Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike's Notes - Security

July 9, 2009 - When I was in the Army, I served as a security officer at a nuclear warhead storage facility and, after going through a six-month course and qualifying as a counterintelligence officer, I was a staff officer at a counterintelligence battalion before I started working for the State Department.  If I had not been accepted as a Foreign Service generalist, I was going to investigate openings for State Department security officers.  I should say right from the beginning that I have a tremendous respect for the professionalism and competence of all the security specialists with whom I've worked here, especially the brave men and women who make up our Personal Security Details.  This also true of our security contractors, including Blackwater, which has gotten a lot of bad press.  Blackwater contractors accompanied me on an election observation mission to Diyala Province, and I was impressed with their low-key, realistic approach to their responsibilities.  This should be expected, since Blackwater puts its new hires through a demanding orientation course with a high wash-out rate and its security specialists generally have backgrounds in military special operations.


Naturally, however, security and security requirements are omnipresent here.  Security specialists recognize that perfect security and mission effectiveness are contradictory aims.  Perfect security can be achieved by barricading oneself in a fortress, but our jobs require that we get out and meet people, primarily Iraqis.  Thus, balancing security and mission requirements is a difficult judgment call that is more art than science and very subjective.  This tension can create odd situations.  We generally encounter perplexing security contradictions as we pass through the numerous checkpoints here.  One friend gets highly annoyed that he has to take off his sunglasses when he passes through certain checkpoints.  Other people have encountered the dilemma of one security guard motioning a vehicle through at the same time that another guard on the other side of the road is raising the clenched fist meaning "halt."


An amateur musician here plays the acoustic guitar in a folk or country style and has penned some very funny, and sometimes quite poignant, lyrics that only people who have served in Iraq, whether civilian or military, can really appreciate.  His songs have titles such as "Baghdad Barbie," "Sadr City Blues," and "You're Gonna Miss It When You're Gone" (and, although not part of the lyrics, I would add "NOT!").  The lyrics to one song go: "And there's a guard from Uganda/That you can't undastanda/And another one from Peru./They're giving you a smile/And you're thinking all the while/That they'll run if an Arab says boo."  The singer then returns to the States and, to his surprise, encounters the same language difficulties in the parking lot of Washington's Dulles Airport.  There are a large number of security contractors active in Iraq, perhaps fewer as the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement takes effect with its requirements for companies to register with the Iraqi authorities, but the ones that provide security guards to the diplomatic and military establishments in Iraq are Triple Canopy (which supplies the Embassy guards), Saber, Aegis, and EODT.  Each of these companies seems to hire its guards from certain countries.  The Embassy's Triple Canopy guards are from Peru.  The UK Embassy employs the famed Nepali Gurkhas and the UN Compound, Fijian military.


Early in my tenure here, a colleague and I went out to the street to be picked up by someone else for an appointment at the Al Rasheed Hotel.  When we got to the pick-up point, my colleague noticed that he had left his badge on his desk back in our office.  Since we were still in the Palace at the time, going back to the office to retrieve the badge would have made us unacceptably late for our appointment.  I told him that we should simply press on.  The person who picked us up was not happy when he learned of the situation, since he had been here a few weeks longer and understood the implications of not having a badge better than us.  We went through three checkpoints to get to the Al Rasheed Hotel, which was at a distance of not more than two miles, and, each time, our colleague got through speaking fractured Spanish with the security guards.  (The colleague is married to a Brazilian and is a fluent Portuguese speaker.)  What I hadn't realized is that the person who forgot his badge also had every form of ID in the badge holder.  We had a more difficult time leaving the Al Rasheed and getting back to the Palace than we did getting there, even though we were two cleared American diplomats escorting our colleague without identification.  Looking back with the perspective of nearly a year here, I am stunned that we were able to make it to our appointment and back.


On another occasion, when we were still commuting from the NEC to the Palace, I got to the end of the ride to discover that I had forgotten my badge.  Despite the supposedly strict security requirements, I had boarded the shuttle bus and exited the NEC without anyone checking to see whether I was authorized to leave the NEC or enter the Palace grounds.  I had to wait until the shuttle returned to the NEC to pick up my badge.  Ironically, on the return trip, a U.S. military patrol stopped the vehicle, even thought it was obviously an authorized Embassy vehicle, and checked everyone's badges.  I didn't know what might have happened if I didn't have it.  On another occasion, I walked from the Palace to the PX with a shopping bag, since I was en route elsewhere, when I saw the sign saying that no bags would be allowed into the premises.  There were no arrangements to allow me to deposit the shopping bag while I stopped in to purchase a few items.  I had to walk back to the Palace to drop the bag off, which was more than a city block away, and, as I sweated in 110 degree-plus temperature, I cursed the stupid security rules all the way back, since it was nonsensical to consider that the bag might contain an explosive device, considering the strict security applied for any entry into the Green Zone.  I figured the PX management was enforcing the rule to limit shoplifting.


The magnetometers into various facilities tend to be very sensitive, as sensitive as the ones at Dulles Airport, where travelers are required to take off their shoes to be x-rayed.  A friend of mine was trying to get through a checkpoint, but the magnetometer kept going off.  She deposited various items to be x-rayed, but the guards kept asking her if she had anything else.  In frustration, she pointed to her eye and asked whether she should take it out too.  She happens to have an artificial eye and, as she pointed to it, the eye unfortunately popped out.  She held it in her hand, considered that she couldn't put it back in since it had gotten dirty and resignedly added it to the items in the tray to be x-rayed.  She didn't tell me whether the magnetometer went off again, but she evidently did get through the checkpoint.  I assume the guards were too embarrassed to require her to go through the screening process yet again.