Who commands the private soldiers?

17 May 2004, David Leigh, The Guardian

Allegations of abuse have raised wider questions about the role - and accountability - of civilian contractors


The US military has gone headlong for privatisation, urged on by the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. One 2002 memo from the secretary of the army, Thomas White, suggests that as much as a third of its budget is going to private contractors, while army numbers are falling. The rationale is to save money on permanent soldiers by using temporary ones.

But the policy has other, political advantages. When a mortar shell lobbed at Baghdad airport earlier this year killed Corporal Tomasi Ramatau, 41, no one in the US media took much notice.

Names like his do not appear on the roll-calls of US soldiers killed in Iraq, solemnly enunciated on the daily TV shows. Ramatau was one of the unemployed men from the Pacific island of Fiji hired in their hundreds by another prominent private military firm, Global Risk of London, to take the bullets for the Pentagon.

The loose control of the 20,000-plus private-enterprise soldiers in Iraq has been thrown into painful relief by the accusations that hired civilian interrogators and translators encouraged obscene tortures at Abu Ghraib prison and that one even allegedly raped an Iraqi boy in his cell.

No senator or congressman appears to have had the least idea until the scandal broke that the drive to privatise the military had gone so far as to use civilian contractors for such sensitive jobs.

Aides to Democrat congressman Ike Skelton were particularly incensed with a reply by Mr Rumsfeld to a demand last month for information about private military firms in Iraq. Mr Rumsfeld produced a list of 60 companies, half a dozen of them British, but withheld all mention of two of the biggest and best-connected recruiting firms alleged to be at the centre of the torture scandal - CACI in Washington and Titan in San Diego, California.

One of the few people to have conducted a full-scale study of military privatisation, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, said: "No lawmakers seemed to know that they were hiring civilians as interrogators. They had this concept that the civilians were there to mow lawns and answer phones." In his recent book, Corporate Warriors, he lists dangers in excessively privatised soldiering, such as cutting corners to save money, secrecy, and hollowing out the genuine military by poaching their troops. All have duly come to pass in Iraq.

Who commands the private soldiers?

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