Shining Light on Blackwater USA

Private security contractor Blackwater USA faces congressional scrutiny after years of operating under the radar in Iraq.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s report and hearing today examining the costs and benefits of private security contractor Blackwater USA’s operations in Iraq is long overdue. The hearing comes just days after the Pentagon issued a new $92 million contract to Presidential Airways, Blackwater’s aviation unit, and weeks after the contractor was involved in the controversial shooting of 11 Iraqi civilians.

Private security contractors in Iraq are an obscured and costly addition to the Army’s official presence, and they operate largely without any congressional oversight or outside scrutiny. Rep. Jan Schakowsky argued at a Center for American Progress screening of the documentary Shadow Company in June of 2006 for increased congressional oversight—rather than the then-current standard of practically no oversight—of Blackwater and its relations with the Departments of State and Defense.

What’s more, she said, contractors “are not part of the conversation about the cost of this war.” (The Center for American Progress already figures the cost of the war to be upward of $1 trillion if our troops stay in Iraq for 10 years, as suggested by Gen. David Petraeus and President Bush.)

The Oversight Committee’s majority staff detailed the staggering cost of retaining Blackwater security personnel in their report:

The security services provided by Blackwater would typically be performed by an Army Sergeant, whose salary, housing, and subsistence pay range from approximately $140 to $190 per day, depending on rank and years of service. On an annual basis, the salary, housing, and subsistence pay of an Army Sergeant ranges from $51,100 to $69,350 per year. The amount the government pays Blackwater for these same services is approximately six to nine times greater.

The majority staff’s report also cites multiple incidents in which Blackwater guards working in Iraq have shot innocent civilians and have tried to cover up the incidents, sometimes with the State Department’s knowledge and help. Blackwater guards have engaged repeatedly in first fire, even though their contract with the State Department specifies that Blackwater can only use defensive force.

More than a year ago, Rep. Schakowsky recommended guidelines for congressional oversight to bring the debate about private security contractors and their actions into the public domain to hold these companies accountable for their actions. Congress is only now beginning to get answers about the true costs of these private security contractors, the extra-legal operations of the guards, and the State Department’s protective relationship to these companies. It’s time for us to crack down on the waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars and lawless corruption of private security contractors in Iraq.

For more information:

  • Watch Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) discuss the importance of legislation to regulate private security contractors at a Center for American Progress screening of Shadow Company.
  • Read Larry Korb’s blog from his trip to Iraq earlier this year where he details several interactions with private contractors.

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