How South African hit men, Serbian paramilitaries, and other human rights violators became guns for hire for military contractors in Iraq

Dirty Warriors

WHEN THE BUSH administration turned over much of its Iraqi security operations to the private sector last year, one of the companies that stood to profit was the London-based Hart Group. Run by former British soldiers, the firm received a large contract through the Army Corps of Engineers to guard Iraqi energy facilities and protect engineers rebuilding the country’s electricity network.

Hart Group needed to hire 170 English-speaking guards with military experience -- and it had to do it fast. “We had to recruit people in very, very short order,” says Simon Falkner, the company’s chief of operations. But Falkner knew exactly where to find many of his recruits: in South Africa, where soldiers trained under that country’s apartheid regime now often find themselves unemployable. “They’re good soldiers, the South Africans,” says Falkner, a retired colonel. “They’re tough people, and they’re well-disciplined. And there are a lot of them who want to do the work. A lot of people have left the South African defense force since Nelson Mandela came in.”

Hart’s hiring practices might have passed entirely unnoticed had one of the company’s employees not died in a firefight with Iraqi insurgents last spring. The victim was 55-year-old Gray Branfield, a former covert-operations specialist in South Africa’s fight to preserve white minority rule. In the early 1980s, the apartheid government decided to assassinate the top 50 African National Congress (ANC) officials living beyond the country’s borders, and Branfield was charged with tracking down apartheid opponents in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Zambia. “We saw it as a battle in the global war to fight communism,” he said in an interview shortly before his death.

In July 1981, Branfield’s team was assigned to hunt down Joe Gqabi, the ANC’s chief representative in Zimbabwe and the operations chief of its militant wing there. After two weeks searching for their quarry, Branfield’s team located Gqabi at a house in a working-class suburb of Harare. With Uzis and Berettas beneath their coats, they climbed over a fence and waited until the anti-apartheid activist emerged from the house. Then the soldiers jumped from the bushes and pumped 19 bullets into Gqabi at close range.

Two decades later, Branfield joined the war on terror for “the second act of my career.” But he didn’t fully disclose his credentials. Falkner says he was unaware of Branfield’s background when Hart Group hired him. “That would have been of great concern to us if he had been involved in illegal activity,” says Falkner. “As far as I’m concerned, he was a bona fide individual and a very fine man. He died protecting his guys, which, frankly, if he was in the Army, would have won him a very high award.”

How did a political assassin end up working for the U.S. government in Iraq? The answer illuminates an ominous aspect of what can happen when the business of war is handed over to the private sector.

To an unprecedented degree, the United States and its allies have turned to private companies to fill tens of thousands of jobs once performed only by soldiers, from prison interrogators to bodyguards for high-ranking officials. Several of these companies have even engaged in firefights as part of their work. To Iraqis, the corporate guards are often indistinguishable from U.S. troops, with whom they often cooperate. Yet there is one key difference between the contract soldiers and U.S. troops: With pressure to quickly fill thousands of jobs, many companies have recruited former police officers and soldiers who engaged in human rights violations -- including torture and illicit killings -- for regimes such as apartheid South Africa, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, and Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia. Some of these firms perform only cursory pre-employment screening, if any -- making it easy for those with questionable backgrounds to slip through unnoticed.

“There is no interest on the part of many firms to do background checks,” says Marco Nicovic, an attorney in Serbia who serves as vice president of the International Bodyguard and Security Services Association. “For men who are wanted and have arrest warrants, Iraq is a way out. It’s easier, safer for them to start clean there.”

The Pentagon says it is not in the business of policing contractors’ hiring practices -- and that concerns military watchdogs, who believe this creates a climate where human rights are seen as secondary. “The point is not lost on people working in the private security market that the United States has hired companies with cowboy reputations,” says Deborah Avant, director of the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University. In one case, the Pentagon awarded a security contract worth more than $250 million to a British company whose CEO has flouted basic human rights principles from Northern Ireland to the South Pacific.

Richard Goldstone, a retired justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, said he was revolted when he learned that some apartheid-era veterans are now employed in Iraq under U.S. government contracts. “The mercenaries we’re talking about worked for security forces that were synonymous with murder and torture,” says Goldstone, who also served as chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. “My reaction was one of horror that that sort of person is employed in a situation where what should be encouraged is the introduction of democracy. These are not the people who should be employed in this sort of endeavor.”

PENTAGON OFFICIALS say they can no longer fight a war without private contractors. The U.S. military has shrunk from 2.1 million to 1.4 million active troops since the end of the Cold War, creating a shortage of personnel during wartime. Yet even as the Iraq war was gearing up, observers warned that replacing soldiers with contractors could cause accountability problems. “We have individuals who are not obligated to follow orders or follow the Military Code of Conduct,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, told Mother Jones last year. “Their main obligation is to their employer, not to their country.”

Schakowsky’s fears were realized at Abu Ghraib. Long before the infamous prison became a household name, the U.S. Justice Department awarded the research and engineering company SAIC a contract to help reconstruct the Iraqi prison system. SAIC in turn hired four former corrections officials from the United States who had been involved in prisoner-abuse cases. One of them, Gary DeLand, once ran a Utah jail where a mentally ill inmate arrested for nonviolent disorderly conduct was held naked and alone for 56 days without lights, recreation, windows, bedding, or a toilet -- and without a hearing. Both SAIC and officials at the Justice Department have declined to comment.

None of the four officials have been directly implicated in the Abu Ghraib torture allegations. But the military’s investigations of Abu Ghraib did conclude that employees of two other private contractors, CACI International interrogator Steven Stefanowicz and Titan Corp. translator Adel Nakhla, had participated in the abuses. In particular, the report compiled by Maj. General Antonio Taguba noted that Stefanowicz ordered military police to use interrogation techniques that “equated to physical abuse.” More recently, an Army investigation concluded that four CACI and Titan employees actively participated in detainee abuse, including assault and possibly rape. The employees received “little, if any, training on the Geneva Conventions,” said the report. Both companies have repeatedly denied wrongdoing on the part of their workers.

While the soldiers accused of violations at Abu Ghraib were court-martialed within months after the scandal broke, the cogs of justice have cranked considerably more slowly for the CACI and Titan employees. The difference lies in how the law treats civilians compared to soldiers: While the government can prosecute some crimes committed by civilians overseas, those laws have never been successfully applied to contractors -- though in a case seen as a test, the government recently indicted a CIA contractor named David Passaro for allegedly beating a prisoner to death with a flashlight in Afghanistan. What’s more, in a little-known order -- issued just before the handover of sovereignty to Iraq last June -- U.S. administrator Paul Bremer declared contractors “immune from the Iraqi legal process.”

Critics -- including some within the military -- argue that the armed services are creating a shadow workforce that can’t be held accountable. “The Pentagon is trying to cast a legal fog,” says Scott Horton, who chairs the international law committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. In May 2003, senior officers from the Judge Advocate General’s Corps took the extraordinary step of requesting a secret meeting with Horton to warn him about the increase in private contracting. “They explained, ‘Look, these civilian contractors are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and they know they’re not subject to it,’” Horton says. “This was creating an ambiguity that was ripe for abuse -- and abuse was going to happen.”

AS DISTURBING as the prison scandal has been, it constitutes only a small piece of a potentially much larger human rights problem. According to U.S. authorities in Iraq and independent experts, the war has put an estimated 20,000 military jobs into the hands of the private sector. “Private military firms have literally exploded in size at an Internet-like pace, going from a few executives drumming up contracts to over 1,200 personnel in the field in a matter of months,” says Peter W. Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The companies are pulling in people they have never even interviewed.”

To find workers, the companies went to the deepest labor pools around -- in some cases, the unemployed former foot soldiers of repressive regimes. Take, for example, Erinys International, which contracts with the Pentagon to provide security services in Iraq. Until recently, one of Erinys’ employees was a South African named Deon Gouws. During the 1980s, as a member of a police unit called the Northern Transvaal Security Branch, Gouws used arson, bombings, and assassinations to intimidate activists. In one case, Gouws and his fellow officers assembled nine young men in a house and mowed them down with AK-47s before setting their bodies ablaze. “They were essentially trying to create a sense of terror,” says Nicky Rousseau, a former researcher for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During his testimony before that commission, Gouws echoed the words of war-crimes defendants throughout history: “I simply carried out my orders and got the job done.”

Gouws left Iraq after he was injured by a suicide bomber at a Baghdad hotel; the same attack killed Frans Strydom, a former member of Koevoet (“Crowbar”), a South African counterinsurgency unit notorious for terrorizing and killing blacks. “We were basically automatons,” one Koevoet operative told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997. “We would just kill. That’s how we got our kicks.”

There are no hard statistics on the numbers of South Africans now working in Iraq, though the figure most often quoted is 1,500. Soldiers associated with the apartheid regime’s racist and antidemocratic security forces “have practically zero employment prospects” in today’s South Africa, says Angela McIntyre, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “They take what opportunities come along.”

And South Africa is hardly the only source of private soldiers with problematic backgrounds. ArmorGroup, a British security firm, was embarrassed last winter when the Belfast Telegraph revealed that one of its Iraq employees, Derek Adgey, had served prison time for collaborating with the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. When the news of Adgey’s record broke, ArmorGroup fired him; company officials declined to comment.

An estimated 500 Serbs who served under the repressive Milosevic regime have also found jobs with private security firms in Iraq, according to sources in the country. “Everyone here knows that hundreds of men wanted for crimes against humanity have left the country to take jobs in Iraq,” says one Italian diplomat. “They evaded justice by working for the Americans in Afghanistan, and now they are signing up for work in Iraq.” The Chilean press has reported that veterans of that country’s military from the Pinochet era have signed up with the security contractor Blackwater USA. And according to research by the Argentine journalist Mario Podestá, who was recently killed in a car accident en route to Baghdad, veterans of Argentina’s Dirty War -- in which political dissidents were routinely tortured and killed -- have been deployed to Iraq on private security contracts.

Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood says the Defense Department could theoretically suspend the contracts of companies whose employees have questionable pasts; he doesn’t know if it has ever done so. But, he adds, having confessed war criminals such as Branfield or Gouws on the payroll does not necessarily disqualify a firm from working in Iraq.

IT'S NOT JUST RANK-AND-FILE thugs who are being sent to serve in Iraq under the U.S. flag. Last May, the Pentagon handed out a $293 million contract to oversee all private security operations in Iraq to a company headed by controversial former British officer Tim Spicer. Aegis Defence Services Limited won the Pentagon contract, even though it was founded just two years ago and has no track record in Iraq.

Before starting Aegis, Spicer was the CEO of a private military firm called Sandline International, which specialized in helping governments put down rebellions. “It often takes a certain amount of coercion, or more often the threat of coercion, to bring the parties to the negotiating table,” he wrote in his autobiography, An Unorthodox Soldier. In one deal that made international headlines, Sandline was hired in 1997 by the government of Papua New Guinea to crush a popular uprising on the tiny South Pacific island of Bougainville, where local residents had shut down a vast open-pit copper mine that they said was destroying the local ecosystem. Papua New Guinea, which derived considerable revenues from the mine, paid Spicer’s firm $36 million to invade the island with a strike force equipped with helicopters and rocket launchers. Sandline’s official battle plan called for soldiers to target rebel commanders, then focus on “mopping up the enemy.” Spicer’s plan was foiled when the contract was made public.

It wasn’t Spicer’s first brush with controversy. When he served in Northern Ireland as a British officer, two soldiers under his command chased down and killed an unarmed, 18-year-old Catholic, Peter McBride. Although he didn’t know the men well, Spicer took up the soldiers’ cause, saying McBride had “acted like a terrorist” by running away. Even after the courts found the men guilty of murder, Spicer remained the soldiers’ advocate and worked tirelessly to get them reinstated in the military.

Aegis officials declined to comment on Spicer’s background or the $293 million contract. Pentagon officials have said they knew very little about Spicer’s history. “Whatever occurred in the past is in the past,” Army Major Gary Tallman told the Washington Post last June, “and we wouldn’t necessarily know about it.”

But that, critics say, is exactly the problem: By ignoring contractors’ human rights records, the government is skirting its responsibility to prevent future abuses. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about companies and personnel that aren’t in our military, but are part of our military operations,” says the Brookings Institution’s Singer. “Given the importance of these roles, you’d think the government would want to get it right. But the recruiting and vetting -- and the accountability and jurisdictional questions -- have been punted to the marketplace.”

Even in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Singer adds, “we haven’t seen any cleaning up of what’s going on. Has anyone tried to reform the system?” To the contrary: Not only did Bremer grant contractors blanket immunity from Iraqi courts, but last spring the Coalition Provisional Authority issued the opinion that “disciplining contractor personnel is the contractor’s responsibility” -- not, in other words, the government’s.

In theory, there is a law designed to impose some accountability on military contractors. In 2000, Congress passed the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which allows the government to prosecute anyone “employed by or accompanying the armed forces outside the United States” for significant crimes committed overseas. But the law has only been invoked once -- to prosecute an Air Force officer’s spouse for murder. “For all the good it’s done, MEJA may as well not exist,” says Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat. Price has introduced two bills that would strengthen MEJA and require the Pentagon to set minimum standards for civilian employees. But the measures won’t do much, he acknowledges, until the Pentagon demands accountability from the companies it hires. So far, Price says, “it’s been a very lax process. There’s been a breakdown of accountability and transparency. The Pentagon should have taken responsibility all along -- but they didn’t.”

Barry Yeoman is a Mother Jones contributing writer. © 2004 The Foundation for National Progress

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