Commentary

The Well-Ordered Worldliness of WPPS

The Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract, or WPPS, is the way the State Department hires private security firms to protect its personnel.

The State Department’s use of such firms goes back 20 years, to the aftermath of the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. The Diplomatic Security and Anti-terrorism Act of 1986, passed in the wake of the bombing, gave private companies the chance to compete for security contracts at U.S. overseas missions.

As a result, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security began using civilian contractors called Personal Security Specialists to do security work. The bureau first deployed contractors in September 1994, during a prolonged period of unrest in Haiti.

In March 2000 the State Department issued the first iteration of the WPPS contract. It was awarded to DynCorp International (NYSE:DCP) to provide services in the former Yugoslavia and subsequently was used for deployments in the Palestinian Territories and in Afghanistan for the Karzai Protective Operation.

In early 2004 additional task orders were added to the original contract to provide contractor support for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad when it opened on July 1, 2004. DynCorp was unable to meet the full requirements of the expanding mission, and a second service provider was established through a contract with Blackwater USA. Another company, Triple Canopy, subsequently was awarded a third contract.

State Department reliance on private security contractors has dramatically increased in recent years. In October 2007 the press reported that the amount of money the department pays to private security and law enforcement contractors had soared to nearly $4 billion a year from $1 billion, but that the department had added few new officials to oversee the contracts.

United Press International obtained the specifications section of the WPPS contract, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Under the contract, the forms have very wide-ranging responsibilities, which may be one reason why the State Department requires them not to talk about their work. In fact, the contract contains a clause banning engagement with the media, as noted by Erik Prince, Blackwater founder, at a past congressional hearing.

While serious questions have been raised about State’s use of security contractors — especially because of concerns about the killing of Iraqi civilians, culminating in last September’s mass shooting by Blackwater contractors in Nisoor Square in Baghdad — it is not true that anyone can walk in off the street and start doing security work. The requirements are stringent.

Candidates undergo a screening process by their employer/contractor before submitting their applications to the State Department. After the applications are submitted, the department performs a background investigation on each American-citizen contractor employee, who must qualify for a U.S. government security clearance at an appropriate level. The department requires a similar process for foreign national contractors, who, likewise, must qualify to receive a clearance appropriate to their assignments.

And not just anyone can screen applicants. The contractor must ensure that “Contractor personnel engaged in the screening process are experienced screeners, e.g., demonstrated success in the difficult task of researching personnel information, verifying personnel histories, claimed backgrounds, etc.”

Diplomatic Security Special Agents oversee security contractors who are trained to specification by trainers the agents vet. Before deploying, the contractors receive 164 hours of Diplomatic Security-approved instruction and training. Only successfully trained and qualified contractors are deployed.

To qualify as a specialist, one must have a minimum of one year of experience in protective security assignments. This may have been gained by working for the Department of State Diplomatic Security Service, U.S. Secret Service, U.S. federal agencies such as the FBI, some branches of the U.S. military, commercial executive protection services with a military or police background, or law enforcement emergency services, such as a SWAT team.

All personnel are trained in accordance with the requirements in the contract. The training covers the following topics: terrorist operations, organization of a protective detail, protective services formations and standard operating procedures, protective security advances, driver training, vehicle dynamics, evasive maneuvers, armored vehicle dynamics, basic motorcade operations, radio procedures, countermeasures, emergency medical training, firearms, defensive tactics and land navigation.

The document makes clear that contractors deal with classified information, which explains the thoroughness of the background checks they undergo.

The contract states that it is the contractor’s responsibility to obtain and maintain a top secret facility clearance for the duration of the contract and ensure that all contractor-provided protective services and support personnel maintain the required clearance.

Finally, in terms of checking on how a contractor is performing, the contract specifies several different reports that a contractor must provide. These include a weekly status report, monthly total contract performance report, lessons learned report, a quarterly inventory report and an adverse information report. That last one means contractors are required to immediately report to the Regional Security Officer any operational incidents of weapons discharges, attacks, serious injury or death. Contractors are also required to report any incident that would reflect negatively on the United States, the department, the embassy or the contractor.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of a forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq