Pentagon Sees One Authority Over Contractors
That idea is facing resistance from the State Department, which relies heavily for protection in Iraq on some 2,500 private guards, including more than 800 Blackwater contractors, to provide security for American diplomats in Baghdad. The State Department has said it should retain control over those guards, despite Blackwater’s role in a September shooting in Baghdad that exposed problems in the current oversight arrangements.
In practical terms, placing the private security guards who now work for the military, the State Department and other government agencies under a single authority would mean that those armed civilians would no longer have different bosses and different rules. Pentagon advisers say it would also allow better coordination between the security contractors and American military commanders, who have long complained that the contractors often operate independently.
Mr. Gates has not publicly stated his final position on any reorganization, but his thinking on how to manage security contractors was described by administration officials, military officers and outside advisers to the Defense Department, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The officials said it was not clear whether Mr. Gates would also recommend changes that would make Blackwater contractors in Iraq subject to military law. Whether Blackwater guards now in Iraq are subject to any kind of legal jeopardy remains unclear, even as the F.B.I. and other American agencies investigate the Sept. 16 shooting, which Iraqi investigators have said killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
In response to the shooting, the State Department has acknowledged the need to tighten controls over Blackwater. But department officials have said that they were tightening controls by sending State Department personnel as monitors on Blackwater security convoys in and around Baghdad, and said that therefore there was no need to shift oversight to the Pentagon.
By contrast, Pentagon and military officials say, Mr. Gates has been told by senior American commanders in Iraq that there must be a single chain of command overseeing the private security contractors working for a variety of United States government agencies in the war zone. The commanders argue that the military is best positioned to be that single authority.
Congress has already voiced its concern over the current legal uncertainty involving American contractors. Earlier this month, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would bring all United States government contractors in the Iraq war zone under the jurisdiction of American criminal law. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.
But Pentagon officials remain divided over whether they might recommend additional changes if the contractors were brought under Defense Department authority. Some military commanders in Iraq favor using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a system they know well and trust. Other Defense Department officials support the model being considered by Congress, which would make clear that the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act would extend federal law to civilians supporting military operations.
The Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said Mr. Gates “has made clear that he supports his commanders’ assertions that, at the very least, they need greater visibility on the work and movements of armed security contractors in Iraq.”
The civilian casualties from contractor gunfire have infuriated the Iraqi government and damaged the American image in the country, frustrating military officers who say the heavy-handed tactics by contractors undermine broader efforts to win the trust of the Iraqi people.
American commanders have a more specific military complaint, as well: They say the security contractors complicate American combat operations, in part because local commanders sometimes do not even know of armed official convoys moving through their areas.