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U.S. Can Withhold Security Firm Data

The Times loses its bid in court for the names of contractors involved in shootings in Iraq.

July 27, 2006|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government can keep secret the names of private security contractors involved in serious shooting incidents in Iraq, a federal judge has ruled, rejecting a Freedom of Information Act request by the Los Angeles Times.

U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles said Tuesday that she deferred to the judgment of Army officers who said the disclosure could "provide an advantage to insurgents" and aid them in targeting contractors who provide protection at job sites.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq nearly 3 1/2 years ago, the Pentagon has relied heavily on private contractors to carry out a variety of tasks, including efforts to rebuild the country. The companies in turn have relied on private security contractors to protect workers and supply lines, and to deter attacks on oil pipelines and the power grid.

The Defense Department said last year that at least 60 private security providers were working in Iraq with perhaps as many as 25,000 employees.

The effectiveness of private security contractors has been unclear. Many have been attacked, and some have been accused of recklessly using deadly force against Iraqi civilians.

The firms regularly file "serious incident reports" to U.S. authorities in Iraq when employees are shot at or exchange fire.

The Times has sought to report on the role of private contractors in Iraq. In April, the newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Army, asking for records of serious shooting incidents.

In June, the Army supplied some of the records but withheld the names of the companies, along with identifying information, such as the location of their work and the names of the companies with which they worked.

Times reporter T. Christian Miller, who was reporting on private contractors, said the government appeared to give more protection to private firms than to U.S. soldiers. "They can tell you a soldier's name and his company's name when they are involved in a shooting incident. I didn't understand why they couldn't tell us the names of the companies involved in the shooting incidents," Miller said.

The 1966 Freedom of Information Act allows the government to withhold records for several reasons, including law enforcement records whose release could "endanger the life or physical safety" of others.

The Army maintained that disclosing the names and locations of private security firms could tip off insurgents about the success of their attacks and provide them with new targets.

In rejecting the newspaper's request, Cooper said, "The public has a right to demand information about the role of private security contractors in Iraq," but that such interest "must be balanced against the life and safety interest of the military personnel, the private security contract employees and other individuals on the ground in Iraq today."

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