Thursday, December 22, 2005

Private contractor not covered by government exemption from lawsuits.

A few weeks ago I put up a post entitled, We live in the age of the corporate mercenary army. The post brought up the topic of private 'contractors' who have been hired by the Defense Department to provide security and carry out other duties in Iraq. Of course, because of the nature of the work, it is not surprising that some of these contractors end up in the thick of the fight. Additionally, many of them are well prepared to do so, having undergone a great deal of military training, in fact in many, if not most cases, having already served in the military.

However, the problems that have beset our military, including inadequate planning, lack of support and inadequate armor have also beset the contractors. In one very well publicized incident in April 2004, four employees of Blackwater Security, essentially a mercenary outfit, were attacked and had their bodies burnt and strung up from a bridge in Fallujah. Iraqi police finally responded to the call, thirty-six hours later.

But it turns out that the story doesn't end there. There is a story out today about a lawsuit filed by the families of the four contractors, which if successful could limit the future use of rental troops in combat zones.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An unprecedented lawsuit stemming from the gruesome killing of four American civilians in Iraq is slowly making its way through the U.S. legal system, closely watched by companies estimated to field up to 100,000 contractors alongside the U.S. military.

Lawyers and military experts say the case highlights legal gray zones, a lack of regulation and little oversight of a booming global industry believed to bring in more than $150 billion annually. Civilian military contractors now perform scores of functions once restricted to regular troops, and a trend toward "privatizing war" has been accelerating steadily.

The suit was brought by the families of four civilian contractors shot last year by Iraqi insurgents, who burned their bodies and hung the charred remains from a bridge across the Euphrates river in the city of Falluja.

The four -- Stephen Helveston, Mike Teague, Jerko Zovko and Wesley Batalona -- worked for Blackwater Security Consulting LLC, one of the companies fielding armed civilians in Iraq under contract with the Pentagon. All four had military experience and signed contracts assuming all risks and waiving their right to sue.

The suit against Blackwater says the company broke explicit terms of its contract with the men by sending them to escort a food convoy in unarmored cars, without heavy machine guns, proper briefings, advance notice or pre-mission reconnaissance, in teams that were understaffed and lacked even a map.

"Sending four men out on the security mission instead of the required six essentially took away the team's ability to defend itself," the suit says. "Not having one driver, one navigator and a rear-gunner with a 180 degree field of fire, the team never had a chance...the insurgents were literally able to walk up behind the vehicles and open fire upon them at close range.'

Note that the suit is not against the government, but against Blackwater. However, if successful, it would make it problematical whether in the future, mercenaries hired by private companies could be sent into combat zones, since the cost of lawsuits that could follow as a result would become prohibitive. Of course the Pentagon is expressly protected by U.S. law from being sued because of deaths resulting from combat, but there is no such law protecting private contractors. The suit in this case challenges the disclaimer the men signed since the company for their part was supposed to provide at least a competent support network.

The bottom line is this: War is expensive, and it needs to be fought by the military. Private contractors have their roles in life, but working in combat zones best left to the military. If we need to expand the size of the active duty military (as John Kerry said we did last year, when he proposed adding two new combat divisions plus support divisions) then we shouldn't try to do it on the cheap.

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