September 16, 2009 will be the second anniversary of the Nisour Square shootings, in which six Blackwater (now Xe) personnel shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians outside Baghdad’s green zone. The bad media which surrounded the incident galvanized the U.S. Government to take some steps towards ensuring that the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of State (DOS) better regulate PMSC operations in Iraq. But was it enough?
The six Blackwater guards who allegedly indiscriminately opened fire in Nisour Square on September 16, 2007 were finally indicted late last year. The trial hasn’t even started but Blackwater/XE personnel are already implicated in another incident. On May 5, 2009, four Blackwater/Xe personnel reportedly shot and killed two Afghan civilians in Kabul. So much for lessons learned in Iraq; so much for regulation, oversight, and accountability.
However, the U.S. government should not keep pushing aside the questions of how to effectively regulate and where to set the limits on using PMSCs — especially with the increased number of contractors flooding into Afghanistan in the wake of the planned surge in troops. The longer it takes for the U.S. government to finally take a position and answer these questions, the longer PMSCs operate in a legal limbo, in which they may commit human rights abuses with impunity.
Just recently, it has been reported that the CIA contracted Blackwater/Xe to assist in a secret assassination program of which the Congress was not even aware. According to the August 20, 2009 New York Times, “it is unclear if the CIA planned to use Blackwater/Xe to actually capture and kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program.”
The article also mentions that government officials are concerned about serious issues of accountability when contractors are brought into covert and lethal operations. Where there is no transparency, accountability will be near impossible if a crime were committed during those operations. The past administration has been quick to invoke several legal reasons to withhold sensitive information from the public — from the Glomar response to claiming that releasing detainee abuse photos would be against the Geneva Conventions. When the same photos were about to be released in May 2009, the Obama administration sought to block their release arguing that the images could further inflame anti-American opinion. If it is already this difficult to get information out of government agencies, then imagine the difficulty of obtaining information for the purpose of accountability when there’s a private contract involved in a sensitive national operation.
Another area of great concern that the New York Times article briefly touches upon is whether, aside from the concerns about accountability for PMSCs in such a program, PMSCs should be involved in the first place? As Senator Diane Feinstein (CA) aptly states, “It is too easy to contract out work that you don’t want to accept responsibility for”. In the debate about the use of PMSCs in modern warfare, there is the pressing question of what functions a government can and cannot outsource. In U.S. statute and policy, inherently governmental functions are loosely defined as “a function so intimately related to the public interest” that it must be performed by Federal employees. The list of functions that fall under “inherently governmental” is also extremely inconsistent, varying from agency to agency. Because of this lack of a clear and consistent definition, PMSCs are contracted to perform duties in highly sensitive areas such as intelligence and now, even assassinations.
To better regulate the industry, Congress also needs to pass legislation that will close the legal vacuum in which PMSCs are operating and appropriate more resources to regulation and oversight. The U.S. government currently does not adequately regulate the industry and its statutes to hold PMSCs accountable for crimes overseas are few. In its June 2009 Interim Report, the Commission on Wartime Contracting finds that U.S. government oversight of PMSCs is inadequate. Because they mostly operate transnationally, jurisdiction can become a problem. While PMSCs contracted by the DOD can be held accountable under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), contractors hired by other agencies such as the DOS often fall through legal gaps.
The foundation to improve regulation, oversight and accountability of PMSCs has already been set. To close legal gaps such as the one in MEJA, legislation has been proposed in the past and we look forward to similar legislation in the 111th Session of Congress. As for clarifying definitions of “inherently governmental functions”, a bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting was established in Public Law 110-181 to recommend among other things improvements in its Final Report on the “process for determining which functions are inherently governmental and which functions are appropriate for performance by contractors in a contingency operation, especially whether providing security in an area of combat operations is inherently governmental.” On an international level, the UN Working Group on Mercenaries (UNWGM) completed its two-week visit to the U.S. on August 3rd, 2009. During that time, the UNWGM met with the DOJ, members of Congress, governmental officials and public interest groups to discuss how PMSCs can be regulated on international, regional, national and local levels. Such efforts are all a step in the right direction.