The United States is placing a growing reliance on private security contractors as part of the protection matrix for diplomatic posts worldwide, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
Expansion of this shadowy army of hired guns came into focus last September, when former Navy SEALs and San Diego County residents Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were among four Americans slain by militants who stormed the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The attack reverberates in Washington, where Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, has pledged to hold more investigative hearings about the assault.
It also was one of about 1,000 threats or incidents recorded against U.S. overseas interests each year.
The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security is charged with protecting 275 embassies and consulates. Doing so amid the United States’ “war on terror,” and now in the aftermath of Benghazi, has led to a sharp increase in the cost and number of people involved.
In 1998, the budget for those services was about $200 million. By 2008, it had grown to $1.8 billion. Three months after the Benghazi attack, Congress approved an additional $918 million solely for worldwide security protection, plus $1.3 billion for embassy security, construction and maintenance.
President Barack Obama has requested an additional $2.2 billion for related construction and security in the next fiscal year.
Competing for that money is an array of companies that seek out, train and provide security contractors for the U.S. and other governments worldwide. They range from Academi, previously known as Blackwater, to the Unity Resources Group to DynCorp.
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security employs more than 36,000 people, nine out 10 of them private contractors, according to a May report from the Congressional Research Service.
The reason? It’s cheaper than hiring, training and providing benefits to career employees.
One government report underscores the financial considerations: It found that using State Department employees for security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, for example, cost $858 million a year compared with just $78 million charged by a contractor.
“It’s the way the U.S. does business now,” said Deborah Avant, a University of Denver professor who has written extensively about private contractors and tracks the security-privatization trend through the school’s Private Security Monitor project.
The State Department declined to give a precise total of how many private security contractors it employs.
“(We have) a long history of using contract guards, who are critical to readiness and our capability to protect our personnel and facilities, in some situations under dangerous and uncertain conditions,” a spokeswoman for the agency told U-T San Diego. “The Bureau of Diplomatic Security includes more than 4,000 Foreign Service and civil service personnel, and domestic contractors.”
The department also uses about 32,000 local guards worldwide.
“In some places these guards are direct-hire personnel (personal service agreements), and in others are third-party contractors employed by contracting firms,” the spokeswoman said.
For former members of the U.S. military, particularly special-forces troops such as Doherty and Woods, private-security work is lucrative, commanding salaries of up to $30,000 or more a month. It’s also what they’re trained to do and how they’re wired, said retired Navy commander Mark Devine, who spent 20 years as a SEAL — nine on active duty and 11 in the reserves.
“They’re never going to have a shortage of guys who want to do the work,” said Devine, who operates the private SEALFIT Training Center in Encinitas, where he and a cadre of coaches train candidates for U.S. and allied special forces as well as ordinary civilians.
“They are almost all skilled military operatives, and there’s really not much else for them do,” he said. “They’ve trained for 20 years to do these jobs, and other careers lack the adventure and adrenaline rush and sexiness. There’s no question these guys get addicted to the travel and the challenge that keeps them in the game.”
San Diego County is fertile recruitment ground for private security contractors because of its high concentration of former service members and the presence of defense firms that train such workers.
One such business is Academi, which when it was known as Blackwater became notorious during the Iraq War for its army of security guards and its role in the 2007 killing of 17 civilians in Baghdad. The deaths occurred when a Blackwater security team was clearing the way for a State Department convoy, leading to criticism of the use of private contractors.
That same year, Blackwater sought to open a large training facility in Potrero but dropped the proposal in the wake of strong community opposition.
It succeeded a year later in opening a 61,000-square-foot training center in Otay Mesa. That site has a shooting range, a floor training area and classrooms.
The company, which refused to detail its current operations for this story, said in a statement that it can “provide stability and protection to people and locations experiencing turmoil, whether caused by armed conflict, epidemics or natural or man-made disasters.”
“We have the ability to quickly and efficiently deploy anywhere in the world to create a more secure environment for our customers,” Academi said in the statement. “We take pride in our agility, speed and ability to execute, all while taking into account the surrounding culture. To date, we have successfully provided and facilitated low-profile and large-scale stability operations worldwide.”
Code of conduct
Kateri Carmola, author of the book “Private Security Contractors in the Age of New Wars: Risk, Law & Ethics,” studies legal and ethical issues surrounding private contractors.
She said the emergence of an international code of conduct for private security contractors will provide a measure of standards and recourse for complaints. Such benchmarks and accountability, she added, have been largely absent during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where security contractors have rivaled, or in some cases outnumbered, the ranks of uniformed troops as major combat winds down.
“Companies that sign on will be pretty well-monitored,” Carmola said. “The problems have come when the government is able to offload or sever its responsibility to a company. Now, you can’t do that.”
Led by the Swiss government, 659 firms worldwide had adopted the code as of June 1.
The code’s charter was settled this year, and officials are working to formally launch it by year’s end. The overall aim is to ensure that the actions of private security contractors do not contravene human rights or international humanitarian law.
Companies that subscribe to the standards will be required to have policies that meet the code and must agree to designated monitoring and complaint-resolution procedures.
The charter also allows reviews in the field to make sure defense firms comply with rules of force and related measures.
Companies that don’t sign on to the code could be barred from obtaining government contracts.
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