Commentary

Private Military Contractors — Mysterious? No.

A common refrain from many who observe the private military contracting industry is that it is opaque, shadowy, veiled, secretive, hidden, non-transparent, etc. Is this true? Yes and no, but mostly no.

When I first started following this industry in the early 1990s, it really was difficult to get information on it. Partly that was because there were relatively few companies to follow. Three companies garnered most of what little coverage existed: Executive Outcomes of South Africa, Sandline of Great Britain and U.S.-based MPRI. And the first two were not particularly eager to answer press inquiries.

MPRI, whose not-so-modest motto back then was “the greatest corporate assemblage of military expertise in the world” because it was founded and run by relatively high-ranking retired U.S. military officers, escaped that pigeonhole thanks to the efforts of one of its vice presidents, whose openness and charm enabled MPRI to gain enormous publicity for its training efforts in the Balkan wars. But it was an anomaly back then.

And the relatively few substantial pieces of writing back then were still being published primarily on paper, hard to get hold of and not easy to disseminate.

The advent of e-mail and the Web changed that situation radically. If you Google “private military contractor,” you receive more than 700,000 hits. Blackwater Worldwide alone will produce nearly 700,000 hits.

Of course, this has not all been for the better. One of the pitfalls of an online era is that anyone can be a publisher and voice one’s thoughts on a subject, regardless of the facts.

And in at least one way, most private military companies do have an ace up their sleeve when it comes to protecting the details of their contracts from public scrutiny, namely that revealing them would constitute “a trade secret or privileged or confidential commercial or financial information” and thus should be exempt from disclosure. Just ask any reporter who has ever filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a private military or security contract to see what I mean. Although it bears saying that much, if not most, of the time, the reluctance to reveal the details belongs just as much to the client — say, the U.S. government — as it does the contractor.

But, increasingly, the veritable explosion of writing on the subject and the means to access it makes it increasingly easy to do substantive, quality research on the subject. Any college student, by virtue of online library access, can download articles from a wide variety of journals. If you want to know the impact of deploying civilian mariners with active-duty sailors aboard ship, see the article in Armed Forces & Society. How does the privatization of security in Africa fit into the context of globalization? See the article in International Relations journal.

But books and articles in print, you might say, are so 20th century. Good point. But other media also have useful resources. Just about any private military and security contractor has its own Web site. Yes, the information is often vague and banal, but if you dig a little, you can find useful details.

While hardly dispassionate or neutral sources of information, trade associations often have very useful information. See the Professional Services Council to get an idea of how private contractors fit into the ever-expanding government services sector. Or for details on companies working in Iraq, see the Private Security Company Association of Iraq. And the International Peace Operations Association, once you get past its use of euphemisms like the “Peace and Stability Industry,” publishes a magazine that is a cut above the average trade group puffery.

While much of the television and movie coverage is terrible, there have been a few excellent productions, notably “Shadow Company” by Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque and “Force Provision” by Allie Tyler.

There are also some quite excellent Web sites devoted to keeping tabs on what is being written. PrivateMilitary.org is one. Another is IraqSlogger.com. CorpWatch serves as a vigilant watchdog on many of the larger contractors.

Still, even the online medium has been largely static, in the sense that it is mostly people assembling news reporting or scholarly writing in one convenient place to download. While it is both necessary and valuable, up to now it has largely had a certain bloodless, theoretical quality to it. In other words, the people we most need to hear from, the operators themselves, have largely been silent.

In part, this is because operators routinely have to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of their contracts, which require them not to talk about their jobs.

Even so, there have long been places where contractors gather online to discuss the news of the day. These are sites like Danger Zone Jobs, Civilian Contractor Jobs, PrivateForces.com, Lightfighter.net and the International Contractors Association.

More recently we have sites that might be labeled PMC 2.0. These are sites run by former operators who bring unique insights into how the industry works, for better or worse. Their views can be acerbic, but their knowledge is immense.

Eeben Barlow, who founded Executive Outcomes, emerged from retirement last year with his own blog. As someone who has been through the PMC media meat grinder, his views are worth reading.

More recently, Jake Allen, a U.S. military veteran who has worked as a contractor in Iraq, founded the Combat Operator Web site for operators and security contractors. He also runs a podcast known as Combat Operator Radio, which is an innovation for PMC coverage.

The next time a congressional committee holds an oversight hearing, it should include these people as witnesses, not some self-promoting writer or film producer who has decided to use the industry as his road to fame and fortune.

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 new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq