What did private security contractors do in Iraq?

The U.S. employed more private contractors in Iraq than in any previous war, at times exceeding the number of regular military personnel, and roughly 10% of them were in armed roles by the end of the war. A few high-profile incidents made headlines, such as the Blackwater shootings at Nisoor Square in September 2007, but there hasn’t yet been a comprehensive public record of these private security contractors’ actions at the height of the war. Thousands of pages of recently released material changes that — and provides an ideal test case for Overview’s evolving document mining capabilities.

The documents show that mostly, these contractors fired at approaching civilian vehicles to protect U.S. motorcades from the threat of suicide bombers. The documents also show how often shots were fired, and provide a window into how State Department oversight of security contractors tightened during the war.

The documents come from a Freedom of Information request filed with the U.S. Department of State by journalist John Cook in November 2008. Cook received the paperwork in batches over the last 18 months, and posted the 4,500 pages of incident reports and supporting investigation records from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security on DocumentCloud.

The record only covers the work of State Department contractors between 2005 and 2007; the majority of U.S. contractors worked for the Department of Defense, according to a 2008 Government Accountability Office report. The State Department also has excluded some documents relating to ongoing criminal investigations or national security. Nonetheless, this is the most exhaustive record we have, and offers us the possibility of moving beyond anecdotes to broader patterns.

In addition to the document analysis, we spoke with Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, who oversees the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.  That conversation provided context for these events. His assistant, Christina Maier, answered many of our specific questions.

For details on how we used the Overview prototype to report on these documents, including the exact methodology, see this post.

What did private security contractors do?

The documents cover about 600 incidents that involved security contractors firing a weapon in Iraq. It’s not clear exactly how the department decided whether a report was warranted.  Some reports are many pages long, including witness testimony and extended investigative reports.  In other cases, only a terse cover page exists.  The documents mostly concern the actions of the three private contractors then working for the State Department: Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy. A handful of incidents involve KBR, another contractor; and the U.S. Marines.

The majority of incidents, about 65 percent, involve a contractor team assigned to protect a U.S. motorcade firing into an “aggressive” or “threatening” vehicle.

A typical example, involving a detail protecting involving workers for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Baghdad, reads:

At approximately 0950, 11 May 05, a USAID PSD [private security detail] Team fired four rounds into the hood of a dark colored BMW taxi after the driver of the vehicle moved around a line of traffic, failed to yield to verbal and hand signals and approached the PSD vehicles while the detail was slowing for congested traffic. Upon receiving fire, the BMW slowed its approach and rolled to a stop against a bus parked on the right side of the road. The PSD exited the area and continued with their mission without further incident. There were three USAID principals onboard at the time of the incident. No friendly personnel were affected. Status of driver and hostile vehicle is unknown at this time.

The bulk of the documents report hundreds of such incidents with minor variations. The report always includes at least a brief mention of the ways that the contractors tried to stop the vehicle before shooting. Sometimes, “verbal commands” or “visual signals” are mentioned. In other cases the contractors tried flashing lights, threw water bottles, or fired flares or smoke grenades before firing.

Motorcade guards shot vehicles that approached too closely because of the threat of vehicle suicide bombers, known as “vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices” or “VBIEDs.” It’s not clear how many of the vehicles were actually a threat; there is no record of followup investigations in an estimated 95 percent of the reports. There are few details about what happens to the driver of the vehicles that were shot at; sometimes, a report  states that the driver “did not appear to be injured.” In other instances, there is no comment at all.

Most reports describe a few rounds fired into the front of the vehicle, that succeed in stopping the car. On other occasions, gunners fired into the car windows if shots to the front grille didn’t stop the car.  We found a number of incidents where, after nonviolent warnings, contractors fired into windows first (1,2,3,4,5). On two of these occasions, gunners said that they “didn’t have time to shoot to disable,” which was acceptable under the policies then in force.

Some of the drivers didn’t stop the cars, and just kept  kept going after taking bullets. One taxi took four rounds and “continued to push past the motorcade.”

We found 10 recorded Iraqi deaths, and a smaller number of injuries. In one case a bullet went through the windshield and hit the driver’s right shoulder. The team “provided first aid and turned the man over to a local national who stated that he was a doctor.” In another case, an ambulance was called and the team waited, but the driver eventually refused help and left the scene. But in general these contractors do not seem to have been equipped to deliver medical aid. After one fatal shooting, the investigator who interviewed the team noted, “Vehicle was engaged due to possible VBIED; there is no standard operating procedure for PSD teams to search vehicles render aide to [sic] in such an incident.”

The documents show that shots were also fired as the result of  misunderstandings. After Marines fired on a car trying to enter the U.S. Embassy Annex through the exit lane, investigators concluded that “the local national had no apparent hostile intention and his actions were based on his misunderstanding of the new security procedures.” On another occasion a Marine fired at a vehicle driven by “a U.S. citizen employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers” who “was talking on his cellular telephone and didn’t follow the Marines’ directions.” In another incident, a DynCorp. team shot at an Iraqi judge after he failed to stop his car, hitting him in the leg.

The bulk of the documents concern this type of “escalation of force” against a vehicle, but a smaller number of documents report contractor responses to attacks on U.S. personnel.  A motorcade was fired upon by fighters on the roof of an abandoned five-story building.  An attack on the “Municipalities and Public Works Annex building” ultimately killed five U.S. personnel  in a helicopter crash, and was later cited by the State Department as an example of heroic behavior by a contractor. There was an attack on Baghdad’s city hall, and another at a Doura power plant. There are also several instances of Blackwater aircraft brought down by small arms fire (1,2,3).

About 45 percent of the reports describe events happening outside of Baghdad. In the provincial capital of Basra, the palace compound was repeatedly attacked by rockets. In what was described as a “suicide probe,” a man carrying a “white bag” approached the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Basra and would not stop after warnings and a flash grenade. Guards shot him. There are also a half-dozen reports of suspicious boats approaching the Embassy building from the riverside, and in one case a Triple Canopy contractor fired upon a boat after it ignored flares and warning shots.

Finally, there are a handful of reports of contractors shooting aggressive stray dogs. In one instance a Blackwater contractor killed a dog  that belonged to the New York Times’  Baghdad bureau, after it fought with the contractor’s bomb-sniffing dog.

Tightening oversight

The documents show that the shootings led to greater oversight as the war progressed. In February 2005, Blackwater guards fired over 100 rounds at a car approaching their motorcade on the other side of a median, hitting the driver. The contractors initially maintained that the car’s passenger had fired into their vehicle, but investigators later found that the Blackwater guards had fired them. They also claimed that the car was on a pre-existing list of suspicious vehicles, known as the “be on the lookout” list.

Yet one of the guards later told investigators that claiming that the vehicle was on this list was “simply standard practice when reporting a shooting incident, per Blackwater management.”

The investigator’s report says that “several of the PSD individuals involved in the shooting provided false statements to the investigators,” but the head of diplomatic security in Baghdad, John Frese, decided not to discipline the contractors because it “would be deemed as lowering the morale of the entire PSD entity.”

The State Department declined a request to comment on this incident.

The investigator’s February 2005 report recommended several policy changes, including posting signs on motorcade vehicles stating “stay back 100 meters” in English and Arabic, counting the number of rounds fired after every shooting incident, and “establishing a clear and unambiguous policy regarding appropriate use of warning/disabling shots at vehicles.”

The documents include a State Department security contractor policy manual dated August 2005 with such guidelines. The manual said that shooting at approaching vehicles is authorized “if it constitutes the appropriate level of force to mitigate the threat.” Shots can be fired into a car “to prohibit a threat from entering into an area where the protective detail would be exposed to an attack,” the manual says. It also advises contractors to issue visible and verbal warnings before firing.

This policy also requires an internal investigation and written reports from all shooters and witnesses any time a firearm is discharged.

Were problems common?

Out of about 600 incidents in total, the AP found 14 incidents where an Iraqi was injured by contractor gunfire, including 8 deaths. (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14).

The State Department told us that there were 5,648 protected diplomatic motorcades in Iraq in 2007. Our analysis found that only about 2 percent of the 2007 motorcades in Iraq resulted in a shooting. This agrees closely with previous estimates that between 1 percent and 3 percent of the motorcades involved shootings, according to congressional testimony.

Out of all the cases where contractors used force, the State Department told us that a total of five cases have been referred to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution.

Prosecution doomed from the start

On September 17, 2007, guards working for Blackwater Worldwide shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square, Baghdad. The incident received international media attention and spawned a congressional hearing. But the criminal case against five former Blackwater contractors was dropped after a judge ruled that government prosecutors improperly relied on statements that the State Department compelled the contractors to make.

The documents analyzed by the AP provide an important clue as to how this might have happened. There is a frequently used “sworn statement” form for contractors (like this example) which states “I further understand that neither my statements nor any information or evidence gained by reason of my statements can be used against me in a criminal proceeding.”  Such statements, mandatory whenever shots were fired, suggest that contractors were effectively granted automatic immunity immediately after any incident.

Even if that were not the case, it’s not clear what laws would cover alleged crimes.  Security contractors in Iraq were immune from Iraqi law until the end of 2008, while current U.S. laws may not cover the acts of overseas armed contractors not directly involved in a Department of Defense mission.

Blackwater, now known as Academi, settled a civil suit with the families of several of the Nisoor Square victims in January.

After Nisoor Square

The documents reviewed by the AP do not include the Nisoor Square shootings, which triggered major changes in contractor oversight. An expert panel convened by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recommended 18 specific policy changes. According to a subsequent GAO report, the State Department implemented most of the changes,  including placing at least one government security agent in each motorcade, installing video cameras in all vehicles, and recording both radio transmissions and satellite-tracked vehicle locations.

According to the same report, the number of weapons discharges by security contractors working for both the Department and Defense and the Department of State decreased by 60 percent after the changes went into effect. Military and civilian casualties also fell greatly during the same time period, making it difficult to know if new policies resulted in fewer shootings.

Undersecretary Kennedy was on the expert panel that made those policy recommendations. He noted that no official in a department-escorted convoy has ever been killed in Iraq. (There have been deaths from other causes, such as mortar attacks.)

“We try not to be draconian about it,” he said. “Could we have done the same with less use of force? I don’t know how you could validate retrospectively that the escalation wasn’t appropriate.”

Either way, the State Department will continue to use security contractors in Iraq and worldwide. Kennedy said the number of security contractors working for the department in Iraq has increased since U.S.  troops left the country because the department now has additional security responsibilities, including the protection of six Iraqi military training sites.

“There are only about 1700 State Dept. special agents in the world,” he said. “We have 280 embassies. There is no way I can take 1700 special agents and about 100 officers and stretch them to do my mission without contractors.”


3 thoughts on “What did private security contractors do in Iraq?”

Comments are closed.