Author Says Rules for Military Contractors Often Unclear

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U.S. contractors have few rules when working in military zones abroad. Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, talks about the complicated relationship between contractors and U.S. military personnel.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The rules that govern private military contractors in Iraq are fuzzy at best. Peter Singer, the author of a book about private military firms, says the lack of rules can be an asset for them, just not always.

Mr. PETER SINGER (The Brookings Institution): Not one of them has been indicted, prosecuted or punished for any crime, but it works to the other side is: What happens if contractors are captured by someone? You have the situation in Colombia, for example, where there's three American contractors who are working for the US Navy, they've been held captive for two years now and no one even thinks about them. They're not considered POWs.

INSKEEP: This is an incident in which military contractors are accused of misbehaving. They vehemently deny that. Their supporters deny having misbehaved around US Marines and Iraqi civilians. Who determines who's right in a situation like this?

Mr. SINGER: That's the challenge is it's really up in the air, and you're seeing them trying to play this out in the court of public opinion. Basically it comes down to different missions. The contractors have a job to get from point A to point B and not get killed on the way, and in many cases, they have kind of a shoot-and-scoot attitude. You think there's a threat, you shoot at it and you get out of there.

INSKEEP: Even if you're killing civilians?

Mr. SINGER: That may well happen. And in certain situations, there have been what they call blue-on-blue incidents, which are basically US military units and contractor units by mistake shoot at each other. You also have some questioning as to the insurgents are trying to take advantage of this lack of coordination between public and private forces. So you've got that aspect going on, while the Marines in that area, they're going to be there for the long term, and they realize that winning this war is a matter of winning hearts and minds on the ground, so they've got a different mission.

INSKEEP: Has anyone at a high level at the Pentagon raised concerns about whether private military contractors are doing more harm than good as the US military tries to win over the population in Iraq?

Mr. SINGER: Unfortunately, it's not been dealt with at the senior leadership level. You're getting this bubbling to the surface from the field lots of different complaints about how the contractors are interfacing, but also at a broader level, why do we have them in certain roles, that in some roles it makes a lot of sense to have contractors serving as cooks or basically handling jobs that you don't want to waste soldiers' time doing.

But what is happening in Iraq is you have them in many mission-critical roles. Also, you've got a number of contractors in these armed tactical roles carrying weapons, carrying machine guns, etc., and so there's some concern about what that means. Why have you placed them in this? And it really comes down to they're in roles that you wouldn't want private soldiers in. They're in roles that affect how we win hearts and minds there, and so sometimes it really backfires on us. To the civilians on the ground, they don't make the difference.

INSKEEP: Brookings fellow Peter Singer is the author of "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry."

Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. SINGER: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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