WASHINGTON — The behavior of private security contractors in Iraq is in direct conflict with the goals of the U.S. military, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday in an unusually frank critique, adding that the guards' mistreatment of Iraqis is hindering Pentagon efforts at winning hearts and minds.
Gates said at a Pentagon news conference that he planned to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in coming days to iron out new regulations governing the conduct of the estimated 8,500 armed guards working for the Pentagon and State Department in Iraq.
Last month, the Defense secretary sent a five-man team to Iraq to investigate contractor oversight after the high-profile killing of 17 Iraqis in a Baghdad shooting involving Blackwater USA, the private security contractor hired to protect U.S. diplomats.
Although Blackwater works for the State Department, the Pentagon employs the vast majority of such hired guns in Iraq -- about 7,300 -- and Gates within days ordered commanders in the country to be more aggressive in using military law to discipline contractors in their areas of responsibility.
Pentagon officials have said Gates also is considering a proposal to put the security contractors under a new Baghdad-based military command so Pentagon officials would have more direct oversight of their actions.
Gates did not publicly advocate such a restructuring Thursday, but he suggested he was planning a more extensive review of how the U.S. regulates the private security guards.
Gates said the mission of many contractors in Iraq -- to protect their U.S. government employers regardless of other consequences -- was "at cross-purposes to our larger mission in Iraq."
The larger mission includes persuading "more and more Iraqis [to] see the coalition forces as their friends and their allies," he said.
"As I see it, right now those missions are in conflict, because in the objective of completing the mission of delivering a principal safely to a destination, just based on everything I've read and what our own team has reported, there have been instances where, to put it mildly, the Iraqis have been offended and not treated properly," Gates said.
The Pentagon's increasingly critical scrutiny of its contractors contrasts with the response by the State Department, which for weeks after the Sept. 16 shooting defended Blackwater's behavior in Iraq. This month, however, Rice ordered a complete revamp of its policies governing Blackwater's operations, ordering all convoys to include U.S. government monitors and video cameras to record actions taken by the guards.
The State Department has ordered a separate review of its oversight of Blackwater and its two other private security contractors in Iraq, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy. Although Gates said he did not believe there were conflicts between the departments' reviews, he said he would meet with Rice to iron out any differences.
Relations between the active-duty military and private security contractors, long strained because of soldiers' perceptions that the armed guards undermine their mission, has become increasingly uneasy, with military officials accusing the contractors of recruiting away their best personnel.
Erik Prince, Blackwater's chief executive, testified before a congressional hearing this month that his company does not actively recruit soldiers in uniform.
But at a meeting with military writers Thursday, the Army's top personnel official said the service was being forced to constantly raise retention bonuses for technically skilled service members to keep them from leaving the military for contractors.
"It takes about 10 years to build a major, but it takes decades to build these highly, highly skilled special operators, and those are the ones who are the most attractive to the contractors," said Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, referring to the Army's elite Special Operations units. "It's almost impossible to be fully competitive."
Gates has asked military lawyers whether it is possible for the Pentagon to include noncompete clauses in its contracts with private security firms that would bar firms from recruiting among active-duty units. He has not decided whether to impose such requirements.
In Iraq, Blackwater works for the State Department, not the Pentagon. The firm is employed by the Defense Department elsewhere overseas.
Despite Gates' conclusion that private security firms are undermining the U.S. military mission in Iraq, he continues to believe that the U.S. government needs to employ the armed guards there, arguing that using soldiers to take over their roles would pull resources away from more important goals.
"It would require an enormous commitment of American troops . . . to assuring the security of our diplomats and civilians working in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq, as opposed to working the security situation for Iraq more broadly," he said.