There are as many or more than 180,000 private contractors in Iraq today - outnumbering U.S. military forces there - and thousands more in Afghanistan. A significant proportion of the contractors in Iraq - as many as fifty thousand or more - are armed and carrying out military-style security functions, many of them for a welter of U.S. government agencies.
But while the ranks of these private security contractors (PSCs) have grown and with them incidents of serious criminal violations, the U.S. government has failed to establish any effective system for holding PSCs fielded by the U.S. government accountable for their actions. This situation has been most problematic in Iraq. But these issues are not unique to Iraq or Afghanistan, and they will continue after those particular operations are long over.
Extrapolating data from a sample of "serious incidents" self-reported by some PSCs in Iraq over a 9-month period, Human Rights First estimates that there may well be hundreds if not thousands of such incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan in which PSCs have directed gunfire toward civilians. How many of these incidents have involved the unlawful use of force by PSCs, and how many innocent civilians have been killed or wounded as a result, likely will never be known.
Many numbers tell a compelling story, but here we will highlight only one: Since Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan more than six years ago and Operation Iraqi Freedom more than four years ago, hundreds of thousands of private contractors - a contractor population perhaps approaching in size the adult population of Washington, D.C. - have cycled through employment in those two theaters and have been implicated in numerous instances of violence or abuse of local nationals, as long ago as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and as recently as Blackwater's Nisoor Square shooting this past September. Nevertheless, in all this time only one U.S. contractor has been criminally prosecuted by the U.S. government for violence or abuse toward a local national in either of these theaters: David Passaro, a CIA contractor, charged and convicted in 2006 of criminal assault for beating an Afghan detainee to death
Thus the risk of criminal prosecution by the U.S. government faced by PSCs and other private contractors for killing or injuring local nationals seems about at the level of their chances of winning the lottery.
The U.S. government's response to private contractor violence and abuse toward local nationals seems to follow one of two patterns: To ignore it so long as it does not become a high-profile, embarrassing media issue. Or when incidents occasionally but recurringly do become known and sufficiently embarrassing, to express surprise and shock that such things could happen, as if they had never happened before. The confusion, lack of coordination, and ad hoc nature of U.S. government investigations of the September 16 Blackwater shootings in Nisoor Square follows the second pattern, and highlight the fact that the U.S. Government at this late date still has no established plan or procedure for investigating allegations of serious violent crime involving PSCs and other private contractors fielded abroad by the U.S. government.
As a result - and in vivid contrast to members of the armed forces - private security contractors operate, and feel that they can operate, in a "law-free zone" in which systems of criminal accountability are absent, unused, or dysfunctional. And where there is no accountability there is a culture of impunity.
Human Rights First has been examining the dramatically expanded role of PSCs at war and the U.S. government's abject failure to control their actions or to hold them criminally responsible for their actions. We have examined the pattern of these abuses and the overall indifference on the part of the Executive Branch, and are developing an analysis of the existing legal framework and recommendations on how these criminal abuses by contractors should be handled. Human Rights First is preparing a number of practical recommendations for addressing and correcting this problem.