Military contracts are big game. And one of the most notorious hunters is a former British soldier whose past business ventures include violating a UN arms embargo in Sierra Leone and unwittingly triggering a coup in Papua New Guinea. His name is Tim Spicer, and in March his London-based company, Aegis Defense Services, bagged a $293 million contract from the Pentagon to protect US diplomats in Iraq.
One might think that the government would be wary of awarding such largesse to a man with a dubious background. But not only did the Pentagon have no idea who Spicer was when they gave his company a huge contract, they didn't seem to care when challenged about it.
Five Democratic senators, led by Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, protested the Aegis contract on humanitarian grounds, urging the Pentagon to reconsider the deal in light of Spicer's background. He is, they noted, a man with a remarkable talent for entangling himself in scandal. In August, they asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to review the Spicer deal. In a response last month, the Army admitted that its contracting officer was unaware of trouble spots in Spicer's past, but it refused to reconsider the contract.
"It is significant that the British Ministry of Defense was apprised of our intention...and did not object or advise against the action. Moreover, neither Aegis nor Mr. Spicer are on the...list of parties excluded from Federal contracting," wrote Sandra Sieber, director of the Army Contracting Agency. "We therefore had no legal basis to deny the award to Aegis, which won the competition fairly based on the rules and criteria established by our solicitation."
The $293 million pays Spicer's company to coordinate the dozens of private security forces operating in Iraq and to provide as many as seventy-five of its own teams of bodyguards per day. It's a "costs plus" contract, so Aegis is guaranteed a profit even if its costs increase. Using this type of contract for a firm run by a fellow of dubious ethics seems particularly questionable--especially considering that other contractors, most notably Halliburton, are under investigation for overcharging abuses.
In a country where insurgents are responsible for scores of attacks each day--including a mortar attack at the end of November in Baghdad's Green Zone that killed four workers for another British mercenary company--one might think that few people would be lining up to work as bodyguards. But the business is quite lucrative, and former special forces soldiers are queuing for jobs that can pay more than $100,000 a year. More than fifty private security companies are in Iraq today, with an estimated 20,000 hired guns working for them. Spicer's group is supposed to coordinate them all. And there's one more catch: Spicer appears to have no previous experience handling such a large security operation, nor any ties to Iraq.
How the Army was so inept in awarding Aegis a contract is anybody's guess. The Army invalidated four other competing proposals, including one from a much larger and more experienced firm, DynCorp International LLC, which has drawn its share of controversy, including when it fired a whistleblower who revealed that DynCorp employees in Bosnia were running a sex ring using 12-year-old prostitutes.
DynCorp was the only one of the five businesses to protest losing out to Aegis. But DynCorp's appeal was turned down in September by the Government Accountability Office, and in its ruling, the GAO denied DynCorp the opportunity to question Spicer's integrity or character, saving Spicer from a background check that might have put his candidacy into jeopardy. Because DynCorp's bid initially received a "marginal" rating by the Pentagon, it was removed from consideration for the award. A company that loses a contract may make character challenges against a winning bidder, but only if it has the standing to do so. And DynCorp lost its standing due to its lackluster rating. "Thus it is not that we 'did not care' about the [integrity] matter, but that it was raised in a legal challenge by a company that did not have standing to raise it," a GAO spokesperson said in a statement.
The Army's denial of the Congressional protest is disingenuous because it rests on the incorrect premise that the GAO already considered Spicer's integrity and found no cause to reverse. "As you may be aware," the Army wrote the senators, "[the DynCorp] protest raised many of the same concerns expressed in your letter with respect to Aegis's responsibility.... On September 13, 2004, the Comptroller General [of the GAO] denied DynCorp's protest."
But unlike DynCorp's protest, the senators' letter focused solely on Spicer's checkered past. In contrast, DynCorp's complaint emphasized the lackluster rating its own bid had received. DynCorp's concern about Spicer's background were legitimate, but it was an ancillary part of its overall argument, and one that the GAO refused to consider. So wasn't it time that somebody did?
Had the Army done a thorough review, it would have found that in 1997 Spicer was paid $36 million by the government of Papua New Guinea to suppress a rebellion. His arrival with seventy other mercenaries--most of them South African--prompted riots, and when the army learned that he was paid such an extravagant sum, it launched a coup and arrested Spicer, who was caught carrying $400,000 in cash. Spicer was kicked out of the country, but not before the scandal led to the resignation of its prime minister, Julian Chan, and the collapse of his government.
A year later Spicer was caught in yet another storm--and a blatant violation of international law--with repercussions that rocked the British government of Tony Blair. With the approval of the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Sandline International, a now-defunct company Spicer founded and ran, imported more than thirty tons of arms, primarily AK-47 rifles, to Sierra Leone, contravening a UN arms embargo that had been affirmed as British law. The African nation's deposed leader, the pro-British Ahmed Kabbah, had hired Sandline. But when he was caught, Spicer said that the British government had sanctioned his activity. An investigation by the British House of Commons found some truth to that. British officials in Africa, according to the inquiry, had encouraged Spicer to violate their own country's embargo, though without the explicit knowledge or approval of then-Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. The British did benefit in the end when Kabbah was reinstalled.
In an earlier scandal, two soldiers in a British military unit under Spicer's command shot and killed a Catholic teenager in Northern Ireland in 1992. The soldiers were subsequently convicted of murder, yet Spicer has steadfastly defended them. The five Democratic senators called on the Army to reconsider Spicer's standing as a "responsible bidder" based partly on his defense of these murderers.
"We would like to know whether the government considered human rights abuses--or an individual who vigorously defends them--as part of this record," the letter from the senators says.
In response, Sieber, the Army official, admitted that the military was "not aware of the allegations...at the time of contract award," but a limited review found that the Spicer's advocacy on behalf of his former soldiers had no bearing on his "record of integrity and business ethics."
Perhaps not. But Spicer's overall record of integrity and business ethics was sufficiently questionable that he was used in 2001 as a case study in a conflict resolution seminar at the University of Birmingham in England. Students learned that Spicer's involvement in Sierra Leone was an example of what not to do in armed conflicts, in which mercenaries only increase violence by spreading small arms, said Jennifer Libster, a graduate student at Birmingham in 2001 who attended the seminar. "The opinion of my professor and consequently mine was that he was incredibly bright and corrupt," Libster said. "These people are basically murderers for hire."
Peter Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a critic of private mercenaries, said the Army had reason for pause before giving Spicer nearly $300 million. In a June op-ed published in the New York Times, Singer explained that the stakes are higher than simply granting a contract to a conflict-prone ex-soldier. These types of contracts, he wrote, allow the military to skirt accountability by outsourcing security tasks. And in this case, he noted, a company with little relevant experience was given an important job.
One of Spicer's most vocal critics is the Rev. Sean McManus of the Irish National Caucus, a Washington-based lobbying group. His group has a special section on its website devoted to the contract and Spicer's misdeeds, at www.irishnationalcaucus.org . "Mark my words, this contract is going to come back and bite them," McManus said. "He's a dangerous fellow. And as his record in Ireland shows.... I mean, these guys don't change their spots."
It was not likely that the Army would reconsider the contract. There is no precedent for the Army to overturn a contract based on a Congressional complaint alone. But that doesn't change the fact that Spicer and Aegis shouldn't have been considered in the first place.