The past three days have created two critical news stories. The first, that a Dyncorp convoy was responsible for the death of a taxi driver in Baghdad, went by almost unnoticed. The second, that the FBI apparently has judged that 14 of the 17 deaths in Nisoor Square on September 16 were unjustified. As none of the reports are official, rather from the media, I state here clearly that I am talking about what is reported, and not representing them as the absolute facts.

Regarding the death of the taxi driver: apparently the convoy did report that they had ‘discharged a weapon,’ but that the shot had been aimed at the hood of the car. There was no report of non-lethal measures taken to warn the car. The team was reportedly amazed that someone had been killed; if true, this says a lot about the lack of care taken in placing the rounds.

It has always been the dogma of the professional, particularly in a COIN (counter-insurgency) operation, that if you are not confident where the bullet is going to land, don’t engage. A clear safe shot into the ground gives a lot more room for error than the hood of a car – depending on the angle, a slight bump in the road as the bullet was traveling down the barrel changed the trajectory from warning shot to kill shot.

There is another side to this story, and one at which many will balk, but that must be considered: The private military company (PMC) shooting is the issue de jour, both in the US and Iraq. In a number of quarters, any opportunity to misrepresent a shooting would be enthusiastically embraced – it is the work of a few moments to make a weapon, bomb vest or other evidence simply disappear.

As an aside, here is the really scary thought – the negative publicity is forcing the US to change its practices, and is causing negative pressure abroad and at home. In Northern Ireland, the Sinn Fein/IRA used to orchestrate negative incidents for the media that attempted to entice the British Army to act badly, in order to engender similar pressure and create sympathy amongst those vulnerable to such propaganda, including in the US (Remember the days when to many they weren’t terrorists but freedom fighters, until 9/11 changed that romantic ideal?)

At what point does someone suitably motivated, knowing the negative publicity that will be generated and the potential recruiting effect it affords, orchestrate an event that plays to the manner in which PMCs operate?

Whilst this is an asymmetric operation on a new plane, it is neither unreasonable nor unachievable – to what lengths would someone go to mimic an attack if they knew that their ‘innocent death’ in front of many witnesses at the hands of the Americans would create 10, 20 or 30 recruits for suicide bombings globally and more pressure on the US?

It appears that the FBI has concluded that 14 of the 17 deaths in Nisoor Square were unjustified. Interesting conclusions for two reasons. The first is that the military felt all 17 were unjustified, and from a professional, COIN perspective, that very well may have been true. One assumes the military report perspective was, “If it had been us, what would we have done?” The FBI, on the other hand, is interested in what it can prove, and what the potentially applicable laws say.

The second reason is the reported (by the NY Times) outrage on Capitol Hill, that someone must be prosecuted, that the new Attorney General must make the laws work, etc.

This is a growth industry that was not regulated. Now it is going to be. That legislators waited until there was a sufficient weight of serious incidents before taking action and changing laws is not the Attorney General’s fault. It is theirs.

There is a breadth of proposals in Congress; as yet, they all focus on the contractors working for the government, leaving those contractors working for private firms immune from the rigid oversight and reporting requirements. This must be addressed. Equally important is the need to make these laws universal — not applied only to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Everything done to date on the matter of misuse of force by private military companies has the whiff of politics – of too-little too-late and knee-jerk response. If the government and the Congress are to face up to this problem properly, they need to put in place a regime that creates hurdles for entry, based on a clear set of professional standards, and then enforce those standards through licensing and audits.