Commentary

Covering Contractors

Last week I wrote that obtaining information about private military and security contractors has never been easier than it is now. But if that is so, then why do so many private military and security contractors think news coverage of their activities ranges from poor to abysmal?

Some, echoing the old right-wing canard, think the media is hopelessly liberal and therefore has an ingrained bias toward anyone dealing with military or security issues, let alone someone who might actually carry a gun for a living.

This is far too simplistic, though. For example, the specialized trade press, with the likes of Defense News and Jane’s Defense Weekly, are hardly left wing, liberal, or promoting a pacifist agenda. Many of their reporters are military veterans who understand the challenges facing security contractors.

Though overall, reporters are like most Americans in that they don’t have firsthand military experience, this does not mean they are anti-military. It just means they don’t know the vocabulary that many contractors take for granted.

But it would be fair to say the news media in the main does not understand the industry. There are good reasons for that.

First, what is it? We know what the car industry is: It makes cars. But what is a private military or security contractor? As a semi-organized business sector it has barely been around 20 years. If we were to use the automobile industry as a reference, we would still be in the horseless carriage age. If PMCs are an industry, what is your International Organization for Standardization classification?

Some trade associations call it the peace and stability operations industry. It is a nice sound bite. Nobody in their right mind can be against that; it ranks right up there with mom and apple pie. In many cases, the industry offers services that have to be approved by the State Department and Pentagon because, technically, they are a military export. But you can’t find them listed in the Foreign Military Sales records.

Second, we lack a concrete definition by which the industry can be understood. Try reading some of the nearly endless law-journal articles on whether security contractors are civilians or mercenaries, as measured against the definition in Article 47, Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions. There is not yet any global agreement. So if the lawyers cannot define the industry, perhaps it is understandable that people who are paid a lot less to do a lot more, including reporters, have difficulty figuring out what it is.

Third, many companies don’t have well-defined niches. Like many firms in the “professional services” category, firms set up new divisions to pursue whatever contracts they can. One day they are doing training; the next, a protective security detail.

Plus, look at what most firms put on their Web sites. The language is so ambiguous and bland that it would raise anyone’s suspicions. Does a “security and risk-management company” carry guns or just provide information to Lloyd’s of London?

Third, an industry is a business, and, as such, is in pursuit of profit. Nothing wrong with that, of course; we all have to earn a living. But people always, and correctly, assume that is the first and foremost goal. And Americans are suspicious of the profit motive in relation to their government. From the public perspective, such firms are just another bidder for some of Uncle Sam’s money, no different from Lockheed Martin or Raytheon. And we all know what high regard they are held in.

Plus, dealing with the amount of money that the U.S. government is shoveling out to private military and security companies through the LOGCAP and other contracts, it is only natural that people would be at least somewhat skeptical. After all we have read of KBR and Halliburton kickbacks, it would be foolish to expect otherwise.

Fourth, sometimes I think the people in the industry expect too much just because many of their employees are ex-military. Yes, the vast majority of ex-military people now working for contractors conduct themselves just as honorably and professionally as they did on active duty. Nevertheless, they are not on active duty anymore. There is no free ride because of that. Now they are just working stiffs trying to make a living. They do their job, they get paid. And that’s it. Anyone expecting to get a pat on the back after receiving that money will be waiting a long time.

Fifth, not everyone in the regular military thinks the industry is necessarily a good thing. If some in the military have doubts about using contractors, you can understand how civilians might have doubts as well. And people are not really impressed that a firm is headed up by a former SEAL, Green Beret or ex-three- or four-star general.

Sixth, sometimes the industry’s advocates make claims that are unsupported. For years, some have insisted that on issues like logistics or training, the private sector is as effective, more efficient and cheaper than the government doing it in-house. Maybe, maybe not. The truth is that nobody knows for sure. The fact is, surprisingly, very little in the way of empirical, peer-reviewed research has been done to support that claim.

Finally, it must be recognized that PMCs and PSCs are the latest actors in a long-running debate, namely, that over privatization and outsourcing. At a minimum, this has been going on in a big way since at least the late 1970s, when it came over the Atlantic from England, courtesy of Margaret Thatcher, to Ronald Reagan. The debate over whether this is a good or bad thing is still ongoing and far from being settled. Outsourcing is a fact of life. I take it for granted that the U.S. military and other government agencies cannot operate now or anytime in the foreseeable future without contractors. But that does not mean it is an unmitigated good. Remember that not all costs are economic.

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