LONDON -- A private British firm that won a $293 million contract from the Pentagon for coordinating security in Iraq is headed by a retired British commando with a reputation for illicit arms deals in Africa and for commanding a murderous military unit in Northern Ireland, human rights activists and security analysts said yesterday.
The contract -- the largest single piece of the private-security pie in Iraq so far handed out by Washington -- was awarded to the London-based Aegis Defense Services.
The CEO of the company, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, a former commando turned warrior-for-hire, has been linked to an arms sale to Sierra Leone that violated a 1998 United Nations embargo, and he served as commanding officer over two British soldiers convicted of murdering an unarmed Catholic teenager in North Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1992.
The contract, which was awarded last month but made public only last week, comes amid heated debates in Washington over the role of private security companies and their involvement in recent scandals over physical abuse of detainees and financial corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Spicer is known for his role in the 1998 Sandline Affair in which a company he founded violated a UN-imposed arms embargo by shipping 30 tons of arms to Sierra Leone. When the scandal erupted in the British media, Spicer told the press that the British government had encouraged the operation, touching off a storm that for weeks involved the office of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Spicer also figured prominently in a 1997 military coup in Papua New Guinea. When that country's army learned that he had received a $36 million contract from the government to brutally suppress a rebellion, the army toppled the sitting government and arrested Spicer, later releasing him.
In 1992, , two soldiers in the Scots Guard unit commanded by Spicer were convicted of murdering an 18-year-old Catholic named Peter McBride in North Belfast.
For years, even after leaving military service, Spicer has defied court rulings and defended the actions of his soldiers. He has led a campaign to free them and reportedly worked toward their promotion in the military upon their release.
The first pretrial hearings on prisoner abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, which began yesterday, are likely to highlight the role of private contractors in the alleged systematic abuse of inmates during interrogations there.
Last week, a private contractor hired by the CIA was indicted by a federal grand jury in North Carolina for the two-day beating of a prisoner who had surrendered in Afghanistan. The prisoner subsequently died.
Human rights activists and security specialists in London and Washington are questioning the wisdom of awarding such a large security contract to a controversial figure like Spicer.
''This contract is a case study in what not to do," said Peter Singer, a national security analyst for The Brookings Institution who has researched the Aegis deal.
''The Army never even bothered to Google this guy to find out that he was involved in political scandal, that he was the source of parliamentary investigations and the owner of failed businesses," said Singer.
Singer said the US Army's apparent ignorance of the firm's history and of Spicer occurred in the context of a chaotic and often skewed methodology for rewarding such contracts. And this systemic failure, he said, was one of the core issues surrounding the privately contracted interrogators linked to the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
He noted that the Aegis deal was awarded by the Army transportation command in Fort Eustis, Va., which he said has no apparent experience in dealing with private security firms.
The public affairs office at Fort Eustis said the decision to award the contract was made by the Northeast Region Contracting Command, and referred calls to the Pentagon.
Under the terms of the three-year ''cost-plus" contract, Aegis is responsible for serving as the coordinator of 50 other private security companies and providing up to 75 ''close protection teams" to guard employees of the US Project Management Office in Iraq. The cost-plus formula, which guarantees profits for a firm even if costs escalate, has been sharply criticized by government watchdog groups as wasteful and prone to corruption, particularly in relation to the larger multibillion dollar contracts held by firms such as Halliburton.
An Army spokeswoman in Washington said Aegis and Spicer submitted all the information required under federal rules. When asked specifically about Spicer's controversial past, she said the company's disclosure ''gave no further details."
Observers insist the Pentagon should have conducted a more thorough background check on Spicer and the company for such an important contract.
''This is an embarrassment for the military. . . . We ended up hiring one of the most notorious individuals in the industry with a record not for success, but failure and controversy," added Singer, author of ''Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry."
Among his fellow Britons, Spicer's reputation is that of a well-known soldier and former expert in covert operations with a knack for finding trouble and the attention that comes with being at the center of political scandal.
At the Aegis office in London, an employee who did not identify himself said Spicer was ''out of the country." Citing ''security reasons," he declined to say whether Spicer was in Iraq. The employee declined further comment.
Paul O'Connor, a spokesman for the Belfast-based Pat Finucane Center for Human Rights and Social Change, said Spicer remains a controversial figure in Northern Ireland. ''He has refused to accept the court's ruling that two soldiers under his command committed murder of an unarmed civilian," O'Connor said. ''Someone like that should never be given any kind of command responsibility."