- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The media coverage of last month’s assault on a State Department convoy under Blackwater’s protection has reinforced a negative image of contractors in Iraq. In newspapers across the world, people have read breathless firsthand accounts and have been told that many Iraqis are enraged. Congress hastens to hold hearings.

Perhaps the rush to judgment results from recognition this might be an “opportunity” to attack the president and the strategy in Iraq without attacking our military heroes.

But few media outlets have mentioned that Iraqi “witnesses” have offered conflicting versions of the incident. Still fewer have highlighted the troublesome role of the factionalized Iraqi Ministry of Interior as the source of such witnesses.

The highly trained, well-disciplined men and women of Blackwater — many of whom were once members of U.S. special operations units — are being unfairly painted as trigger-happy cowboys. This image should not be permitted to overshadow the enormous contribution Blackwater makes to the U.S. Mission and to Coalition forces.

Of the 160,000 contractors in Iraq, only a few thousand perform armed security roles. Of those, many are simply guarding gates and protecting fence lines.

As for the rest, it’s hard to visually discriminate among them. Every employee of the more than 100 security firms in Iraq wears similar combat gear and carries common weapons. They look the same, but some are quite different. A few deserve “major league” status; others are clearly “farm teams.” Blackwater is the World Series champion of security contractors. Restricting or replacing them would not correct reported security company problems nor raise performance standards.

In fact, such action would reduce levels of safety for U.S. Embassy personnel, at least for the extended time necessary to recruit, train and deploy new teams, none of which would be as proficient or professional as Blackwater.

Blackwater has the most visible and difficult security mission in Iraq — guarding U.S. officials, who are clear targets for insurgents. It’s one thing to provide security in Kurdistan; it’s another to run the streets of Baghdad with senior diplomatic leaders.

I know, because I’ve been there. In 2006, I was the transportation counselor to the ambassador in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, helping the Iraqis get seaports, roads and bridges, rail, and airports operational.

This job often required me to travel outside the International Zone (formerly the “Green Zone”), usually with a Blackwater security team, not just into Baghdad, but to Basrah, Um Qasr, Najaf, Erbil and Sulaimania. Without Blackwater’s protection, my job would have been impossible.

Here’s how it worked: 48 hours before I needed to travel, I would apply for a personal security detail. Blackwater analysts then screened, prioritized, and analyzed my request, focusing on the risk and relative importance of my trip. Based on intelligence, routes and time adjustments and detailed logistics plans were made.

Predictable patterns of movement make any convoy an easy target for an attack, so the same venue could not be visited more than three times in one week, and the same route or time were never used on consecutive trips.

Blackwater scouted, mapped and photographed my destination in advance, even analyzing the office where I was headed. This allowed them to decide whether the route and meeting location would be safe.

On the day before each trip, a Blackwater contractor would explain the details of our travels — the departure time, the numbers of guards and of vehicles. Each time, I was coached on how to react if our convoy came under attack. I was always required to wear full “battle rattle” — a helmet, body armor and the like. Sometimes, at the last minute, a route was changed, or a destination “scrubbed.”

This diligence resulted in a perfect track record — not a single diplomat has been killed while under Blackwater’s protection.

Because this work is so high profile, Blackwater has become well-known. When a more obscure company does something wrong in Iraq, Blackwater often is blamed. People just assume Blackwater is in all places doing all things. In short, Blackwater is colored by the broad brush that paints all contractors in Iraq. For those of us who have been “principals” under Blackwater’s protection, that brush unfairly taints the firm that literally kept us alive.

The bottom line is that we still don’t know exactly what happened during last month’s incident. But until the comprehensive investigation recently announced by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is completed, we shouldn’t rush to change how private security contractors operate in Iraq.

Peter McHugh is interagency chair at the National Defense University, Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va. Previously, he was transportation counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

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