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Off By A Bit

During yesterday's Blackwater hearing, Republicans kept complaining that everyone was ignoring all the good news about private military firms in Iraq. They were especially high on CEO Erik Prince's argument that Blackwater guards "only" discharged their weapons 195 times in more than 16,000 missions in Iraq since 2005--"barely" one percent. (At one point, Patrick McHenry even tried helpfully to suggest that maybe, in some of those instances, Blackwater employees were just firing their weapons into the air; but Prince assured him that, no, they tend to shoot at people.)

In any case, The Washington Post reports today that Prince was almost certainly giving a lowball estimate. Private security firms in Iraq are supposed to report all weapons discharges, but "few fully comply" and "company officials familiar with the system estimated that as few as 15 percent of all shooting incidents are reported, although both cautioned that it was impossible to know exactly how many incidents go unreported."

On a related noted, Peter Singer watched the hearings and came away concluding that most members of Congress have a very poor handle on the world of private military firms. This in particular was a good point:

Time and again, there were exchanges over whether contracting our military services to firms like Blackwater was saving money. Prince forcefully argued it was cost efficient; many representatives cited payment and profit figures that cast doubt on such a claim. ...

Those exchanges had a bigger problem. The comparisons were often of the apples-and-oranges type, so they were never fully resolvable. One side would discuss overall pay versus contracted pay--ignoring the differences between sunk costs of training, who ends up paying benefits, etc., etc.

Second, the use of private military contractors has never really been about financial cost savings. Rather, it's been about political cost savings. No one was able to point to a single decision to outsource some function to Blackwater that happened because of a cost differential analysis. Instead, each of these choices was made because a policymaker wanted to try to avoid spending political capital on an otherwise difficult decision, and a contractor was now there to enable this political cost avoidance.

Meanwhile, John Edwards is talking up a proposal to "transfer most security missions currently performed by contractors back to military command, where they belong," which, obviously, would only be possible if combat operations in Iraq were scaled back considerably.

--Bradford Plumer