By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/25/2004 12:13:43 PM ET 2004-05-25T16:13:43

Some civilian military employees in Iraq are arming themselves, owing to a rising frustration with the military’s difficulty sorting through its own policies, MSNBC.com has learned.

The move comes against a backdrop of increasing violence near and inside Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone, where the Coalition Provisional Authority is housed. There are 975 U.S. Defense Department civilian employees in Iraq, according to a Pentagon spokesman. Other civilian employees of the Defense Department work in Afghanistan, Kuwait and elsewhere. 

Just how many of those civilian employees have begun to purchase their own firearms isn’t known; however, according to interviews and eyewitness accounts given to MSNBC.com, there is no shortage of available firepower in Baghdad. “The area appears to be bristling with guns,” said one source who recently returned from a tour in Iraq.

“I bought a handgun [in Baghdad] and passed it over to a buddy of mine when I left,” a civilian employee of the Defense Department who returned recently from Iraq told MSNBC.com.  “We’ve been pushing for some kind of answer [about a time line for being armed], but we keep getting the runaround,” said the employee, who asked that his name not be used.

Another civilian Defense Department employee who worked in Iraq and also asked to remain anonymous cautioned that “not every civilian over [in Iraq] is anxious to carry a weapon.  On the news it may sound like the Wild West, but if your job never takes you outside the Green Zone, well, then I personally don’t think there’s a need to carry” a weapon, he said.

These civilians, dubbed “emergency essential employees,” differ from those working for private firms, such as Halliburton, in Iraq under contract to the military. These “E-E” employees work directly for the Pentagon, draw their paycheck from the government and perform highly technical or skilled jobs for which no military personnel are available.  The jobs are often performed overseas, in crisis or war zone situations.

Johnny got his gun
There’s no debate that civilian employees of the Defense Department are permitted to carry weapons when deployed in areas like Iraq, say military officials.  A Department of Defense directive specifically states that “[c]ivilian employees may be issued a weapon for personal defense on request by the employee, if approved by the DoD Component commander, theater commander, or other authorized official.” 

But sorting out just who is in a position to approve the distribution of arms is a question that stumped even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was asked about the policy during his May 13 trip to Iraq.

During a news conference a civilian employee of the Defense Department asked Rumsfeld, “[M]any times we're placed in harm's way in convoys and we have no means to protect ourselves. And I know there have been many memos and letters I've seen floating around saying it's the policy to arm civilians if they need to be armed, if they're in harm's way. But there seems to be a resistance ... to actually provide arms to us. I was wondering what the current policy is on that."

Rumsfeld admitted he didn’t know the answer and then tossed the question to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of multinational forces in Iraq.  Sanchez fared little better than Rumsfeld.

“We have been working to try to get the authorities to arm the civilians here,” Sanchez said.  “That has been an issue for some time. And you're right, we're working that and we have been for some time. And we'll get — I'll get a specific status for you.”

A call placed to Sanchez’s media communications center a few days after his statements revealed that “nothing has changed, it’s still the same,” according to a military press aide speaking with MSNBC.com.  Another call to Sanchez’s media center was made Monday and the status was still “unknown”; an officer promised to “try and find an answer” but did not return the call.

"To ignore these employees' requests for the most basic means of self-defense in a war zone riddled with abductions and ambushes is one more demonstration of the negligence of a Defense Department leadership that has failed to provide its troops with adequate body armor and armored vehicles,” said John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees of the Department of Defense. "No civilian defense worker should ever be forced to carry a weapon, but the requests of those who work in harm's way should be honored," Gage said.

“Out in Fallujah the bases there take rocket and mortar fire almost every night and the civilians there are not armed,” said Danny Tipton, a Defense Department civilian employee and  president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local #7, Defense Supply Center, Columbus, Ohio.  “Well, what if [the insurgents] breach the perimeter and make it onto the base and they get into an area where there are a lot of civilian DOD employees that are unarmed?  Well, they’re just going to have a damn field day,” said Tipton, a former Marine who just recently returned from a tour in Kuwait. “I think civilian employees should be armed.”

Brass tacks
Providing arms to the civilian employees “is more a judgment call than anything,” said Col. Thomas McShane, a lawyer who teaches at the Army War College.  “We can arm them — DOD directives and Army regulations talk about giving them side arms, predominantly pistols, for personal projection,” McShane said.

In other areas of conflict, such as Afghanistan, Defense Department civilian employees are carrying weapons, said Tipton.  “But it all seems to depend on whether your job takes you off base,” he said.  “If it does, then you get a gun; otherwise, you don’t.”

The concern about arming civilians is that “you don’t want to make them combatants inadvertently,” McShane said.  “That’s why we have the rules; we don’t want to make these people combatants, we want to keep them in rear areas and they perform civilian jobs, maintaining equipment, but they aren’t the trigger-pullers, they’re not doing the fighting for us.”

However, providing arms to civilian employees doesn’t automatically make them combatants, McShane said. Neither does it affect their status as non-combatants under the Geneva Conventions “because they’re not being employed to fight,” he said.

Part of the problem in providing arms to civilian employees may come down to little more than logistics.

“You have practical issues, and those are probably the ones that may win the day because, it’s not true that the military just has a bunch of weapons laying around,” said Phillip Carter, a former military police captainwho writes on legal and military issues.  “So unless a directive comes from high that says ‘transfer X number of weapons to the CPA for issue to civilian employees,’ no unit is going to give them up and they aren’t going to have them to give up,” Carter said.

As a policy issue, Carter questions whether civilian employees should be armed at all.  “Even if the weapons are for personal protection, the risk of fratricide is still high, the risk of accidental discharge is still high,” Carter said.  “We mitigate these risks with soldiers to some extent by giving them very strict rules of engagement and having direct control over what they shoot and being well-trained in most cases, but that’s probably not going to be the case with these civilian employees.”

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