Image: U.S. Marine Corps
By SCOTT DODD and PETER SMOLOWITZ, Staff Writers
The former police officers and special operations troops who work for Blackwater USA in northeastern North Carolina find themselves playing an unprecedented, controversial and little-known role in the occupation of Iraq.
With the U.S. military stretched thin, they have lucrative jobs - civilian security forces can earn more than $15,000 a month - defusing roadside bombs, escorting food convoys, protecting visiting dignitaries and even guarding U.S. administrator Paul Bremer.
They often work in the most dangerous parts of the country, including the town of Fallujah, where four Blackwater employees were ambushed and killed in their SUVs on Wednesday. Dancing Iraqis dragged their charred corpses through the street and strung them up from a bridge.
Hearing the early reports, Susie Randolph of Horry County, S.C., immediately feared for her husband, David. A former Horry police officer now working for Blackwater, David Randolph heads a security team based nine miles from Fallujah, which he calls Iraq's "baddest town."
On Wednesday afternoon, Randolph called his wife by satellite phone to tell her his group was safe. They weren't the ones who had been ambushed. She could hear U.S. helicopters firing in the background.
After 15 minutes, he hung up, saying some co-workers were pinned down and needed help.
"I just try to think the Lord is going to take care of him, and he's going to be all right," Susie said Wednesday. "That's the only thing I can think with four kids."
National security analysts say that as the war on terror lengthens, more and more jobs once done by soldiers are being handled by for-profit contractors who are often less equipped and less trained.
"We weren't being realistic with ourselves about the role the contractors played and the potential risks," said Peter Singer, a Charlotte native with the Brookings Institution in Washington who wrote the book "Corporate Warriors" on private defense contractors. "There's a lot more dangers and a lot more costs."
Blackwater's success is a result of the military's increased reliance on civilian partners. Founded in 1996 by an ex-Navy SEAL, it recruits in part from police departments and military bases in the Carolinas and traffics heavily with the Defense Department.
The company has been awarded more than $57 million in contracts since 2002, according to government records and an inspector general's report. Its responsibilities include training more than 10,000 Navy sailors in security each year and providing guards and two helicopters for Bremer's security detail.
The company sits on a 6,000-acre compound in Moyock, a half-hour drive from Norfolk, Va., and the world's largest Navy base. It uses elaborate facilities to train the military and law enforcement -- such as a mock R.U. Ready High School that simulates Columbine-like attacks.
"They are one of the largest employers in the region," said Currituck County economic development director Wayne Leary. He estimates that it employs more than 200 people in the area.
Providing security appears to be Blackwater's newest opreration. Blackwater Security Consulting LLC -- the division that employed the four men killed Wednesday in Iraq -- was formed last year, N.C. records show.
The company itself wouldn't say much. Its founder was out of town Wednesday, and a company spokesman wouldn't say whether the employees killed in Fallujah were from North Carolina.
Besides security, the Pentagon is relying more on contractors to fill other traditional military roles, such as providing troops with food and housing and training Iraqi police. National security analysts say the military is stretched thin and doesn't have enough troops to do all the jobs.
Part of the motivation is political, as well, said Mark Burgess of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. Using contractors keeps down the casualty counts of U.S. troops, and there's usually less outcry after violence.
"It almost puts a layer between political bosses and events on the ground," Burgess said. "Appearances are everything."
But Burgess said giving contractors a more prominent role is likely to inflame Iraqis, angry about the high-paying jobs going to foreigners -- much the same as U.S. workers are upset when jobs are outsourced.
More than 15,000 contractors work in Iraq, about one for every 10 U.S. soldiers, Singer, with the Brookings Institution, estimated.
More than $20 billion -- one-third of the U.S. Army's operating budget in Iraq and Afghanistan -- goes toward contractors, he said.
"They are playing a whole range of mission-critical roles," Singer said. "That's in spite of our doctrine which says you don't turn over mission-critical roles to private contractors."
The Pentagon does not track the exact number of contractors or their casualties. Singer estimates at least 30 have been killed in Iraq, and about 180 have been wounded. That total does not include missionaries or contractors handling reconstruction projects.
"They are very clearly going after civilian contractors, and today is absolutely tragic," said Singer. "It's chilling."
--ADAM BELL AND SETH BORENSTEIN CONTRIBUTED.
PUBLISHED BY: THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER