When Private Armies Take to the Front Lines

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KARIM SAHIB / AFP / GETTY

FIERY END: A mob in Fallujah exults as an SUV that carried the slain Americans burns

A nation that goes to war on principle may not realize it will then have to hire private soldiers to keep the peace. The work of the four American civilians slaughtered in Fallujah last week was so shadowy that their families struggled to explain what exactly the men had been hired to do in Iraq. Marija Zovko says her nephew Jerry said little about the perils of the missions he carried out every day. "He wouldn't talk about it," she says. Even representatives for the private security company that employed the men, Blackwater USA, could not say what exactly they were up to on that fateful morning. "All the details of the attack at this point are haphazard at best," says Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for Blackwater. "We don't know what they were doing on the road at the time."

What the murder of the four security specialists did reveal is a little known reality about how business is done in war-torn settings all over the globe. With U.S. troops still having to battle insurgents and defend themselves, the job of protecting everyone else in Iraq—from journalists to government contractors to the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer—is largely being done by private security companies stocked with former soldiers looking for good money and the taste of danger. Pentagon officials count roughly 20 private companies around the world that contract for security work, mainly in combat areas. They are finding plenty of it in Iraq. Scott Custer, a co-director of Custer Battles, based in Fairfax, Va., says as many as 30,000 Iraqis and "several thousand expats" are working for private outfits in Iraq. Security contractors make a lot more than the average soldier, but last week's events suggest that they may also be turning into more attractive targets for insurgents. "If they can chase us out," says Custer co-director Mike Battles, "then in a void, they become more powerful."

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Among the various professional security firms, none is as renowned as Blackwater USA. Based in Moyock, N.C., the firm gets its name from the covert missions undertaken by divers at night and from the peat-colored water common to the area. It was founded in 1996 by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, who saw a growing need for private security work by governments overseas and private firms. Since then, the company has trained more than 50,000 military and law-enforcement personnel just south of the Virginia border, near Norfolk, at its 6,000-acre facility, which it calls "the finest private firearms-training facility in the U.S." The facility boasts several target ranges and a simulated town for urban-warfare training. It is so advanced that some of the U.S. military's active-duty special-ops troops have trained there. Next month Blackwater will host the World SWAT Challenge—an Olympic-style competition among 20 SWAT teams from around the country—set to be broadcast on ESPN.

The security firm's website notes that "Blackwater has the people to execute any requirement." Blackwater recruits from the ranks of active-duty special-forces units—particularly Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Delta Force troops—many of which are based in nearby Ft. Bragg, N.C. The best and brightest among private security consultants earn salaries that run as high as $15,000 a month. And as various commitments have strained the military's capacity to provide day-to-day security for relief workers and diplomats, Blackwater has prospered by filling the void. Since 2002, Blackwater has won more than $35 million in government contracts.

The current business boom is in Iraq. Blackwater charges its clients $1,500 to $2,000 a day for each hired gun. Most security contractors, like Blackwater's teams, live a comfortable if exhausting existence in Baghdad, staying at the Sheraton or Palestine hotels, which are not plush but at least have running water. Locals often mistake the guards for special forces or CIA personnel, which makes active-duty military troops a bit edgy. "Those Blackwater guys," says an intelligence officer in Iraq, "they drive around wearing Oakley sunglasses and pointing their guns out of car windows. They have pointed their guns at me, and it pissed me off. Imagine what a guy in Fallujah thinks." Adds an Army officer who just returned from Baghdad, "They are a subculture."

Indeed, the relationship between the private soldiers and the real ones isn't always collaborative. "We've responded to the military at least half a dozen times, but not once have they responded to our emergencies," says Custer. "We have our own quick-reaction force now." But the private firms are usually cut off from the U.S. military's intelligence network and from information that could minimize risk to their employees. Noel Koch, who oversaw terrorism policy for the Pentagon in the 1980s and now runs TranSecur, a global information-security firm, says private companies "aren't required to have an intelligence collection or analytical capability in house. It's always assumed that the government is going to provide intelligence about threats." That, says Koch, means "they are flying blind, often guessing about places that they shouldn't go."

It's still unclear whether the four Blackwater employees found themselves in Fallujah inadvertently or were on a mission gone awry. Even by Pentagon standards, military officials were fuzzy about the exact nature of the Blackwater mission; several officers privately disputed the idea that the team was escorting a food convoy. Another officer would say only the detail was escorting a shipment of "goods." Several sources familiar with Blackwater operations told TIME that the company has in some cases abbreviated training even for crucial missions in war zones. A former private military operator with knowledge of Blackwater's operational tactics says the firm did not give all its contract warriors in Afghanistan proper training in offensive-driving tactics, although missions were to include vehicular and dignitary-escort duty. "Evasive driving and ambush tactics were not—repeat, were not—covered in training," this source said. Asked to respond to the charges, Blackwater spokesman Bertelli said, "Blackwater never comments on training methods and operational procedures."

At the Pentagon, which has encouraged the outsourcing of security work, there are widespread misgivings about the use of hired guns. A Pentagon official says the outsourcing of security work means the government no longer has any real control over the training and capabilities of thousands of U.S. and foreign contractors who are packing weapons every bit as powerful as those belonging to the average G.I. "These firms are hiring anyone they can get. Sure, some of them are special forces, but some of them are good, and some are not. Some are too old for this work, and some are too young. But they are not on the U.S. payroll. And so they are not our responsibility."

But with Congress and the Bush Administration reluctant to pay for more active-duty troops, the use of contractors in places like Iraq will only grow. A Pentagon official who opposes their use nonetheless detects an obvious if unsentimental virtue: "The American public doesn't get quite as concerned when contractors are killed." Perhaps. But that may prove to be yet another illusion that died in Fallujah last week.