Journalist Eamonn McCann’s article, “Mercenary approach,” in the 10 August edition of Ireland’s current affairs magazine Village discusses the latest news in the ongoing struggle for justice for murdered Belfast man Peter McBride. Writes McCann:
The mother of a teenager shot dead by British soldiers in Belfast has launched a campaign for an inquiry into the alleged killing of civilians by private consultants in Iraq. Jean McBride’s 18-year-old son, Peter McBride, was shot dead by members of the Scots Guards regiment in the New Lodge Road area in September 1992. The men’s commander, Lt Col Tim Spicer, now heads the company at the centre of the Iraq allegations.
In June, the Pentagon announced that an inquiry had cleared Spicer’s company, Aegis Defence Services, of shooting-up civilian vehicles in Baghdad. However, a former British paratrooper working for Aegis at the time says the inquiry was a whitewash. He claims that, although he had witnessed the shooting and possessed video-tape of it, his repeated offers of evidence were refused.
Now, Jean McBride has written to a UN working group asking for a new investigation. The former para who worked for Aegis, Rod Stoner, says that he will testify to any new inquiry.
Aegis Defence Services was awarded a highly controversial Iraq security contract by the Pentagon in 2004. The contract was initially valued at $294 million, but was worth over $430 million at the close of 2005. Due to the deluge of criticism leveled against the Pentagon for its choice of Aegis, the US Army Contracting Agency briefly revisited the issue but decided in May of 2005 to stand behind its original decision. The announcement to uphold the contract came on the heels of an audit report filed by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that cited several cases of misconduct on behalf of Aegis’ work in Iraq over the past year. Critics of the contract continue to warn that the US may be turning its back on what could prove to be another human rights scandal in the Middle East. The more recent allegations of “trophy videos” discussed in McCann’s article suggest that the critics were on the right track.
Aegis’ contract—the highest awarded to date in Iraq—puts the company in charge of providing security for the Project and Contracting Office, the main organizer of the reconstruction of war-torn Iraq. In addition, the agreement sets Aegis in charge of the $18.6 billion of US reconstruction funds. According to their website, Aegis provides both pre-emptive and reactive protective security, specializing in areas such as threat and risk analysis; command, control, communications and intelligence; and crisis management and contingency planning.
Aegis Defence Service’s Chief Executive Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, is no stranger to conflict and contingency planning. A former British Army officer, Spicer has a long history of human rights abuses throughout the world. He is perhaps most infamous for his role in the cover-up of the murder of Peter McBride in Belfast in 1992.
This September marks the 14th anniversary of McBride’s murder by two Scots Guardsmen under Spicer’s command, and the McBride family has yet to receive justice for the killing. McBride, an18-year-old father of two, was shot in the back at a distance of 70 yards as he ran from a checkpoint shortly after being given a full body search that proved him to be unarmed. His killers, Mark Wright and Jim Fischer, were convicted of the murder- something that almost never happens to British soldiers involved in illegal activities in the North. Shortly after they began their life sentences, however, right-wing British papers launched a massive campaign for their release, arguing that “our boys can do no harm.” Government ministers responded to their calls, and the two murderers were subsequently released and continue to serve in the army to this day. Spicer was also heavily involved in their release and reinstatement. The murder convictions have never been overturned. Both Wright and Fischer would later be stationed in Basra, Iraq in 2003.
Spicer’s initial response to his officers’ actions on that day in September, as outlined in his autobiography, An Unorthodox Soldier, has been widely cited. “My immediate reaction was to get the soldiers back on the street,” Spicer wrote. “Both were upset, and it was common sense to get them back out doing their jobs. It’s the same principle as getting back on a horse when you have been thrown off. You have to do it before your nerve goes forever.”
Following his role in the cover-up of McBride’s murder, Spicer, too, would get right back up on his proverbial horse—only to find himself embroiled in another scandal. Spicer became a mercenary in 1996, and joined other ex-military officers and South African businessmen to form a “private military company” or “PMC” called Executive Outcomes (later to be called Sandline International). In 1997, Spicer was centrally involved in a coup attempt in Papua New Guinea; sent there to recover the world’s largest copper mine, Spicer himself became a target, and was arrested with a suitcase full of $400,000 in cash believed to be payoffs to then defense minister Mathias Ijape.On the heels of that scandal would come yet another. In 1998 as CEO of Sandline International, Spicer and his cronies violated both British law and a United Nations arms embargo by sending weapons to Sierra Leone. Sandline’s efforts there involved access to diamond mines and other minerals for their wealthy clients.
In an interview with Andrew Gilligan in London’s Daily Telegraph in 1998, Spicer commented on the exploits of his companies and their businessmen financiers. “Objectively there is nothing wrong with providing military services to people who don’t have them in exactly the same way as you get bankers, doctors and construction workers in Third World countries. Of course, we are a commercial organization. We’re not a moral-crusading white legion that goes around the world knocking off the bad guys. But our commercial aspirations are tempered with trying to do it for the right people [emphasis Gilligan’s], and not simply because somebody comes along with a fat cheque.” When questioned about the political legitimacy of his clients, Spicer replied, “Our clients may not be democratically-elected in terms we all understand in the West, but they’re supported.”
More than 340 contractors have been killed in Iraq while working on U.S.- funded reconstruction work. Aegis Defence Services—led by CEO Tim Spicer—continues to serve out the terms of their contract in Iraq. In late April 2005, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction released the results of an audit that found Aegis guilty of not fulfilling many areas of their contract. Aegis was unable to provide investigators with documents that show their employees had received proper training and are qualified to use weapons; many of the Iraqis employed by Aegis had not had appropriate background checks to ensure that they were not security threats; employees also lacked the experience necessary to deal with hostage rescues, escorts and personal security detail. According to Sourcewatch, “The audit showed a random sample of 20 armed guards resulted in no training documentation for 14 of them. The report also faulted the company for not documenting background checks on 125 Iraqi employees.”
Not surprisingly, Melissa Rider of the US Army Contracting Office then released a statement in response to protests that supports the Pentagon’s original stance on the issue. Rider said, “The issue you have raised, though surrounded in political controversy, does not support any grounds for overturning the responsibility determination by our contracting officer. The actions you attribute to Mr. Spicer do not appear to have resulted in any conviction for any illegal activity bearing on his integrity and business ethics. The fact that others could have reached a different conclusion does not mean that this determination was unreasonable.”
As I mentioned earlier, those who would like to see the contract cut warn that further involvement with Aegis will only invite another human rights scandal in the Middle East. Last year I spoke with attorney Shareef Akeel, who is part of a legal team working with the Center for Constitutional Rights to represent former detainees of Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in a class action lawsuit against two private firms that were hired to provide interrogators for the army, on this issue. At the time of my interview with Akeel, not one contractor had been charged or convicted of any kind of wrongdoing.
A central problem, according to Akeel, is that we are subcontracting out what are inherent government functions. Akeel pointed out what he believes to be an inherent conflict of interest in the use of contractors, “The companies that go there- they have to service the nation…but at the same time, they’re maximizing the profit for their shareholders. They want to produce results so they can get the next contract. So they may engage in misconduct. And that misconduct may be in violation [of] the Geneva Convention.” Akeel refers to this conflict of interest as “dual master syndrome.” (While I get Akeel’s point, I think his analysis is pretty superficial. What has our experience taught us about the American government’s ability to provide inherent government functions in Iraq? In hindsight, I think he was trying to be very middle-of-the-road during the interview.)
And more recently, in June of this year, the Pentagon has cleared Aegis of any connections to the videotaped shooting of Iraqi civilians. Rod Stoner, the former para and ex-Aegis employee, said that he left the company after a dispute with Spicer involving an Aegis employees’ website. McCann describes the scenes recorded on the video in question:
In an email to Spicer at the time, Stoner denied that he intended to post videos “showing innocent Iraqis being shot up and in some cases killed”. However, he posted the video on the website when he left.
Stoner says he was the “team leader” in the SUV from which the shooting took place.
The video contains four clips in which automatic fire is directed at civilian cars travelling behind the SUV. One clip shows a white car apparently drifting out of control and then coming to a stop as it is raked with machine-gun fire. Another shows bullets splattering the bonnet and windshield of a Mercedes which crashes into another car. A number of people are seen running from the other car: no one emerges from the Mercedes. The video is shot from inside the SUV as it travels along ‘Route Irish’ between Baghdad airport and the city.
According to the article, Stoner claims that the “investigation” by the Pentagon into the shootings was a sham. Stoner readily admits that he was in the SUV that fired the shots on tape, and that during the course of the investigation, Aegis made no attempt to interview him or any of the other occupants of the vehicle.
McCann quoted Jean McBride’s reaction to this information: “”The truth seems to be that there was no inquiry. If you don’t interview people who are offering eye-witness evidence, you aren’t inquiring. We are not letting go of this. A man who praised the murderers of my son and who has since been involved in very dubious activities around the world is now running an operation for the US in Iraq in which more innocent people are seemingly being gunned down. We will be actively seeking support for an inquiry… How can we talk about human rights and the rule of law if people like Tim Spicer are allowed to defend murder in Northern Ireland and then go on to inflict the same attitudes elsewhere?”
Derry’s Pat Finucane Centre is a great resource for the McBride case and others involving collusion. Check it out.