Speeches

Has the Privatization of National Security Gone Too Far?

By David Isenberg
November 14, 2008

Before we go any further let me ask you a couple of questions:

How many of you have served in the U.S. military? If so, raise your hands.

And how many of you have children who are in or have served in the U.S. military?

Okay, this gets us to the central underlying fact about the use of private security and military contractors that few people care to talk about publicly.

The reality is that private contractors did not crawl out from under a rock somewhere. They are on America’s battlefields because the government, reflecting the will of the people, wants them there. As one editorialist noted:

It’s fashionable to look down on the civilian contractors employed by firms such as Halliburton and Blackwater. When contractors make the news, it’s usually in the context of stories about waste and fraud in reconstruction or service contracts, or human rights abuses committed by private security contractors. So when civilian contractors die in Iraq, most of us don’t waste many tears. These are guys who went to Iraq out of sheer greed, lured by salaries far higher than those received by military personnel, right? If they get themselves killed, who cares?

But we should all care. Not because it’s our patriotic duty to support the lucrative corporate empires that employ the thousands of civilian contractors in Iraq, but because most of the men and women employed by these corporate giants are in Iraq at our government’s behest.

The reason we have such reliance on private contractors is simple enough. Even though the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is a historical memory, the United States still reserves the right to militarily intervene everywhere. This, however, despite the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld championed, is a highly people-powered endeavor. And most people have decided that their children, much like Dick Cheney during the Vietnam War, have “better things to do.”

My own view of the world is that the international order will continue to be roiled and disrupted for some time to come. Thus, there will be a void in international politics. And, just as in nature, which abhors a vacuum, private contractors will step in to fill it.

Personally, I think the outsourcing of military capabilities left the station decades ago. It has taken this long for public perception to catch up—and people still only see the caboose.

If people don’t want to use private contractors, the choices are simple. Either scale back U.S. geopolitical commitments or enlarge the military, something that will entail more gargantuan expenditures and even, some argue, a return to the draft down the road.

Personally, I prefer the former. But most people prefer substituting contractors for draftees. As former Marine colonel Jack Holly said, “We’re never going to war without the private security industry again in a non-draft environment.”

Still, what I would really like to see is a national debate on this. Instead, we bury our heads in the sand and bemoan the presence of private contractors. That is a waste of time. Private security contractors, after all, are just doing the job we outsourced to them. And, like them or hate them, they are going to be around for a long time.

Looked at historically private military contractors are as American as apple pie. In fact, without private contractors there would not have been an America. Or, to paraphrase Genesis: In the beginning, God created private contractors.

An Italian by the name of Christophorus (Christopher) Columbus was essentially working as a private contractor for the king and queen of Spain when he made his famous voyage in 1492 and subsequent ones that started the process of Spanish colonization, which foreshadowed general European settlement of the “New World.”

And Capt. John Smith was hired by the Virginia Co. to provide security and conduct military operations for the English settlers at Jamestown. He led the 1606 expedition to Virginia and was elected head of Jamestown colony.

During the American Revolution more than 2,000 privately owned warships were commissioned by Congress to attack the enemy and seize transports and sell their cargoes for money during the American Revolution. Sailors made more in a month than they might otherwise earn in a year. Does that sound familiar?

And, on the ground, it was a private businessman who, before the start of the Revolution, offered to build a thousand-man army at his own expense, if the Continental Congress, of which he was a member, failed to fund a standing military. That was a far more financially risky endeavor than anything a private security firm like Blackwater has ever attempted. That entrepreneur was George Washington.

Moving on, first, although I do have opinions on the pros and cons of governmental use of private military contractors, I am neither a diehard supporter nor fervent opponent of their use. I have no dog in the ?ght over outsourcing things that used to be considered governmental functions. As Mr. Spock used to tell Captain Kirk on Star Trek, I consider it a fascinating phenomenon, worthy of continuing study.

By the way, I just returned from Norway Wednesday evening and if that experience is any indication America is popular again. In fact, for those of you who in these troubled economic times need to make money I have two words for you: Obama t-shirts. Just about every time people found out I was an American they asked me if I could get them one.

Second, speaking of President Elect Obama I think private military and security contractors don’t have much to worry about. Recall that at the beginning of the year inveterate PSC critic Jeremy Scahill, author of the book “Blackwater” blasted Obama for being too sympathetic toward contractors. He reported that a senior foreign policy adviser of Obama’s said that if elected, Obama would not “rule out” using private security companies like Blackwater Worldwide in Iraq. The adviser also said Obama does not plan to sign on to legislation that seeks to ban the use of these forces in U.S. war zones by January 2009, when a new president will be sworn in.

By the way, Obama not opposing the use of contractors in Iraq is equivalent to someone not opposing the setting of the sun in the west. You couldn’t do it, even if you wanted to. If for no other reason that contractors also figure to be a prominent part of the eventual withdrawal. According to a past GAO report, as of April 26 there were approximately 149,400 Department of Defense contractors and as of July 1 approximately 147,400 U.S. troops deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Thus, there are now more DOD contractors than regular active forces. That doesn’t count the nearly 3,000 security contractors work directly for the State Department in Iraq, according to an August Congressional Budget Office report.

If there were U.S. forces — military or otherwise — to spare for those roles, they would have been provided. Much of their work — protecting U.S. and allied officials and other civilians involved in aid and reconstruction — will continue after a military pullout. Removing them precipitously would likely delay the withdrawal of U.S. forces, because U.S. personnel would have to replace them.

Instead Obama’s campaign said he will focus on bringing accountability to these forces while increasing funding for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the agency that employs Blackwater and other private security contractors. We should note that Obama didn’t just jump on this issue during the campaign to get votes from readers of the Nation magazine. Obama has been at the forefront of efforts to address the issue in the Senate, In addition to the February 2007 Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting bill that he sponsored, he is a cosponsor of a bill introduced by Sen. James Webb, D-VA., to provide for the study and investigation of wartime contracts and contracting processes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And, if you have ever listened to any major contractor or industry group, like the International Peace Operations Association, you will understand that by and large they really don’t have much problem with accountability measures. Yes, they moan and groan periodically about added business costs and paperwork burdens but they have all indicated they can live with it. Or to paraphrase the old British expression, when you take the King’s contract, you accept the King’s accountability.

In fact, after Obama takes office, his advisers will find that as an issue accountability just keeps marching on. For example, in the Fiscal Year 2009 Defense Authorization Act there are several sections that focus on private contractors.

Section 1057 states that “the interrogation of enemy prisoners of war, civilian internees, retained persons, other detainees, terrorists, and criminals when captured, transferred, confined, or detained during or in the aftermath of hostilities is an inherently governmental function and cannot appropriately be transferred to private sector contractors.”

Section 832, states that private security functions ordinarily should be performed by members of the Armed Forces; the relevant combatant command commander should determine whether the performance by a private security contractor is appropriate; and the Defense Department should have appropriate numbers of trained personnel to perform private security functions. Admittedly this provision is a sense of Congress, and not an actual requirement, but nevertheless could prove unsettling for the likes of Triple Canopy, DynCorp, Blackwater and a host of other firms.

Section 843 requires the Pentagon to adopt an acquisition strategy for insurance required by the Defense Base Act, which minimizes the cost of such insurance to the Department of Defense and to defense contractors subject to it.

Section 854 requires mechanisms for ensuring that contractors are required to report offenses that are alleged to have been committed by or against contractor personnel to appropriate investigative authorities.

Third, insofar as this report calls for “Strengthen the contractor and acquisition workforce so that it is better equipped to make contracting decisions and to conduct robust oversight and management of contractors”, to which, I say, God YES, we should note that, Section 870 calls for the establishment of a government-wide Contingency Contracting Corps that shall “be available for deployment in responding to an emergency or major disaster, or a contingency operation, both within or outside the continental United States.”

This is overdue and desperately needed, as monitoring of military contracting has long been a scandal. The 2007 independent Commission on Army Acquisition and Program Management in Expeditionary Operations found significant failures in the Army’s contracting and contract management.

Among other things, it found contracting personnel received no on-the-job training until after they had been shipped out to war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fourth, on September 17 the “Montreux Document on Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States Related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies During Armed Conflict,” was released. This was the culmination of nearly three years’ work of the both the Swiss Initiative on Private Military and Security Companies and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The document recalls existing obligations regarding private security companies during armed conflict and identifies good practices to assist states in ensuring respect for international humanitarian law and applicable human rights law, and in otherwise promoting responsible conduct in their relationships with private security companies during armed conflict.

The signatories included the United States and Britain, which are the world’s largest users of contractors presently, and the countries where the vast majority of private security contractors are headquartered, also must be included.

Why is this document important? First, it confirms that the number of private military and security contractors is growing worldwide. They operate in more than 100 countries around the world. Thus now is the time to remind states of their international obligations if they contract with such companies.

It is true that not all these practices will be welcomed by the industry. Still, because the United States has given its approval, U.S. companies will not have much choice other than to comply. U.S. Department of State Legal Adviser John B. Bellinger III said, “The good practices noted in the Montreux Document provide helpful and practical guidance to states that contract with private security companies, to states on whose soil they operate, and to states in which they are based or incorporated.” He also said, “Greater reliance on contract personnel requires vigorous oversight and accountability mechanisms. The United States fully supports the application of professional standards to the operations of military and private security companies.”

Fifth, insofar as the report’s recommendation to “Create and sustain an enforcement arm of the FBI to conduct overseas investigations of private contractors and an extraterritorial U.S. attorney to prosecute criminal behavior” I say, long overdue. Recall last month when ABC News reported that the State Department has outsourced henhouse security to a fox, giving a U.S. security contractor the job of investigating possible crimes committed by other security contractors working for the United States in Iraq.

Ironically, the company contracted to provide investigators for the newly created Force Investigation Unit was U.S. Investigations Services, a company created in 1996 by the privatization of the Office of Federal Investigations, the agency that conducted background investigations for civil service personnel.

The Force Investigation Unit was set up by the State Department to investigate alleged use of force by U.S. contractors following the outcry over the fatal shootings of Iraqi civilians and police by Blackwater Worldwide personnel in September 2007 during the now notorious incident in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the U.S. government has asked industry to assist it in investigating itself.

For example, until it became apparent that it was a public relations farce, the FBI team traveling to Iraq after the Nisoor Square shootings to assist in the investigation was supposed to be guarded by Blackwater. However, the State Department realized that the ensuing conflict of interest would be too egregious and said that security for the team would be handled by the department’s Diplomatic Security Service.

Or recall when an alleged “trophy” video was posted online in fall 2005 that appeared to show Aegis Defense security guards in Baghdad randomly shooting Iraqi civilians. The results of an investigation by Aegis released June 10, 2006, although not to the public, determined that no one involved would be charged with a crime.

Requests to see the report that Aegis shared with the Department of Defense were denied. Why? The Pentagon said it wasn’t its report to share. Aegis said it was corporate data and therefore not public. Essentially, the contractor investigated itself.
Similarly, consider the Multi-National Force - Iraq Armed Contractor Oversight Division, which is to provide oversight and serve as MNF-I’s overall point of contact on policies that govern PSCs working for the Pentagon. In addition, the division notifies the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior when an incident involving PSCs and Iraqi civilians occurs.

Ironically, the division is currently staffed with seven full-time employees comprising three military personnel and four contractors. It is the contractors who identify and track all PSC incidents, provide reporting through completion of investigations, process and log incident reports, and maintain contact with the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior representative to identify issues concerning PSCs. From an accountability perspective it would be preferable if the majority of the staff were military, not contractors.

Finally, if I have one criticism to make it is this. Generally when we think and talk about contractors our perspective is far too narrow. It is easy to talk smack about Blackwater, Triple Canopy, DynCorp, SOC-SMG, Control Risks Group, Erinys, and all the other private security and military contractors working for the Defense Department or the State Department and other agencies but the truth is that the prevalence of private contractors is far greater than that. The military is just one component of the national security establishment and contractors are in all the others, whether you are talking about the intelligence community, information operations, diplomacy, foreign aid, humanitarian assistance.

True, they are not carrying guns for the most part but with respect to the most important part of the debate, that they are private sector entities doing work that we used to entrust only to the public sector their role remains the same. It is my hope that the questions and recommendations contained in this report are used as a basis for broadening the debate so that the role of contractors in other agencies and departments can also be weighed.

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 forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. Below are remarks by David Isenberg at the “Has the Privatization of National Security Gone Too Far?” event at the New America Foundation.