WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is pressing for the nearly 10,000 armed security contractors now working for the U.S. government in Iraq to fall under a single authority, most likely the American military, in an effort to bring Blackwater USA under tighter control, senior Bush administration officials and Pentagon advisers say.
That idea is facing resistance from the State Department, which relies heavily for protection in Iraq on about 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 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 U.S. military commanders, who have long complained that the contractors often operate independently.
Gates has not publicly stated his final position on any reorganization, but his thinking on how to manage security contractors was described by Bush administration officials, military officers and outside advisers to the Defense Department, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the issue.
The officials said it was not clear whether Gates would 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 FBI and other U.S. 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 is no need to shift oversight to the Pentagon.
By contrast, Pentagon and military officials say, 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 U.S. government agencies in the war zone. The commanders argue that the military is best positioned to be that single authority.
Congress has expressed concern over the current legal uncertainty involving American contractors. Earlier this month, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would bring all U.S. 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 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 yesterday that 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 U.S. combat operations, in part because local commanders sometimes do not even know of armed official convoys moving through their areas.
Because of their overseas travel schedules, Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been unable to meet face to face to resolve the issue, officials said. "In no way are we at a point of impasse with the State Department," said Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. "We have not even begun discussions with them at the secretary level on the way forward."