A job for Uncle Sam

October 28, 2007

Unaccountable and deadly, private security guards in Iraq have done so much damage to the American mission there with their shoot-early-and-often tactics that finally even the State Department, which seems to pride itself on its ability to look the other way, has realized that something has to be done to rein them in.

New oversight measures approved Tuesday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are fine as far as they go - but they don't go far enough. Ms. Rice has unfortunately rejected a suggestion by the secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, to place the contractors under military command. Although there are obvious drawbacks to that proposal, it's probably a better idea than letting the State Department, with a skeleton security staff and a modest level of expertise, continue to pretend that it can control these highly paid freebooters.

The private security guard is a newcomer on the diplomatic scene, having first been tried by the United States during a crisis in Haiti in 1994. The year of the Iraq invasion, the State Department was paying $1 billion annually for security contractors; this year, the price tag is close to $4 billion. That's a lot of money, and in Iraq it comes with no rules and apparently no laws attached. The department has a staff of just 17 monitoring the contracts - and the resignation of their boss on Thursday hardly gets at the real problem.

A panel appointed by Ms. Rice proposed the tightening of regulations, after noting that the government doesn't really have any alternatives to the private security companies. The military is overstretched as it is, and there is no time to train a replacement force that would come under the State Department. That leaves no choice but to make the best of a bad situation.

One good proposal is to include an agent of the Diplomatic Security Service, an agency of the State Department, on every convoy. Another is to begin discussions with the Defense Department and the Iraqi government on drawing up regulations governing private guards; it is astonishing that that still needs to be done nearly five years into the war.

But over the longer run, the United States needs to stop outsourcing its own protection. In the future, the country should get back to its traditional practice, in which reliably trained and well-disciplined guards (typically Marines) can be counted on to do their jobs and follow orders.

It might make sense to create a new government corps of bodyguards, for use where needed. It's the best way to provide essential accountability - and it would probably save money, too.

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