conservatives. Part of it is political grandstanding. President Clinton, for example, boasted that he had cut the size of the federal bureaucracy — even as those cuts were feeding a cancerous growth of contracts for vital services.
The problem now is that the government lacks the capacity to control its contractors, and has begun contracting out that oversight. The result, too often, is costly waste. But when the government is creating private armies, often beyond the reach of war, the perils are far greater.
Congress has begun a great debate about our policy in Iraq. But it is vital that they investigate — as Sen. Joseph Biden and Rep. Henry Waxman have promised — the privatization of war. This must be brought under control before the Congress finds itself — like the Roman Senate at the end of the Roman Republic — faced with mercenary armies that are out of control.
Jesse Jackson is president and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a longtime civil rights activist.