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The Pitfalls of Sub-Contracting Security

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The Pitfalls of Sub-Contracting Security

The Pitfalls of Sub-Contracting Security

The Pitfalls of Sub-Contracting Security

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The security contractor Blackwater is in hot water with Iraq's prime minister after an incident in which eight civilians died. To find out more about the rules for security contractors in Iraq, Scott Simon speaks with Mike Heidingsfield, who trained Iraqi police with a private company.


U.S. diplomats are confined to Baghdad's Green Zone for now unless they travel by helicopter. Blackwater, the security contractor that protects them when they travel by road is under suspension and investigation now after a violent road incident last Sunday in which eight Iraqi civilians were killed. The Maliki government wants to ban Blackwater from working in Iraq.

And on Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that in the wake of the incident she has ordered a full review of protection for U.S. diplomats in Iraq.

We're joined now by Mike Heidingsfield, president of the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission who trained Iraqi police under contract with the private company DynCorp. He joins us from the studios of WGUC in Cincinnati.

Mike, thanks very much for being with us again.

Mr. MIKE HEIDINGSFIELD (President, Memphis and Shelby Crime Commission): Thank you for having me again.

SIMON: How different are what we call the rules of engagement that a private contractor has from those of the military? And do they sometimes differ from mission to mission or company to company?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: No, the rules of engagement are set by the ambassador and overseen by the regional security officer in the embassy. And typically in the contracts of the company's hold, there's conformity between the company's rule of engagements and what the State Department requires.

The rules of engagement that we followed were very specific. The use of legal force was only provided for in the defense of life, of yourself. Another member of the coalition forces or the Iraqi security forces, ironically it was not permitted in the defense of Iraqi civilians.

So this notion that contractors run amuck throughout Iraq, firing at will and killing people with impunity is certainly not consistent with what I experienced during my - the first 14-month tour there.

SIMON: Who takes responsibility for the actions of private security firms in the end?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: Well, that is the ultimate question. I don't think anybody is quite sure of that. In terms of legal accountability, it's very difficult to understand. Of course, the Uniform Code of Military Justice was adjusted, if you will, some six months ago by a slight variation in the language that suggests now that contractors working in concert with the United States military forces in a combat zone fall under the authority, if you will, of the UCMJ. I don't think that's been enforced yet, and it's going to be a very difficult - wicked, if you will, to figure out because they're two entirely different things.

SIMON: Firstly, we ought to note for the record, the vast majority of private contractors who worked in Iraq aren't conducting missions of lethal force. They are cooking and cleaning and that sort of thing and often hiring local civilians, but why are there so many private contractors protecting U.S. personnel in Iraq anyway as opposed to military units?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: I think, when you boil it down to the basics, it's a question of numbers. You know, we have a force structure today in the United States Armed Forces that is significantly reduced from 20 years ago. We simply don't have the capacity to provide that protection through the use of military assets.

SIMON: You've spent a lot of time talking to Iraqis on your various - you almost called them deployments, and why not call them deployments, I guess, in Iraq. Do they sometimes get - are they frustrated or simply don't comprehend the whole idea of private contractors?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: I think it certainly is fair to say that they're sometimes frustrated and sometimes frightened. Fundamentally, security contractors are employed to keep principals alive, and that is based on the assumption that those principals are contributing to the war mission and the rebuilding of Iraq, and therefore, they're being alive is a critical premise.

The rub comes when conditions in Baghdad or in Iraq stymie or impede the ability of the contractors to execute their mission and put the principals at risk. So you end up doing things like driving across medians, going the wrong way against traffic and, obviously, sometimes engaging in the use of firearms. And it's very difficult to reconcile that with the overall strategy of trying to win the hearts and minds of people.

SIMON: Mike Heidingsfield, who's president of the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission, joined us from the studio of WGUC in Cincinnati.

Thanks very much for being back with us, Mike.


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