WHEN THE BUSH administration turned over much of its Iraqi security operations to the private sector last year, one of the companies that stood to profit was the London-based Hart Group. Run by former British soldiers, the firm received a large contract through the Army Corps of Engineers to guard Iraqi energy facilities and protect engineers rebuilding the country's electricity network.
Hart Group needed to hire 170 English-speaking guards with military experience -- and it had to do it fast. "We had to recruit people in very, very short order," says Simon Falkner, the company's chief of operations. But Falkner knew exactly where to find many of his recruits: in South Africa, where soldiers trained under that country's apartheid regime now often find themselves unemployable. "They're good soldiers, the South Africans," says Falkner, a retired colonel. "They're tough people, and they're well-disciplined. And there are a lot of them who want to do the work. A lot of people have left the South African defense force since Nelson Mandela came in."
Hart's hiring practices might have passed entirely unnoticed had one of the company's employees not died in a firefight with Iraqi insurgents last spring. The victim was 55-year-old Gray Branfield, a former covert-operations specialist in South Africa's fight to preserve white minority rule. In the early 1980s, the apartheid government decided to assassinate the top 50 African National Congress (ANC) officials living beyond the country's borders, and Branfield was charged with tracking down apartheid opponents in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Zambia. "We saw it as a battle in the global war to fight communism," he said in an interview shortly before his death.
In July 1981, Branfield's team was assigned to hunt down Joe Gqabi, the ANC's chief representative in Zimbabwe and the operations chief of its militant wing there. After two weeks searching for their quarry, Branfield's team located Gqabi at a house in a working-class suburb of Harare. With Uzis and Berettas beneath their coats, they climbed over a fence and waited until the anti-apartheid activist emerged from the house. Then the soldiers jumped from the bushes and pumped 19 bullets into Gqabi at close range.
Two decades later, Branfield joined the war on terror for "the second act of my career." But he didn't fully disclose his credentials. Falkner says he was unaware of Branfield's background when Hart Group hired him. "That would have been of great concern to us if he had been involved in illegal activity," says Falkner. "As far as I'm concerned, he was a bona fide individual and a very fine man. He died protecting his guys, which, frankly, if he was in the Army, would have won him a very high award."
How did a political assassin end up working for the U.S. government in Iraq? The answer illuminates an ominous aspect of what can happen when the business of war is handed over to the private sector.
To an unprecedented degree, the United States and its allies have turned to private companies to fill tens of thousands of jobs once performed only by soldiers, from prison interrogators to bodyguards for high-ranking officials. Several of these companies have even engaged in firefights as part of their work. To Iraqis, the corporate guards are often indistinguishable from U.S. troops, with whom they often cooperate. Yet there is one key difference between the contract soldiers and U.S. troops: With pressure to quickly fill thousands of jobs, many companies have recruited former police officers and soldiers who engaged in human rights violations -- including torture and illicit killings -- for regimes such as apartheid South Africa, Augusto Pinochet's Chile, and Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia. Some of these firms perform only cursory pre-employment screening, if any -- making it easy for those with questionable backgrounds to slip through unnoticed.
"There is no interest on the part of many firms to do background checks," says Marco Nicovic, an attorney in Serbia who serves as vice president of the International Bodyguard and Security Services Association. "For men who are wanted and have arrest warrants, Iraq is a way out. It's easier, safer for them to start clean there."
The Pentagon says it is not in the business of policing contractors' hiring practices -- and that concerns military watchdogs, who believe this creates a climate where human rights are seen as secondary. "The point is not lost on people working in the private security market that the United States has hired companies with cowboy reputations," says Deborah Avant, director of the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University. In one case, the Pentagon awarded a security contract worth more than $250 million to a British company whose CEO has flouted basic human rights principles from Northern Ireland to the South Pacific.
Richard Goldstone, a retired justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, said he was revolted when he learned that some apartheid-era veterans are now employed in Iraq under U.S. government contracts. "The mercenaries we're talking about worked for security forces that were synonymous with murder and torture," says Goldstone, who also served as chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. "My reaction was one of horror that that sort of person is employed in a situation where what should be encouraged is the introduction of democracy. These are not the people who should be employed in this sort of endeavor."
PENTAGON OFFICIALS say they can no longer fight a war without private contractors. The U.S. military has shrunk from 2.1 million to 1.4 million active troops since the end of the Cold War, creating a shortage of personnel during wartime. Yet even as the Iraq war was gearing up, observers warned that replacing soldiers with contractors could cause accountability problems. "We have individuals who are not obligated to follow orders or follow the Military Code of Conduct," Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, told Mother Jones last year. "Their main obligation is to their employer, not to their country."
Schakowsky's fears were realized at Abu Ghraib. Long before the infamous prison became a household name, the U.S. Justice Department awarded the research and engineering company SAIC a contract to help reconstruct the Iraqi prison system. SAIC in turn hired four former corrections officials from the United States who had been involved in prisoner-abuse cases. One of them, Gary DeLand, once ran a Utah jail where a mentally ill inmate arrested for nonviolent disorderly conduct was held naked and alone for 56 days without lights, recreation, windows, bedding, or a toilet -- and without a hearing. Both SAIC and officials at the Justice Department have declined to comment.