WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has ordered U.S. military commanders in Iraq to crack down on any abuses they uncover by private security contractors in the aftermath of a deadly shooting involving American guards that infuriated Iraqis.
Gates took the step after concluding that the thousands of heavily armed private guards working for the Pentagon in Iraq might not be adequately supervised by military officers. In a three-page directive sent Tuesday night to the Pentagon's most senior officers, Gates' top deputy ordered them to review rules governing the use of arms by contractors and to begin legal proceedings against any that have violated military law.
Gates' order contrasts with the reaction by officials at the State Department, who have been slow to acknowledge any potential failings in their oversight of Blackwater USA, the private security firm that protects U.S. diplomats in Iraq and was involved in a Sept. 16 shooting that resulted in the deaths of at least 11 Iraqis.
For years, there have been tensions between midlevel military officers who operate under strict rules and private security firm employees who work in Iraq under less rigorous guidelines. But Pentagon officials were careful to insist they do not believe that wrongdoing is widespread among the 7,300 Defense Department security contractors or that the armed guards operate with impunity.
However, one senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity when discussing internal department debates, said a five-man team sent by Gates to Iraq over the weekend discovered that military commanders there were unclear about their legal authority.
Commanders were not certain whether they had the authority to enforce existing laws, including the Uniform Code of Military Justice - the legal system covering the military. The officers requested a clarification, the official said, prompting Gates to issue the directive.
"Commanders have UCMJ authority to disarm, apprehend, and detain DoD contractors suspected of having committed a felony offense in violation of the" rules for using force, according to the memo, written by Deputy Secretary Gordon England and obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
The Pentagon directive does not affect private security guards under contract to other agencies, including the State Department, which is investigating the Sept. 16 Blackwater USA shooting.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered her department to review its security practices in Iraq but has not taken action to change any of its policies. State's 842 Blackwater guards have resumed the job of providing protection for U.S. diplomats in Iraq, despite efforts by the Baghdad government to bar the company from operating in the country.
State Department officials have defended the firm, saying that its guards were ambushed during a diplomatic convoy and that company employees regularly risk their lives to work in Iraq.
In a statement issued yesterday, John D. Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state, again defended the department's oversight of Blackwater. Negroponte said the agency provides "close in-country supervision" of the firm. "I personally was grateful for the presence of my Blackwater security detail, largely comprised of ex-Special Forces and other military, when I served as ambassador to Iraq," Negroponte said.
The Pentagon's move to step up its enforcement activity came after Gates requested a briefing last week on policies toward security contractors but was dissatisfied with information available. He sent the five-man team of officials from his office to find out whether regulations were being enforced.
"We've tried to answer the question from afar," said the senior Pentagon official, describing the reasoning behind the fact-finding team. "Let's get some ground truth."
Facing questions about private security contractors at a Senate hearing yesterday, Gates said his primary concern centered on whether Defense Department officials have been keeping a close enough eye on operations by the security contractors.
"I think that we have the proper procedures, the proper rules and the proper legal authorities in order to prosecute contractors who violate the law," Gates said. "My concern is whether there has been sufficient accountability and oversight in the region over the activities of these security companies."
Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.