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Facing down privatization of war

''Private Warriors" is the closest thing to must-see TV that ''Frontline" has uncorked in ages. Veteran correspondent Martin Smith, on his fourth trip to Iraq for the program, has reported, written, and coproduced a devastating look at the rodeo of private contractors working for the US government there that should trouble all of us.

And let it be noted that in doing their jobs in Iraq, he, coproducer Marcela Gaviria, and crew display uncommon braveness that only hints at what reporters stationed there must marshal every day.

What Smith does is explore the roots and implications of the contractor phenomenon, as well as bring us the sour fear that rides with private security guards who travel Iraqi roads in SUVs, like sitting ducks. How dangerous is it? He and Gaviria are asked their blood types before making a trip with one contingent.

There are as many as 100,000 civilian contractors and another 20,000 private security forces in the country who exist outside of the military chain of command and who are thus largely unaccountable to military leaders. The security cadre shows up from Russia, South Africa, and Europe, as well as the United States. Some are well-trained, others are disasters. Many are former soldiers, others are debtors desperate for cash.

With luck, they'll live to spend it. Some, like the top guards for the high-profile American firm Blackwater Security Consulting, can be paid $1,000 a day. Others, like Scott Helvenston and three colleagues at Blackwater, were killed and their charred bodies were hung from a bridge in Fallujah by insurgents last year.

Smith doggedly tries to unravel the tangled chain of contracts to determine accountability in their deaths, but comes up empty. This is a world for Kafka.

Other contractors do laundry and provide tae kwan do lessons for the troops. They offer three kinds of ice cream for dessert and cost American taxpayers a fortune. The biggest outfit, the Halliburton subsidiary of Kellogg Brown & Root, has nailed down almost $12 billion in contracts so far.

A federal watchdog body has found that KBR had charged for $88 million of meals it had not provided during a four-month period.

More troubling are the rules the security types follow: There aren't many. ''They don't communicate in the same networks. They don't get the same intelligence information," one expert says on the program. Adds another: ''They can decide to leave when and where they want. . . . And so what you've done is put a level of uncertainty into your military operation. And military operations are not a place that you want uncertainty."

The man who used to supervise the security contractors for the government now works for one of them. Smith asks him if he can recall the military ever reprimanding any of them. ''I'm not aware of any incidents offhand," he says.

As pressure mounts on the Bush administration to withdraw troops from Iraq, so does the seductiveness of replacing them with even more contractors.

''Perhaps it is part of their policy to reduce troop members and replace them with private security contractors," offers the head of one such outfit.

The logic is irresistible once you start down the contractor path. (When the military grew concerned about the lack of coordination within the outsourcing cohort, it outsourced the outsourcing supervision to a British firm.)

We began that stroll at the end of the Cold War, when then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney sought to reduce the size of the military. He hired Halliburton as a consultant, and the outsourcing has mushroomed since. (Cheney was famously CEO of Halliburton before joining George W. Bush on the Republican ticket in 2000.)

Quality control, particularly within the private security cohort, is sketchy. ''There were security contractors . . . that were just cowboys," says retired Marine Colonel Thomas Hammes, a former base commander. ''They clearly had neither the training nor the experience." They were impossible to identify, he adds, because they wore no name tags or unit logos.

Private contractors also pose a structural threat to the survival of an experienced army because soldiers working next to them make a fraction what they do, while subjecting themselves to at least as much danger. The resentment is understandable, which leads to the profusion of contractors who quit the military for better money, taking their capabilities with them. The implications of this dynamic are obvious.

Contractors can also short-circuit military tactics. The Blackwater debacle in Fallujah ruined plans for US Marines to enter the rebel stronghold and rebuild the trust of the people. After the killings, the Marines were ordered to find the killers.

''And now we were going in as their worst enemy," recalls Marine Colonel John Toolan, who was charged with the job.

''Private Warriors" injects yet more concern about the prosecution of this war, and of others to come. With the smarts and the moxie of a pro, Smith documents something worse than corruption: chaos.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com

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