American Samizdat

Saturday, February 24, 2007. *
When I was a college freshman (a helluva long time ago, believe me), I lived with three no-neck football players on the third floor of an old dorm. The hall was about 150 feet long from entrance to entrance, straight, the floor highly-waxed ancient tile.

Beginning at 10 pm every night, at lights out, an old guy named Hermie, dressed in a gray uniform, a gray badge, a military style patent leather cross-belt, and armed with a wood baton, a flashlight, and a clock-key, would push open the door at one end of the hall and stagger down the hall to the security clock at the other end, punch in, push open the door and disappear up the stairs to the fourth floor. Poor Herm was drunk every damn night (well, for that matter, so were we, almost).

One night, as he passed my room, my roommates doused a ten-pin bowling ball with a can of lighter fluid. They waited until Herm was almost at the security box, carefully opened our door, lit the ball, and rolled the flaming orb rumbling down the blacked-out hall. Herm turned slowly, blinked, and bolted screaming and crashing through the door and down the stairs (thankfully not followed by the ball).

We never saw Herm again. The whole dorm corridor (this was in 1966 and the school was old-time Jesuit) got dorm restriction for four consecutive weekends . . . and I requested transfer to another room. I'm sorry, but I still think this is the funniest thing I've ever seen. So sue me. Don't try it at home.

We used to call these guys "rent-a-cops", remember? Well, it just ain't so funny any more.

Depending on who you read, there are now somewhere between thirty and forty thousand private military personnel just in Iraq. That makes them the second biggest army in that beleaguered country. And you're not only paying for them, but they're making big bucks, especially when you add waste and corruption to the profits. And not only are they not subject to congressional oversight, they're also not accountable for any war crimes they commit.

These folks not only provide security for the multinational corporations trying to do business in Iraq, they also are hired and deployed by private companies to fight right along side government forces. We used to call these people "mercenaries".

As we'll see in an up-coming part of this series, Iraq is not the only place these forces work. They're all over the place . . . Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, South America, Ethiopia . . . you name it. Some of these people provide fire-power on the battle field, where we see them; others run the high-tech deadly weapons we and the arms-merchants sell to countries and NGOs; still others plan and provide black ops events and campaigns for whoever will hire them.

Since these forces are in business only to make a profit, their companies are not real picky about who hires them. They are loyal to whoever they've contracted with. Their employees are accountable on to the company. Even when their company is contracted by the US government, individual "soldiers" and their actions are subject to no US congressional oversight. it is both possible and probable that PMF operatives may be engaged on both sides of a conflict. Imagine an employee of Blackwater, paid by Sunni insurgents, shooting down an unmarked helicopter piloted by and filled with Blackwater employees because of a concurrent contract with Shi'ite insurgents. It is quite probable to find a tech-geek kid from Wisconsin, working for X Company, contracted by one side of an insurgency directing lethal drone fire against a fifty year old retired Marine from Brooklyn who's working for Y Company, contracted to the other side in the insurgency. Sort of like Wal-Mart battling Costco on a desert in Yemen. Not so far-fetched. Kinda makes "friendly fire casualties" pretty meaningless, n'ést-çe pas?


Before continuing, I most strongly recommend

Reviews of Singer's book identify it as a seminal analysis of corporate and other Private Military Forces (PMFs). The detail is incredible. If you read it you get a sense that Singer has a pro-PMS bias, but this doesn't at all detract from the educational value of the work.

First, it's important to distinguish between PMFs which are hired by corporations to provide non-combat logistical services to both foreign states and multinational corporations and those which deploy in-the-field "advisors" or small to very large combat forces. An example of the former, Kellogg, Brown and Root, a notorious and allegedly criminal (US government auditors have documented several instances of fraud, totaling millions of dollars of fraud, including over-billing, shoddy work, and charges for services they've never delivered) subsidiary of Halliburton. Blackwater, Inc. is a good example of the latter. It deploys military units, comprised of "retired" soldiers, in "fire-fight" situations for anyone who hires them. Note that the cover page of Miller's book is a photo of three men in full combat gear. If you look closely, you see that the uniforms are without signatures of any kind (except a small US flag - which could be a French flag or a corporate logo, depending on who hired them.

Singer (pp. 91-100) distinguishes among three types of PMF services in a "Tip of the Spear" matrix: Military Provider Firms (actual battlefield engagement), Military Consulting Firms (advisers and trainers in strategic, operational, and organization analysis), and Military Support Firms (non-lethal intelligence, logistics, technical support, supply, and transportation). As the industry grows, however, it is not uncommon for one company to offer some combination of all these services to one client or a number of clients at the same time. Singer notes that the internal structure of PMFs has become extremely "virtual", flexible, and fluid, in order to respond quickly to the specific client needs. In other words, the owners and number of "full-time" personnel of a PMF are usually very small, but the companies can quickly and easily employ highly trained and seasoned personnel on a contract by contract basis. The labor pool is enormous.

Service in the US military is now increasingly seen as only a training ground for soldiers to learn skills which they eventually market to PMFs after discharge. In this context, the PMFs avoid the costs of training.

It is not uncommon for a "private soldier" to work for several competing PMFs in a year. He or she may easily work for a while on a contract on one side of a conflict, then a month or two later for another company contracted on the other side of the same conflict. As I've noted elsewhere in this series, some PMFs selling weapons are not afraid to sell weapons to operatives on each side of a conflict.

Some have even suggested that 9/11 was surely not a US government operation, but was carried out by a black-ops unit of a PMS contracted ultimately by rogue entities in or working for our government. Some have claimed that several "Al Qaeda terrorists" identified by the government as having piloted the 911 planes have been seen alive since then, hiding in various Middle East countries. I would caution you to not reject these allegations out of hand because they smack of "conspiracy theory."

Mother Jones, in their May/June, 2003 edition, published "Soldiers of Good Fortune" by Barry Yeoman. Excerpts:
When Blackwater opened in 1998, the business of war didn't look like such a sure bet. "This was a roulette, a crapshoot," recalls Jackson, a former Navy seal. During the Gulf War, the Pentagon had begun replacing soldiers with private contractors, relying on civilian businesses to provide logistical support to troops on the front lines. Blackwater's founders were banking on predictions that the military was eager to speed up the process, privatizing many jobs traditionally reserved for uniformed troops. Their investment paid off: Since the attacks of September 11, the company has seen its business boom -- enough to warrant a major expansion of its training facility this year. "To contemplate outsourcing tactical, strategic, firearms-type training -- high-risk training -- is thinking outside the box," Jackson says. "Is this happening? Yes, this is happening."

As the U.S. military wages the war on terrorism, it is increasingly relying on for-profit companies like Blackwater to do work normally performed by soldiers. Defense contractors now do more than simply build airplanes -- they maintain those planes on the battlefield and even fly them in some of the world's most troubled conflict zones. Private military companies supply bodyguards for the president of Afghanistan, construct detention camps to hold suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, and pilot armed reconnaissance planes and helicopter gunships to eradicate coca crops in Colombia. They operate the intelligence and communications systems at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, which is responsible for coordinating a response to any attack on the United States. And licensed by the State Department, they are contracting with foreign governments, training soldiers and reorganizing militaries in Nigeria, Bulgaria, Taiwan, and Equatorial Guinea . . .

Indeed, the Bush administration's push to privatize war is swiftly turning the military-industrial complex of old into something even more far-reaching: a complex of military industries that do everything but fire weapons. [Editor's note: they now do fire weapons] For-profit military companies now enjoy an estimated $100 billion in business worldwide each year, with much of the money going to Fortune 500 firms like Halliburton, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. Secretary of the Army Thomas White, a former vice chairman of Enron, "has really put a mark on the wall for getting government employees out of certain functions in the military," says retired Colonel Tom Sweeney, professor of strategic logistics at the U.S. Army War College. "It allows you to focus your manpower on the battlefield kinds of missions."

Private military companies, for their part, are focusing much of their manpower on Capitol Hill. Many are staffed with retired military officers who are well connected at the Pentagon -- putting them in a prime position to influence government policy and drive more business to their firms. In one instance, private contractors successfully pressured the government to lift a ban on American companies providing military assistance to Equatorial Guinea, a West African nation accused of brutal human-rights violations. Because they operate with little oversight, using contractors also enables the military to skirt troop limits imposed by Congress and to carry out clandestine operations without committing U.S. troops or attracting public attention. "Private military corporations become a way to distance themselves and create what we used to call ‘plausible deniability,'" says Daniel Nelson, a former professor of civil-military relations at the Defense Department's Marshall European Center for Security Studies. "It's disastrous for democracy."

The push to privatize war got its start during the administration of the elder President Bush. After the Gulf War ended, the Pentagon, then headed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, paid a Halliburton subsidiary called Brown & Root Services nearly $9 million to study how private military companies could provide support for American soldiers in combat zones. Cheney went on to serve as CEO of Halliburton -- and Brown & Root, now known as Halliburton KBR, has since been awarded at least $2.5 billion to construct and run military bases, some in secret locations, as part of the Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program. In March, the Pentagon hired Cheney's former firm to fight fires in Iraq if Saddam Hussein sabotages oil wells during a U.S. attack . . .
In December, 2005, Mountain Runner had a piece entitled "Accountability of Non-State Force". Slices:
The participation of the subcontractors is generally not enjoined with a direct political or national calling of the contracted state. PKF troops are not acting on their national identity, defending their state’s territory or interests, but social demands that shaped and created the interests or otherwise led their leaders to promise soldiers for political or financial reasons. These contractor states, wearing the Blue Helmet of the UN, generally have nothing more invested in the project than their relationship in the international community. Are Pakistan (13% of total military and civilian police manpower), Bangladesh (12%), India (7%), Ethiopia (5%), and Ghana (5%) more altruistic than others because they volunteered over forty percent of the total military and civilian police staffing of these complex missions? The prevalence of these troops in PKFs does not stem from a higher concern about global society but because their governments receive compensation for their participation. Remuneration received by the Blue Helmets blurs the distinction between private and public military forces, between corporate services and participation in the global economy or society. There is clear evidence from past peacekeeping operations that this arrangement of “contracting parties lack[s] verification and mandatory evaluation safeguards to deliver promised results”. Ironically, Kofi Annan at one time “bristled at the suggestion that the United Nations would ever consider working with ‘respectable’ mercenary organizations, arguing that there is no ‘distinction between respectable mercenaries and non-respectable mercenaries’” when in fact these “subcontractor” states function as hired organizations and enjoying the same accountability . . .
We're all aware of the "conservative" policies of government privatization, first implemented in the US and other countries, such as Britain, in the Reagan-Thatcher years. Wikipedia notes:
Privatization (alternately "denationalization" or "disinvestment") is the transfer of property or responsibility from the public sector (government) to the private sector (business). The term can refer to partial or complete transfer of any property or responsibility held by government. A similar transfer in the opposite direction could be referred to the nationalization or municipalization of some property or responsibility.
In the US, we may be most familiar with the privatization of healthcare, national property, infrastructure building and maintenance, corrections (prisons), and security (such as airport screeners).

The rationale behind privatization has been that government services have had little, if any, incentive to operate efficiently and inexpensively. Private companies,however, driven by profit motive, market economy, and competition are much more likely to provide goods and services more cheaply and efficiency.

Even though this may be true sometimes, the track record is so far not so good. One need only point to the waste, inefficiency, and downright fraud perpetrated by Halliburton/KBR, Bechtel, and others contracted by the US government to "reconstruct" Iraq. It should be further noted that many of these often "cost-plus" contracts were awarded by the US government in a "no-bid" process. In addition to all the flak about Halliburton's ties to Vice President Cheney, another example is that US Senator Diane Feinstein's husband has a considerable stake in URS Corporation one the fasted growing contractors in the world, which saw its market share and stock take off when the US got into Afghanistan and then invade Iraq. Should the US attack Iran, Feinstein and her husband can retire to Costa Rica (or maybe just buy the place. You can be certain that Cheney and Feinstein are by far not the only members of Congress who stand to gain from our present and future wars. The obvious conflict of interests virtually ignored.

As an aside . . . the US government admits to 3000+ deaths and thousands of other casualties of US troops in Iraq. It does not publicly keep of US-based PMF fatalities and injuries. Nobody seems to even be able to estimate. The PMFs rarely report these events; they don't have to. And the MSM doesn't either. Yes, there've been occasional graphic stories of PMF employees losing their heads after being captured and probably tortured. But you can bet these reports don't come close to the whole, real story.

Earlier this month, Challenge: Liberty and Security's Olsson Christian wrote "Private Military Companies in Iraq: a Force for Good?". Excerpts:
Their names are Global Risk International, Dyncorp, Vinnel, Blackwater Security Consulting, or Erinys International to name but a few. It’s a secret to nobody: so-called private military companies (PMCs) operate extensively in Iraq, sometimes with highly sophisticated military means including helicopters and advanced computer systems allowing them to engage in direct combat as shown during the operations against the Army of Mahdi in May 2004 in the city of Nadjaf. The number of PMCs involved in Iraq, their often «mission critical» activities and the fact that they are operating alongside the forces of a multinational coalition, confer a specific salience to the issue today. The «services» they offer to the occupation forces include military activities (the protection of the provisional authority, the management of the weapon systems of drones, security consulting, intelligence gathering...), non-military functions (policing, logistics, catering...) as well as activities more difficult to categorize (training of the Iraqi security forces, the guarding of pipelines and of ministries...). In fact, through this massive intervention of military professionals with civilian status, it’s the very distinction between the military and the civilian that has become blurred. Indeed, the PMCs in Iraq are very often controlled by the Coalition Provisional Authority ( - the CPA was however dissolved in June 2004 - ) of Paul Bremer, and not by the military command . . .

. . . the intervention of PMCs in Iraq also raises three more fundamental political issues concerning the use of commercialised means of coercion. The first issue is regulation. Many analysts seem to agree on the fact that PMCs have to be tightly regulated by governments in order to limit their potential for waywardness. But they frequently overlook the fact that this potential, and even the very existence of PMCs, is often inseparable from the interests and the professional networks of governmental bureaucracies (security agencies, military services...). These companies, far from being the rivals of state forces, are an important asset for state-policies (and vice versa). PMCs are often tightly linked to political interests as shown for example by the relations between Kellog, Brown & Root, recently involved in a financial scandal in Iraq, and the US Republican Administration. This means that subordinating PMCs to governments through regulations will not suffice: it will only institutionalise ties that existed prior to regulation. For example, whereas the US is often cited as an example of tight control of PMCs though its licensing system, it is this precise system that allows for the Department of State and the Pentagon to circumvent Congress for contracts less than 50 million dollars, thus giving themselves substantial autonomy from democratic control in military affairs. Hence, the issue is far more how to maintain democratic control on governments resorting to PMCs, than how to create mechanism allowing for the discretionary control of PMCs by the governments themselves. As shown by the intervention in Iraq, such democratic control is very difficult to achieve...

The second issue concerns accountability. To whom are these firms accountable in the case of grave violations of international standards and norms? It is not clear at all how international law (that proscribes mercenary activities) applies to PMCs. Whereas public soldiers are submitted to judicial military codes and international law, the employees of PMCs are not. They operate in a judicial grey-zone. Hence when employees of Dyncorp got involved in a child prostitution scandal in Bosnia, they were merely fired but never prosecuted. This issue is currently brought up by the fact that a company, hiring so-called «debriefers», seems to be directly involved in the acts of torture committed in the prison of Abu Ghraib. It’s important to note that this judicial grey-zone is not only a side effect of the recourse to PMCs, it is part of their very raison d’être: in many cases PMCs allow for governments to free themselves of the constraints imposed by international regulations. Indeed, they have been used to circumvent international arms embargos (Sierra Leone, Rwanda...) and international norms on the neutrality of peacekeeping forces. For example, the firm MPRI allowed the US government to help training and rearming the armed forces of the Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia, in a context in which the engagement of US forces in peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina should have obliged the government to adopt a more neutral stance.

The third issue concerns their potentially destructive consequences. Can one really expect lucrative companies benefiting from the business of war to be efficient in the effective restoration of peace? The answer seems to be negative when considering that in many cases they are used by states to intervene in local conflicts without being suspected of interference or of acts of aggression. This was the case when the US government used the firm MPRI to support and train the Croatian Armed Forces after the collapse of Yugoslavia. This program led up to the lethal Operation Storm in 1995 that saw the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina region killing hundreds of civilians and leaving more than 170 000 homeless. This could never have been achieved directly by the US government without provoking a massive outcry in the international community. In many other instances PMCs have been used to pour small arms into war-torn societies, to train local militias and even to engage directly in combat, thus durably intensifying local conflicts.

From this perspective, the apparently seamless training of Iraqi police forces by Dyncorps and of Iraqi defence forces by Vinnel have also to be scrutinized. To train security forces is not only to prepare them to face an existing threat, it is also to a certain extent to «teach» them what ought to be considered a threat. In other words, it is not a matter of security-providers meeting a security-demand, but on the contrary a highly political matter. In a very conflictual and complicated political environment, it should be considered foolish to delegate such a function to private companies motivated primarily by profit and not by political considerations. In fact all of these three issues raise worrying questions as to the deep structural consequences that the current military policy in Iraq might have in the future . . .


The implications of all this are frightening, of course. It almost goes without saying that the ramifications to either a national or international peace movement are dire. These companies, driven only by the "ethics" of the post-capitalist market, virtually unregulated, will be increasingly desirous of and able to engage in "push-market" activities. Since their interests are served mainly by the existence of war, they will lobby for war. They really cannot be stopped. Even a few hundred thousand anti-war protesters on American streets make a dent in either their greed or their power.

As another aside . . . former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's public demonization is nothing more than political theater. In fact, he was able to conduct and maintain the government's mission to privatize much of the US military capability, reducing both budget and accountability. He, in fact, did his job just fine. Even though he'll never be found in a US government office again (unless as a "consultant"), he will surely continue to sell his skills and influence in the private sector.

The anti-war movement is no longer up against just the power of liberal and conservative hawks in our and other nation-state governments. The foe is a gigantic ugly monster created by the capitalist system. It does not bode well for the future of peace.
posted by Unknown at 10:18 AM
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