As gunmen swarmed and fires raged two years ago on the United States’ diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, help for Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and six other besieged Americans was less than a mile away.
The potential rescuers weren’t members of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security staff or the U.S. military, but a half-dozen American civilians who were part of the shadow world of security contractors, in this case hired to protect the CIA’s Benghazi base and its intelligence-gathering case officers.
As the House Select Committee on Benghazi begins its public hearings today, it seems likely at some point to focus on the contractors’ revelations last week that the CIA’s base chief repeatedly delayed them from responding during the crucial first minutes of the attack. It may also examine new disclosures about the Benghazi contractors’ extraordinary acts of heroism and the approximately two-dozen lives they saved during 13 hours of assaults by terrorists throughout the long night.
As valuable as those inquires could prove, it would be a missed opportunity if the committee failed to treat what happened in Benghazi as entree into a broader examination of contractors’ enormous role, and their treatment as disposable assets, in the protection of U.S. personnel, facilities and interests around the world.
Until now, private military and security contractors have come to public attention almost exclusively when they are accused of heinous acts, as in the recently concluded trial of four former Blackwater Worldwide contractors charged with murder or manslaughter in a 2007 incident that left 17 Iraqis dead.
But those sorts of allegations involve only a small fraction of the men, and in some cases women, who work as soldiers in all but the official sense. Far more common are contractors like the ones at the CIA base known as the Annex in Benghazi: decorated former military men in their 30s and 40s, married with children and mortgages, who returned to service on a contract basis for the responsibility, the excitement, the camaraderie and, of course, the paycheck.
Statistics are elusive to capture their numbers, but undoubtedly tens of thousands of Americans and foreign nationals serve as security contractors for the United States. A congressional study in July reported that contractors make up roughly 90 percent of the more than 34,000 employees of the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which protects 285 diplomatic facilities worldwide. The Defense Department’s most recent report on personnel in Afghanistan reported that security is the primary mission of 3,177 civilian contractors. The total number of private contractors working in danger zones for the military isn’t publicly known because the Defense Department is only required to disclose staffing levels in “named” conflict areas such as Afghanistan. Evidence for contractors’ ubiquity can be found in a Department of Labor report that at least 3,539 civilian contractors have died in some 80 different countries since September 2001.
As for the private security contractors who served the CIA in Benghazi, and whose comrades continue to serve in clandestine roles in an unknown number of other locations, “Nobody keeps track of them on a global basis,” said Deborah Avant, director of the Sié Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver, which monitors private security contractors.
When contractors are injured, physically or psychologically, their treatment is vastly different from that of their military colleagues. They normally don’t have access to Veterans Administration facilities, and they don’t receive other benefits or pensions. “When soldiers come home there’s a process to demobilize them,” Avant said. “There are people checking in on them. Contractors don’t have these same demobilization plans in place. When the contract is up, they’re done.”
Consider, then, Mark “Oz” Geist, one of the contractors who came to the rescue in Benghazi. Geist was defending the CIA Annex, stationed with three other men on a rooftop, when mortars rained down on them early on the morning of Sept. 12, 2012.
The blasts killed two of his fellow contractors, former Navy SEALs Tyrone “Rone” Woods and Glen “Bub” Doherty. Geist’s left arm was blown open and shrapnel wounds left him feeling as though he’d been stung by a thousand metal bees. Although his ongoing medical care has been provided through the Department of Defense, his pay ended the moment he returned to the United States a week later. He says that despite the apparent desire of his government bosses to help him, he received limited support for his family. He has no pension.
“Thousands of men and women who work as security contractors are ready to lay down their lives for our country,” says Geist, who has created the nonprofit Shadow Warriors Project to aid injured or killed contractors and their families. “The least we can do is give them the same support that soldiers get.”
If the House Select Committee can cut through the thicket of issues surrounding Benghazi, it shouldn’t stop until heroes like Geist and his fellow security contractors get their due.
Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor of journalism at Boston University and author of “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi.”