Private Contractors Vital for War Sarah Percy, professor of International Relations at Oxford University in England, discusses the kinds of services provided by private security companies like Blackwater USA, and how their rules regarding the use of force apply.
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Private Contractors Vital for War

Hear Sarah Percy, professor of International Relations at Oxford University in England

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Let's learn more about those private contractors from Sarah Percy, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, England. Welcome to the program.

Professor SARAH PERCY (International Relations, Oxford University, England): Hi. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Jackie Northam just referred to Blackwater's astonishing growth. How much has this company grown?

Prof. PERCY: Well, it's not so much that the company itself has grown, is that it's grown in response to the opportunities available to it. So the company started up in 2001, and since then, obviously, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq there's been a plethora of opportunities for them to get involved in.

INSKEEP: What slice of what we would have thought of is the military's mission belongs to Blackwater or companies like it?

Prof. PERCY: Well, we do know that at the time of the original invasion of Iraq that one in ten of the American personnel were actually contractors, and so that forms the second largest military contingent. It's a very significant proportion and it's actually extremely unlikely that the U.S. could conduct an expeditionary operation like Iraq without relying heavily on private contractors.

INSKEEP: What kinds of jobs have they've been doing?

Prof. PERCY: They do everything from landmine clearance to translation services to military interrogation. They maintain weapon systems. So they're really involved right across the board supporting the military effort in Iraq.

INSKEEP: If I was someone who wanted to take advantage of this company's growth and apply for a job there as a security guard of some kind, what kind of skills would they require me to have?

Prof. PERCY: Most of the major companies would require you to have had some sort of military background. And at the beginning of the war when there were lots of opportunities and they were trying to fill slots, they would really try and recruit people who had had either Special Forces backgrounds or very highly trained backgrounds.

The companies still say that they try and do this, but it's very hard to tell whether or not they actually succeed because there are so many jobs and there is such a huge flow of people that go through these jobs. There are Iraqis who are employed by these companies and there are, really, people from all over the world who are recruited by companies like Blackwater.

INSKEEP: South Africans and others.

Prof. PERCY: South Africans, Chileans, Columbians, Fijians, Ugandans, former Soviet Republics, you name it, and somebody from that country is probably working in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you a question that may end up having a bearing on the investigation of this shooting in which a number of Iraqis were killed. What are the rules of engagement and who is telling them when they're allowed to fire their weapons and when they're not?

Prof. PERCY: This is an enormously complex question, and I'm surprise it didn't come up more during the hearing. It very much depends on who you're employer is. Because Blackwater was employed by the State Department, it appears as though their rules of engagement were set by the State Department and placed in the contract that Blackwater signed. Some other contractors in Iraq we know are given rules of engagement by CENTCOM, by the Central Command.

But it's hard…

INSKEEP: That's the U.S. Military.

Prof. PERCY: Yeah, by the U.S. Military. It's hard to know which of these sets of rules of engagement apply to which contractors, which of course in an investigation makes it quite difficult to figure out what's happened. And in terms of Blackwater as well, it all very well have rules of engagement written in contracts, but rules of engagement are always complicated and they always require delicate interpretation on the part of the soldier or the contractor who's following them. And it requires a very high level of judgment, especially the situation like Iraq where you are in delicate position, vis-a-vis the local population, and you want to make sure you keep them on side.

So the rules of engagement usually tell you when and how and under what circumstances you can use force. But, obviously, if you need the judgment of the person who's sitting there on the back of that convoy, you want to know that they've been properly trained, you want to know if they make a mistake that there's a clear chain of steps that are followed through to make sure that the mistake doesn't happen again, and we just don't know that that happens with contractors.

INSKEEP: Sarah Percy teaches at Oxford University in England and is the author of the fourth coming book "Mercenaries." Thanks very much.

Prof. PERCY: Thank you.

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