Blackguarding Blackwater

They cannot attack our troops in Iraq, and their September attack on Gen. David Petraeus backfired badly. So, with the military surge showing signs of success, the left is now going after America’s “mercenaries.” As if on command, Blackwater has become the watchword du jour for critics of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

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It’s another one of those unassailable words or phrases that is supposed to somehow sum up all that is wrong with the Iraq war. “Abu Ghraib!,” “Haditha!” and now, “Blackwater!”

“Blackwater!” — an “extremely Republican” company engaged in “war profiteering” in Iraq through no-bid or cost-plus contracts. “Blackwater!” — a private-security firm whose trigger-happy and lavishly compensated “mercenaries” are accountable to no one and operate above the law. “Blackwater!” — the latest scandal of an allegedly scandal-plagued war.

In fact, “Blackwater the scandal” is nothing more than a backdoor way to sabotage the war effort. It’s based on one incident, where it was by no means established that the Blackwater team acted inappropriately, and misinformation bordering on myth-making.

When rumors of spread of Blackwater’s eviction from Iraq, a Defense Department contact told the company it would take three battalions or 15,000 troops to do the work the company is doing. That’s three battalions that would be pulled from fighting the enemy, and 15,000 troops who are not as well trained to undertake the specialized security missions as Blackwater professionals. If Blackwater and similar security companies are not allowed to operate in Iraq, there’s a good chance more American civilians will be killed there. This would inevitably make the war more unpopular here at home.

That has to be the point of the recent fixation on Blackwater, because casting Blackwater as part of the problem in Iraq simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, Blackwater has been part of the solution, saving American lives while sometime losing its own professionals.

War profiteering? According to material the company has provided to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, a full 95 percent of Blackwater’s contracts are the result of open competitive bidding. In fact, only one of Blackwater’s prime contracts in Iraq was not the result of open competitive bidding. When Blackwater has been hired under sole-source or no-bid contracts, the government has acted under precise statutory authority that requires “unusual and compelling urgency” — statutory authority that existed long before Sept. 11, 2001.

It also requires that the company’s compensation be “fair and reasonable,” which brings us to another “war-profiteering” myth: Blackwater’s remuneration. The company no doubt makes a profit — it’s not a charity, after all — but it doesn’t have cost-plus contracts with the government that guarantee a profit. Its contracts feature fixed-unit pricing. Blackwater earns a profit or faces losses based on a per-man, per-day price worked out with agency contracting officers.

The great bulk of private security professionals cost the government $450 to $650 a day. The average compensation for a Blackwater professional was $57,254. That’s on the par with active-duty personnel with similar experience when you consider what Blackwater contractors must pay on their own (health insurance, benefits, taxes and retirement) and what active-duty military quite properly receive on top of their base pay (re-enlistment bonuses, specialty pay, incentive or hazard pay, overseas cost-of-living adjustments, as well as housing or subsistence allowance if they’re not receive free housing and meals, education benefits, commissary savings, life insurance and so on).

But haven’t we all been told that Blackwater folks in Iraq are operating without accountability and above U.S. and Iraqi law? Yes, but that hardly makes this most recent anti-Iraq war myth true. The fact is that the company’s security professionals operate under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, the War Crimes Act, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the Anti-Torture Statute and other U.S. laws. The fact is that Blackwater contractors’ legal obligations are set out specifically by the U.S. government’s contracting agencies and their right to fire weapons is constrained by “rules for the use of force.” The fact is that these companies’ contractors must abide by international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions.

Mercenaries? As Blackwater founder Erik Prince said in this testimony before Congress, “We have Americans working for America, protecting Americans.” We’re fortunate to be able to use Blackwater’s highly trained professionals to protect Americans, Iraqis and others in a dangerous place where the ever-menacing enemy’s not in uniform. It’s an excellent return on the investment U.S. taxpayers have made in their training. In 2006 and thus far in 2007, Blackwater has conducted more than 8,000 security missions outside Iraq’s Green Zone, saved dozens of lives — no individual under Blackwater protections has yet been killed or seriously injured — while losing some of its own people. Weapons were fired in less than one percent of these missions. It’s also worth remembering that Blackwater personnel do not participate in offensive operations.

Having active-duty military provide this kind protection would mean one of three things: We’d need to either have more U.S. troops in Iraq; redirect troops already there away from offensive operations against terrorists and insurgents; or we’d have to get used to more civilian casualties. This no doubt explains why targeting Blackwater is the left’s latest anti-war strategy. If you cannot attack our troops, you can at least attack private security professionals who are increasing the effectiveness of our troops.

Santorum, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007 and a member of the House from 1991 to 1995, contributes a twice-monthly column to the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.