Security Contractors Play By 'Big Boy Rules' In Iraq Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru has extensively covered the "parallel army" of private security contractors. His book Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting In Iraq, details the tens of thousands of "mercs" who arrived in Iraq in the absence of sufficient levels of U.S. troops.
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Security Contractors Play By 'Big Boy Rules' In Iraq

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Security Contractors Play By 'Big Boy Rules' In Iraq

Security Contractors Play By 'Big Boy Rules' In Iraq

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B: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq."

Steve Fainaru will join us in just a moment to talk about the role contractors play in Iraq. We also want to hear from you though. If you or your family member has worked in Iraq as a security contractor, please share your story. Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is You can join the conversation at the website as well. Go to and click on Talk of the Nation.

And later in today's program we want to know stories of life during the Great Depression. Did you live through that era? Maybe one of your grandparents did. You can send us an email now. The address again is Steve Fainaru joins us now from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back to Talk of the Nation.

STEVE FAINARU: Thanks so much.

: I want to start with the title of the book. It is provocative, "Big Boy Rules." What does that mean?

FAINARU: Well, essentially, it means that there are no rules for private security contractors in Iraq. I first heard it when I was doing a story about a guy who had told his colleagues that - before going out on a mission - that he'd really like to kill someone that day, and his colleagues sort of thought about it as a kind of off-handed remark. But when they got out into Baghdad, and they were driving down the airport road, he - according to the three other men in the vehicle, he opened up his door and then fired several rounds from his weapon into the windshield of a passing civilian taxi.

When they got back to the base, there was enormous amount of confusion about - on the part of the other three guys about exactly what they should do. Ultimately, two days after the fact, two of the other men who were in the vehicle reported the incident to their supervisors. The company responded by ultimately firing them and firing the guy who had been accused of the shooting, but the thing was there was no real legal mechanism to deal with this sort of thing. The U.S. occupation government had granted legal immunity from the Iraqi legal process to private security contractors and all contractors, for that matter. And there was just an enormous amount of confusion about sort of what law, if any, applied to these guys. And, when I conducted interviews for the story, people told me that they had an expression called big boy rules, which was essentially that they operated under their own system of justice.

: So there is no formal authority for these contractors?

FAINARU: It still remains unclear. In 2004, L. Paul Bremer, the head of the occupation government, signed into law an edict basically granting immunity from the Iraqi legal justice system to contractors. And you know, there have been differing views on sort of what exactly law might be applied to their actions, but you know, as of the end of last year, the U.S. military which of course has its own very sophisticated criminal justice system - the Criminal Code of Military Justice - the military had prosecuted some four dozen people in cases of murder in Iraq. Not a single private security contractor had been charged with a crime.

: Aside from the obvious, can you just spell out a couple of differences between someone who's a soldier and someone who's a contractor?

FAINARU: Right. Well, I think the primary difference is that the contractors, many of them - I would say the great majority of them - have been in the military, and they've acquired skills that are useful in this world in the military, and their primary motivation is money. They've come back to the war because there's just an incredible amount of money to be made in this business. You know, the second difference is that in some cases, the jobs are different. There are varying uses for these private security services in Iraq. They range from protecting the U.S. ambassador and diplomats which is handled under the State Department by companies like Blackwater and Triple Canopy and DynCorp. And then, there are other companies like Armor Group that protect supply convoys unrelated to the military.

And then there are people who just protect military installations, you know, or strategic installations like warehouses and such. I mean, I think one of the things that really struck me when I first started getting into this world, you know, I'd spent a considerable amount of time in Iraq already before I started covering private security contractors. And, the thing that really struck me was just the enormity of it. You know, there were literally tens of thousands of these guys who were employed in Iraq. They work for we know now, at least, more than 300 companies. And so, I think what happened - you know one thing that's happened is that Blackwater has gained so much notoriety that it has become kind of the Kleenex of private security companies, and it's really sort of they have come to define the industry, but there're literally hundreds of companies out there.

: What is something that a private security contractor could do or some function it could perform that a soldier couldn't, but maybe a soldier or the military would want the soldier to perform if they could within the rules?

FAINARU: I think it's a difficult question because I think there is an incredible amount of overlap between what the private security contractors are doing and what the military does. The primary reason that they exist is that from the beginning of the war, the Bush administration simply failed to provide enough boots on the ground to prosecute the war and the aftermath and to deal with the insurgency and the escalating security environment that was going on. So, you know, what happened was these companies ended up taking on responsibility for, you know, providing security on - in places that the soldiers might not either be available or missions that the military simply would not take on.

I mean there are private security contractors of varying stripes all over Iraq. The Washington Post, my newspaper, we had our own security team to move around in Baghdad and around Iraq. The nongovernmental organizations like the International Republican Institute, which is chaired by John McCain and the National Democratic Institute, which is chaired by Madeleine Albright, they use these guys to move around Baghdad to promote democracy. I mean it's simply a function of the war. You needed to get around Iraq. You needed security. So I think the question on sort of what private security contractors do and what the military doesn't do, you know, it's really vague. It's hard to sort of differentiate. And of course, the insurgents never differentiated; they'd fire on all of them.

: Who are the young men and women who join these contracting firms? You mentioned briefly that a lot of them had military experience previously, but is there a profile? Is there a personality type?

FAINARU: You know, one of the more interesting things that I found when, you know, I started to do this reporting was really how incredibly diverse this universe of people was. You know, the main profile was that there were all people who were looking for a big paycheck in Iraq.

I mean everybody was, you know, everybody - their primary reason for, you know, for doing this work was the money. But then, when you get beyond that, there were all kinds of diverse reasons that, you know, that's sort of played into it. You know, I think all of them, if there's a type, it's like they're - that they're all, you know, adrenaline junkies. They're addicted to the action and maybe many of them became addicted to the action while they were in the military. You know, the main character in my book is a guy named Jon Cote, who had been a paratrooper in the 82nd airborne. He did tours in Afghan - combat tourist in Afghanistan and Iraq. And when he came out - when he came out of the military, he enrolled at the University of Florida.

: And he was a lot older, right, than a lot of the students as well at that point?

FAINARU: He was 22 at that point. And you know, it should have been a utopian environment for Jon. I mean, he's incredibly good looking kid, very charismatic, you know, intelligent, sensitive, you know, caring. People just - men and women just sort of flocked around him. He had a million friends, but what he found was that he just could not cope with civilian life. You know, he felt like the world in which he was, sort of indulging was, you know, incredibly superficial. And you know, after running out of money and you know, binge drinking for quite some time and then driving his motorcycle too fast and finally getting a drunk driving arrest, you know, a friend of his from the military offered him a job, you know, making $7,000 a month, protecting supply convoys in Iraq.

And so, he jumped at the opportunity. And, I think, you know, I think there are a lot of people like that who come back from Iraq - you know, I think Iraq for many people including myself who's, you know, who have been there, it has this strangely - the intensity of it I think has a strangely addictive quality. And you know, Jon can - I think it's fairly certain, I think everyone would agree was suffering from post-traumatic stress. And you know, I think that sort - there's a sort of perverse idea there where someone who felt - who is dealing with the lingering effects of combat comes back and can't deal with sort of - or is having difficulty dealing with the banality of, you know, of daily life is able to then take a job, to go back into Iraq, to sort of deal with that problem. I really find that's sort of a perverse concept.

: And there's also the reality in Jon's case, for example, and sometimes they run out of money. People actually do this simply for the cash. And you've mentioned a couple of times without being crass, can you tell me how much money really is - there is to be made?

FAINARU: Of course, yeah. You know, Jon was making $7,000 a month with the company that he was working for Crescent Security. I mean, Crescent was sort at the low-end of the security spectrum, you know. Unlike Blackwater, which you know, has you know I think nearly a thousand people in Iraq now, and helicopters and highly sophisticated armored vehicles.

You know, Crescent was, you know, sort of Kmart of private security, and you know, they were running around Iraq in pickup trucks, you know, barely armored pickup tracks. You know, with a lot less experience personnel and they were making $7,000 month. You know, the companies like Blackwater, Armor Group, Triple Canopy, Eges(ph), DynCorp you know, they're all sort of the high end of the spectrum. And the going rate work for them was, you know, 15 to $20,000 a month.

: We're speaking with Steve Fainaru. We'll continue the conversation in just a minute. The book is called, "Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting In Iraq." We'll get to your calls. If you do want to join the conversation, the number is 1-800-989-8255. You can reach us by email as well. The address is I'm Alison Stewart. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.


: Welcome back to Talk of the Nation. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington D.C. We're in the middle of a conversation with Steve Fainaru, a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. He's written a new book called, "Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq." And we do want to talk to Alex, who's calling in from San Diego. And Alex, I understand you worked as a contractor.

ALEX: Yes.

: When and where?

ALEX: I'd rather not be specific, but...

: OK. Sure.

ALEX: Within the last few years.

: OK. Can you describe your experience? Was it like what you've been hearing, Steve talk about?

ALEX: Oh yeah. I mean, you know, everything is - there's a lot of security as far - there's a lot of protection as far as who you are and who the individual is. And - but, it's the necessary, it's a very necessary function.

: Mm hmm.

ALEX: There's a lot of things that the military can't do because all eyes are on the military. There's a lot things that they can't do because of politics. And I think the way to the future is a lot of the contractors stepping in and filling those voids. They do overlap with, you know, with military etiquette. And there are just a lot of things that the military can't do, but it needs to be done. The public really doesn't understand that. World War II wouldn't have been what it was if it was on TV, if it was brought into people's living rooms. There's a lot of covert operations that are carried out on a daily basis that are directly responsible for small and large steps that help the United States and our cause.

: Alex from San Diego, thank you very much for calling in. Steve, I want to read a passage from your book. You're writing about Jon Cote, and I don't think we're giving away anything because people actually may recognize the name. He was kidnapped, and he was killed. And this is at the end of your book, you wrote, I liked Jon Cote the moment I met him and I fell in love with his family, but it was an ugly business he'd gotten himself into. Perhaps, the ugliest business there was. The U.S. government had fostered it as a manifestation of our failures in Iraq. A method for shifting responsibility, putting the human toll, the stain of original sin. Private security contracting, what a name for it, but it fit the times. How did you come to that conclusion?

FAINARU: Well, I've always felt that, you know, private security contracting, it really hid the cost of the war. You know, all the basic matrix that the military and our government use to measure how the war is going in Iraq were essentially rendered meaningless, I thought, because, you know, you never knew exactly how many troops there were because the private security contractors weren't counted. You know, you never knew exactly how many casualties there were, because they weren't counted. You know, you never knew how many people they were killing or what that - how many times they were firing. How many engagements they had because none of it was counted, it was almost as if the government really didn't want to acknowledge that they existed.

And so, when Jon Cote, you know, who had been a decorated - a decorated U.S. Army veteran, you know, was killed in Iraq, I mean, he didn't merit a statistic. I mean, he was not counted among the casualties figures. And I just felt like, you know, I felt like it really captured in many ways the ambiguity of this war. And that, you know, the United States government, I think from the beginning of the war - I think honestly has been, you know, somewhat disingenuous about the scope of the war and you know, and why it was being fought. And I felt like in way that for me, you know, after spending three years in Iraq, that Jon Cote, you know, his life and his death - in many ways became symbolic for me about sort of what the war was about.

: There're two exchanges between a young policy student and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and that same student and the president. She asked the question about what laws govern contractors. Can you describe their replies?

FAINARU: Yeah. You know, it's an interesting thing because her husband was in the military, is in the military. And he had an encounter with Blackwater in Baghdad where he was driving in a civilian vehicle. And the Blackwater team bullied its way into a traffic circle and was running civilians onto the sidewalk and then popped up off a few rounds. And you know, he was enraged by this, about sort what it meant, and he told his wife who was, you know who was going to school at Georgetown. And so she, during a - when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, you know, came to speak at the school, she asked him what laws apply to their actions. And you know, he kind of stammered and stuttered and you know, the reality is, I don't think he really knew.

Because, ultimately he said, well, you know Iraq is a sovereign country, and you know, it's their country. But it was clear that he didn't really - he didn't know. So, and you know, that - she didn't give up. Coincidentally, President Bush came to speak at Georgetown a few months later. And she followed up with a question to him, and the president's response was literally, help. You know, he had no idea and he said I, you know, I'm going to ask my Secretary of Defense, and you know, and see if we can straighten this out. But, you know, it was never entirely clear. And I think, you know, frankly, when I started reporting this, and I'd ask - go to the military to ask questions, you know, really basic questions about how the companies were regulated, you know and, you know, what exactly they were doing to, you know, to regulate them. The replies that I got, you know, they inevitably really did not know the answers to them.

: If you are a family member, has worked in Iraq as a security contractor, we'd love for you to join this conversation. Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. If you feel more comfortable using email, please do that We're going to talk to Max. Max is calling us from Rock Springs, Wyoming. And Max, I understand you are a vet.

MAX: I am, and I got two brothers that are vets also. They're both in the Marine Corps. We're in the Marine Corps. Once a Marine, always a Marine. We - I know a lot of us were just insulted working alongside these guys, at how much money our government was paying to them. And we all knew what we are getting, and it wasn't anything close to the thousands of dollars. And a lot of us - even though we'd work with these guys, really felt like may be our government ought to put that money back into the military itself for recruitment and retention and training.

: Max, thanks for calling. Steve, did you ever hear that from other soldiers?

FAINARU: Yeah. You'd hear it all the time. You know, the Marines and the soldiers who were over there, you know, I think they responded to these guys with the mixture of emotions. Sort of ranging from, you know, resentment to curiosity to awe about the enormous amounts of money that they were making. You know, I think one of the biggest problems because there was this sort of disconnect between the military and the, you know, these mercenary guys, I think a lot of the resentment was fueled because of the, by in situations where the private security teams would get involved in engagements and would stir up emotions in local populations that - that fell within the areas of operation of the military, and then the military would have to go in and clean up the mess.

You know, I mean of course the most dramatic example of this is when Blackwater, you know, ended up killing 17 Iraqis at a traffic circle in Baghdad last September and you know, it was in the middle of the surge when General Petraeus was - had adjusted the U.S. military strategy in Iraq. And you know, it really complicated the relationship between the Iraqi government and the American government, you know, for quite some time.

: I want to talk to Sean(ph) in California, who's also served in the armed services. Hi, Sean.

SEAN: Oh, yes. Thank you. I'm glad you're speaking about this topic. My unit served on the Iraqi oil platforms in the northern Persian Gulf. And often times, we'd have to fly back or boat back to Doha in Kuwait to draw supplies. Well, that base is another base for these private security contractors, you know, run the traffic, and do the gate guarding, duties formally that you'd expect the military to do. Well I was a driver for my unit's chief, and we got pulled over on this base by one of these private contractors, and my chief was pretty irate. He said by whose authority? Because if the base general gives a PFC the authority to do that, it's understood, UCNJ protects him all the way back up to the joint chiefs.

My chief was of the opinion like, you don't have the authority to pull me over. You're not in uniform. You're not governor of the UMCJ. You know, and we try to make a case and take it up a chain a bit. But it's a rather benign example of the interface between, you know, the military and the private contractors. And one last comment - I'll take all my comments off the air - the private contractors over there are unlike the military that they're getting large sums of money, yes, and these people need to keep in mind, that money is tax free, so that's a substantial amount of money. Thank you. I'll take my comments off the air.

: Sean, thanks for sharing your stories. As I was reading your book, Steve, you know, it's sort of the chicken and the egg question to me. The behaviors which some of them seem really radical, do the behaviors come first and the people who decided to become contractors change because of the behaviors or were they sort of renegades in the first place, and they just have found the right place for themselves inside of these contracting firms?

FAINARU: Right. Well, I think one thing that we should say is that, you know, the great majority of the people who are working in contracting over there, you know, they're not cowboys, they're not renegades, they're respecting the rule of law.

: Thanks for making that point.

FAINARU: And I don't think we should just kind of lump all of these guys into this sort of one thing. But, I do think like we were talking about before, there is a type. These people are type A personalities, they're coming into a war zone. I think the problem is that there was absolutely zero regulation coming out of the United States government, you know, especially the State Department. And so, for example, with Blackwater, long before they, you know, they ended up killing 17 people at this traffic circle last September, you know, they had been engaged in a pattern of activity in which they were engaging and shooting - getting involved in shootings of civilians.

And when it came time to investigate it - those incidents, the State Department simply deferred to Blackwater's version of events. There was no real check on their behavior not to mention that there was no real law. And so I think, my feeling is that it escalated from there that, you know, the Blackwater problem was something that was brewing, you know, for years. And you know, it was an open secret in Baghdad. I mean you'd hear it all the time. I mean, not only from Iraqis who, you know, who despise them but a lot of Americans, too.

You know, one - another security contractor told me that they were, you know, Blackwater was widely despised within the Green Zone because of their behavior. They pointed - they often pointed their weapons at civilians, they ran people off the road in the middle of the Green Zone. You know, they're sort of a force unto themselves, and I think a lot of people resented that, but the State Department simply did not get involved.

: Let's check in with Samantha calling us from Boise, Idaho. Hi, Samantha.


: So you know someone who is involved with contracting?

SAMANTHA: I do. He's an ex-Marine, and he actually was in the first Gulf War. He ended up going over to Iraq a few times and one time, was working for a contractor that put him into a hostile area unarmed, and he questioned that. He felt that his safety was in question, and because of that, he was shipped out of Iraq within a couple days.

: Samantha, thanks for sharing your story. Does that sound familiar to you, Steve?

FAINARU: It does. You know, there are companies that when there is misbehavior, they'll respond. The issue really is for me that it's a company-by-company situation. Armor Group for example, a British company that ran supply convoys, they were incredibly aggressive about making sure that everybody played by the rules. They made sure that they were liked. They made sure that their weapons permits were in order. If anybody, you know, broke the rules, they disciplined them immediately. But of course, that was a decision the company made. And you know, so you had hundreds of companies that were out there operating, basically, all of them setting their own rules under literally thousands of different contracts. And so, you know, it's really not uniform.

: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're speaking with Steve Fainaru about his book, "Big Boy Rules." It's about private security contractors in Iraq. I do want to take one more call. Hi, John(ph). You're calling from Fort River(ph) in New Jersey?

JOHN: Yes, hi. How are you?

: Hi. I'm doing well. I understand you lost a friend.

JOHN: Yeah. Actually, a friend of mine that I went over - I was a fire contractor in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, and someone that I worked with over there was convinced by contract company to go ahead and leave our job and go to work for them. Which due to the increased money and everything else he thought it was a great idea. Well, he actually walked off the job, went to work for them, but shortly after, he was killed. I don't remember if it was IED or they got caught in a gun battle or whatever, but he got killed. And my comment is to the money that the contract companies, the security contractors are taking in, and what they're spending to protect their employees.

A lot of the vehicles I saw them driving around in were basically pickup trucks with armored plating welded on or bolted on. Some would have Suburbans and a guy would be a rear shooter sitting in the back of the vehicle with the window or window gone with just some sheet metal, you know, welded up there to try to protect them. Now, other security contractors went the extra effort, and they bought some of these South African blast resistant vehicles with the V-shape holes which are really nice and had great seating inside, but many others did not. They spent very little money on protecting their contractors.

: John, thank you so much for sharing your story about you and your friend. Steve, you write so much - you write quite a bit about some of the issues that John mentioned. You talk about the money. You talk about the kidnappings. You're very graphic in some parts of the book. You talk about your own personal story. You lost your father during the course of this. Have you heard from any of the contracting firms since you've written the book?

FAINARU: Well, I've heard from Crescent, the company that I write most about, and of course, the president of the company is not happy about some of the stuff that we've detailed in the Washington Post and now in the book. You know, I've also heard from the families of the Crescent hostages who were ultimately killed, and I think that their feeling is that they're glad the, you know, - that some of these information is out there so people will, you know, will know the conditions under which they're working. I mean, the last caller, you know, I think his comments are dead on. You know, it just was not uniform. When I saw Crescent, you know, after hanging out with the military, you know, I was shocked. I mean, they were driving into Iraq at a time when everyone was using up-armored vehicles, you know, to protect themselves. They're driving into Iraq as the caller said with pickup trucks. The first person I met was the so-called medic of the company. You know, he had no real medical background. He was a self-described alcoholic and he smoked.

: I have to tell you though, some of the details in your book are really, it's extraordinary and I encourage people to read it. We're out of time, unfortunately, Steve. Steve Fainaru, author of "Big Boy Rules." Thanks so much for joining us today.

FAINARU: Thanks for having me.

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