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Is The U.S. Military Too Reliant On Contractors?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm going to tell you something, mister, and I want you to remember it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now you listen to me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Now get with it. What's it all about?

MARTIN: ...Is For The Record.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We had to check it out.

MARTIN: This past week, four military contractors with the firm Blackwater were convicted for killing 17 Iraqis, including women and children, back in 2007. The verdict has again put military contractors in the spotlight and raised questions about where and when the U.S. uses them. For The Record, today - outsourcing war. This story actually begins back in 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Four American civilians were killed there today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: The contractors worked for Blackwater security. The bodies of the four Americans were pulled from the flames - poked, prodded and beaten.

MARTIN: In retaliation, U.S. Marines stormed Fallujah in what would become one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Four years later, Blackwater is in the news again - this time because four of its contractors opened fire on the Nisour Square traffic circle in Baghdad. Here's former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

NOURI AL-MALIKI: (Through translator) We will never allow Iraqi citizens to be killed in cold blood by this company which doesn't care about the lives of Iraqis.

MARTIN: A month later, Blackwater CEO, Erik Prince, is taken to task on Capitol Hill. Here's Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman.

CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: We're not getting our money's worth when we have so many complaints about innocent people being shot.

MARTIN: A couple weeks later, President George W. Bush says the incident will be investigated.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I will tell you, though, that a firm like Blackwater provides a valuable service. They protect people's lives.

MARTIN: But the company's reputation is crumbling.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: For the company formally known as Blackwater...

MARTIN: Blackwater renames itself - first in 2009, again in 2011. The case against the four Blackwater contractors wound its way through the courts for years and then that verdict last week.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: A federal jury in Washington returned guilty verdicts today against four Blackwater security guards. They were charged...

MARTIN: But there are still thousands of military contractors working for the U.S. government around the world - and questions about how they're held accountable. For more, I spoke with retired Army Colonel Joseph Felter, who teaches at Stanford University. And Pratap Chatterjee - he's the executive director of CorpWatch and the author of "Halliburton's Army." I started by asking them how dependent the U.S. military is today on contractors. Here's Pratap Chatterjee.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Since 9/11 we've had, on an average, anything between one and three contractors for every uniformed military in the various wars we've engaged in. So right now, in fact, at this very moment or at least a couple of months ago, there were 35,000 troops in Afghanistan and about 52,000 contractors.

MARTIN: Nisour Square has been in the news this past week. Let me drill down a little bit on this issue of accountability. Are both of you confident that today something like Nisour Square would not happen again?

JOSEPH FELTER: I would say I'm not confident. And I think that pressing stricter accountability laws is important, but equally important, if not more important, is for the individual contractors to understand and comply with these laws. And I compare contractors with the U.S. military. And I think when you're deployed as a contractor, you don't have that immediate supervisor right there - there's a lot more structure when you're serving on active duty. And when you transition to the contract rinks, that structure isn't quite as formal. The hierarchy isn't there. There's less oversight. And we see incidents occur.

CHATTERJEE: Well, there are three things. A - you've got to be able to hire the right people and train them. B - you've got to supervise them. And then you've got to prosecute them if they violate things. And many of these are missing because in the system under which we hire contractors, we hire a company that has a subcontractor who has a sub-subcontractor. We don't know who it is we're putting in that place.

MARTIN: I want to play a bit of tape. I spoke with Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, last year about what happened at Nisour Square. And this is what he said. Let's take a listen.


ERIK PRINCE: The men out there that day were all U.S. military veterans. If that unit had been all active duty service members, I don't believe this would've been an issue.

MARTIN: Let me ask you, Joe Felter, if they had been active duty instead of military contractors would they have been treated the same way in terms of an investigation and an indictment and ultimately a conviction?

FELTER: In the military when you have an incident you are - there is absolutely an investigation. We hold our soldiers accountable. And it's not perfect. You can remember Sergeant Bales back in - I think it was 2012 - that killed 16 civilians in...

MARTIN: ...Afghanistan.

FELTER: ...when he walked off his base. He's in prison now. Many people that were involved in the Abu Ghraib incident, they got jail time. But I would say to Erik Prince if someone was found culpable and liable that they would have suffered the consequences. And there probably would've been someone sitting in Fort Leavenworth disciplinary barracks in jail.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the perception issue, though, as well because what Prince is getting at there is that many military contractors are not held in the same esteem as the active duty military is in the larger American culture. Pratap, have contractors actually gotten a bad rap?

CHATTERJEE: I think contractors actually have died in equal numbers of soldiers - in fact, actually, probably much higher numbers. And when they die people say, so what? They're just a mercenary.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the current national security threat that the U.S. is trying to grapple with against the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. The U.S. has been fighting this war against ISIS from a distance. The president has pledged not to put any U.S. boots on the ground. Erik Prince, though, wrote recently that his organization could be dealing with the threat from ISIS by putting its own boots on the ground so U.S. troops wouldn't have to deploy. Does he have a point?

FELTER: Well, Rachel, I'd be very concerned if we did employ actual mercenaries, hired guns.

MARTIN: What about that doesn't sit well with you?

FELTER: I think combat operations I think should remain in the realm of the uniformed services under the strict supervision of the state and the government.

MARTIN: What is the risk if they don't?

FELTER: There is something to be said - and this might sound a little idealistic - but, you know, fighting for your country is a little different than fighting for a paycheck. I think guarding a gate for a paycheck is one thing but engaging in full on combat operations and all the risks that are associated with it and the heroism - you're going to see sub-optimal performance by mercenary contractors than you would in a uniform military personnel.

MARTIN: So what is the future? How do you see the U.S. military employing private military contractors in the future? And I'll start with Pratap.

CHATTERJEE: Well, the U.S. is moving actually into a completely different way of operating which is they use drones, airstrikes, even cyber warfare. We are moving away from putting boots on the ground. So I don't see us using a lot more contractors in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. That's really not the future.

MARTIN: Joe, I mean, what is the solution to a threat like we're seeing from ISIS?

FELTER: Well, Rachel, I think there's a disconnect between our current objectives and our - the strategy we're willing to take to achieve them. And I do anticipate increasing numbers of boots on the ground. You know, time will tell. But as far as using contractors, you know, we've got a couple options. Either we reduce the demand we place on our military or we increase the supply of uniformed military and government employees which, you know, means huge budget increases. So short of that, contractors are here to stay. And I think given that, we should start to integrate them into our command and control structures, integrate them into our preparations. And I think that's the way ahead.

MARTIN: Retired Army Colonel Joseph Felter, now a professor at Stanford University, and Pratap Chatterjee, an investigative journalist and the executive director of CorpWatch in Oakland, California. Thanks to you both.

CHATTERJEE: Thanks for having us, Rachel.

FELTER: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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