Private Security Firms Need Better Pentagon Oversight, GAO Says

The Pentagon must improve its tracking and accounting of private security contractors operating alongside military and U.S. civilian agencies or risk a repeat of a 2007 massacre of Iraqi citizens that stained the American counterinsurgency effort, according to Congress’s watchdog agency.

“If the department does not improve its means of identifying, recording, tracking, and assessing its use of PSC contracts and personnel, the associated negative strategic impacts the U.S. government experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan are at risk of reoccurring,” the Government Accountability office said in a report Thursday.

The September 2007 killings of 15 people in the heart of Baghdad by employees for the security company then known as Blackwater Worldwide, which was working for the State Department, highlighted risks in the increased use of private security contractors supporting the military. In 2020, for example, the Defense Department reported that almost one-fifth of the roughly 27,000 contractors in Afghanistan were performing security functions, including about 3,000 who were armed, according to a separate report issued Thursday by the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction.

Spurred by international outrage after the killings near Baghdad’s busy Nisour Square, the Pentagon in 2009 established an oversight framework for its use of private security contractors, but it “has not fully monitored the implementation of this framework,” the GAO said. The Pentagon is “due credit for its efforts at improving PSC management” but “it may have fallen short and may risk losing the gains it has made over the past decade without continued attention to its program,” GAO said.

Reliance on private security personnel “has been extensive and is expected to continue as a means of optimizing use of military forces,” the GAO said. “However, there are risks associated with use of PSCs, as demonstrated by events in the past.” The Pentagon “needs to better identify and track its PSC personnel if the risk it faces is to be adequately identified and dealt with before the next Nisour Square.”

A former Blackwater Worldwide guard was convicted of murder and three co-workers of manslaughter in the 2007 shootings of 14 unarmed civilians in the Baghdad square. The guards said they were responding to what they thought was incoming fire. President Donald Trump pardoned the four before leaving office. The company was founded by Erik Prince, brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and he has continued to be active in private security businesses.

Beyond the U.S., questions have been raised about mercenaries including former Colombian soldiers allegedly involved in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and about the role of Russia’s Wagner Group in the seizure of Crimea and attacks on eastern Ukraine.

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