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Remember Those Private Security Contractors?

ArmorGroup employees in action in Kabul
ArmorGroup employees in action in Kabul
Earlier this week the U.S. Justice Department announced that a private security contractor called ArmorGroup North America Inc. had agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle a dispute with the government. The company got into hot water for a host of misdeeds committed while its employees were guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (If you want to see some rather gross pics of their antics, you can take a look here. Hat tip to Spencer Ackerman and the folks at Danger Room.)

Interestingly, this mess didn't prevent the State Department from recently signing another contract with the company to guard the embassy.

All of which raises an interesting point: What is the Obama administration's policy on private security contractors?

We heard a lot about this issue during the George W. Bush years. The dubious actions of companies like Blackwater (which ultimately saw fit to change its name because of the drumbeat of bad publicity) highlighted the drawbacks of using private companies to carry out tasks that had once been the exclusive preserve of the government. A series of books, ranging from the sober to the sensationalistic, turned over the pros and cons.

Some of the most vociferous critics of the use of private security contractors were the two leading Democratic candidates for president back during the 2008 campaign. New York Senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored a bill to outlaw the use of Blackwater and other "private mercenary firms" in the war in Iraq. "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due," she declared at one point.

Her rival, a certain senator from Illinois, struck some similar tones. "You've got young men and women signing up to serve, willing to spill blood for America. How could they be treated less well than private contractors?" candidate Obama told one crowd in 2007. "And these private contractors, they go out and they're spraying bullets and hitting civilians and that makes it more dangerous for our troops." As the campaign proceeded, Obama made it clear that he wasn't quite willing to ban the use of such firms, but insisted that he would aim for much greater "accountability" if he became president.

So how has the policy toward the use of private security companies changed since Obama entered the White House?

When I asked that question of David Isenberg, author of the book "Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq," the answer turned out to be "not much."

He says that, right now, there are still some 200,000 people working as private contractors in the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The popular image of buff ex-Special Forces cowboys bristling with guns and wearing wrap-around Ray-Bans isn't very helpful, though. As Isenberg notes, private contractors in war zones handle a vast range of tasks that encompasses, as he puts it, "protective security details, doing the laundry, driving the tanker trucks, setting up the Port-a-Potties, doing intelligence analysis, doing reconstruction work, doing cultural intelligence." And many of the people performing these jobs aren't American nationals but citizens of developing countries who are doing the work for low wages under the most forbidding of conditions.

The use of contractors is so widespread throughout many branches of the U.S. government that it's unrealistic to think you can just do away with them, Isenberg says. "It is physically impossible at this particular point in time to suddenly wave a wand and say, 'It's all in-house,'" he says, "because that means you now have to have hundreds of thousands of people more within government doing the work." And that means pension obligations, employee benefits, and a whole host of associated costs and bureaucratic liabilities -- though Isenberg hastens to point out that it is by no means clear that using private contractors always ends up being cheaper for the taxpayer in the end. (Fans of contractor use argue that they're more cost-efficient, but Isenberg says there's a notable absence of studies proving the point.)

As for the private contractors who carry guns, they clearly aren't going away. In fact, one industry report back in February noted that the number of armed security contractors for the Defense Department in Afghanistan had actually tripled since June 2009. (Note: that doesn't even include the contractors pulling security for the State Department, which makes extensive use of them.)

And what about candidate Obama's call for accountability? Not much has changed on that front either. There still isn't a coherent body of rules that applies equally to all the contractors on the government payroll, both at home and overseas. This shouldn't be that hard to change. Some people in Washington are pushing the idea of a single government-wide authority that would keep track of all the private contractors used by various departments and agencies. The hope is that this would at least provide for unified standards and greater transparency.

And then there's something called the Montreux Document. Drawn up by several dozen governments (and some security contractors) in 2008, it provides a code of conduct for contractor behavior in war zones. If the United States were to make compliance with that code a precondition for receiving U.S. government contracts, Isenberg says, that would at least impose a bit of order on the anarchic contractor universe.

Other experts, like Pratap Chatterjee at the Center for American Progress, say that isn't enough. They're urging the international community to come up with a set of binding regulations that would specify criminal punishments for contractors who break the rules.

Some sort of action would seem to be overdue -- especially when you consider that, as one study released earlier this week revealed, the worldwide use of contractors has been steadily increasing.

-- Christian Caryl