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The Privateers: Outsourcing U.S. Sovereignty

Jeremy Scahill exposes in his video “Blackwater: Shadow Army” for The Nation the alarming and little-known outsourcing of security and military operations supported by the Bush administration. In government rhetoric and that of the individual contractors, they are referred to as “private security.” In a militarized area in the midst of conflict, protecting clients by means of armed battle, the distinctions between security and military can be all but lost. The cryptic words of the 2nd amendment come to mind.
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

With these "security" contractors, we're hardly talking about a well-regulated militia, in the sense of anything close to adequate government regulation. PBS's Frontline highlights, Erinys, a British firm as well as Blackwater and the larger question of war contractors. Blackwater may be the largest, but is far from alone among these firms. Most disturbing is the unclear accountability of these (mostly) men with guns. In the world of government contracting, the man on the ground might be the sub of a sub of a subcontractor. Somewhere there is a government official who is the contract manager. The employee of the subcontractor likely will have no idea who or where that person is. The government manager can only control

  • what they know about,
  • what is required or prohibited in the contract.

The contract document cannot cover all contingencies. When things go wrong, to whom is the contractor accountable? The current answer seems to be no one. Men with guns answerable to nobody: It might be an anarchist's dream, but such a situation can hardly serve the stated goals of the U.S. or Iraqi governments.

What are some of the issues regarding this movement toward raising private-sector armies?

  1. Soldiers of Fortune. What happens when the most powerful nations create a profit motive in war? There have always been builders of bombs and airplanes who benefit financially from war, but their profits have never been so closely linked to a specific conflict. They can design and build for years while hardware remains idle. War or no war, they still get paid. What happens when the U.S. pulls out of Iraq and we have 20 thousand or 50 thousand private soldiers to maintain? Can private security companies simply lay the soldiers off and send them packing? Won't the owners and the investors in such firms, who contribute heavily to political campaigns and lunch with political and military leaders, be looking for a new war to engage in? Blackwater alone, is now involved in multiple "security" situations and has sought to insert themselves into other conflicts already. The opportunism of business seems fundamentally incompatible with the restraint that governments must exercise in military situations.
  2. Who's in charge? Some military and ex-military officials are already voicing concerns about questions as simple as coordination of efforts, to chain-of-command, to accountability. What happens when the military and a contractor for a private individual find themselves working at cross-purposes? It's easy to imagine where an operation and the protection of a single individual could be in conflict. Imagine that the contracting company is from a different nation from the military commander of the operation. The contract employee in charge of the security detail is from a third nation, not even involved in the larger conflict. Loyalties mean something entirely different for the hired gun. In a strictly military situation, there are direct lines of command. In the end, every sergeant is answerable to every general. Identifying insignia are worn. There's a real accountability and chain of command in the military situation. The contractor may not be able to say who gave the order that resulted in his actions, and when things go horribly wrong, it's unclear who, if anyone has jurisdiction to sort it out.
  3. Questionable neutrality. The military, in theory, respects all faiths and no faith. The military is an arm of government, and the constitution and non-establishment fully applies. Likewise, the military respects no party. They answer to the duly elected commander-in-chief (even in the case of a botched election). Private entities operate with no such requirements. Some are known to be partisan and sectarian. When a president wants to bring about the apocalypse as foretold in his particular perversion of the Christian faith, there are, thank God, protections for the rest of us in the constitution and in the other branches of government. If a right-wing Christianist privateer wants to commit idiocy in the name of his faith, what's it going to take to stop him? The same worry might apply, however unlikely, to a left-wing vegetarian with a serious lack of perspective.
  4. Political cover. Reports suggest that American leaders enjoy political cover by using contractors. In a chain of subcontractors, if one of the subcontractors involved happens to be headquartered in Kuwait or Dubai, the subcontractor outside the U.S. can be scapegoated for anything that goes wrong or appears to be illegal or scandalous. The foreign company becomes a black hole from which no light can escape, protected by it's own government and the contractor's lack of relationship and accountability to the U.S. government. Haliburton has expressed intent to move its headquarters to Dubai, they say it's because that's the region where the oil is. Could it be, also, that they believe they can do more business for the U.S. government by moving out? We have an intricate system for keeping our leaders in check. Whom does it serve to have a private by-pass for public accountability?
  5. Domestic operations. Blackwater provided private security forces in New Orleans after Katrina. Our own military is not allowed to conduct search, seizure or arrests on American soil. Could the use of private security by government provide an end-run around Posse Comitatus? One report said a Blackwater member (do you say commander, associate — what?) was locally deputized, so there seems to have been some legal basis for their operations there. If a contractor is military one day, state department, the next, and later a local deputy, what is it really? Is the contractor some kind of chameleon that becomes the thing that hires it, or is it something else? Can a contractor really be hired federally and deputized locally if that's what happened? Again, who does he answer to — the corporation, the local government, or the federal government? If a contractor's employee uses excessive force, is he prosecuted as a private citizen for assault, or disciplined with the extra latitude a police officer may be granted? Can a domestic security contractor be expected to train all their personnel to protect civil rights and observe rules of evidence — for any jurisdiction they may be called to serve?
  6. Unknown continuity. Corporations are bought and sold every day. Personnel, from CEOs to the lowest-ranking, change positions and companies at will. Expectations for continuity in no way resembles military continuity. A contractor that delivers on its contracts today could be bankrupt tomorrow. A trusted CEO who has at his command aircraft, personnel, and weapons could change jobs, sell his interests, or die, and the assets he controls could fall into the hands someone less qualified to manage them. To allow a non-state entity to control massive lethal forces, in the best of situations, feels wrong in the gut. The stability and controls we exercise on our military makes their support a more reasonable proposition. The comparative instability of a private entity changes that equation considerably.

To be clear, I make no claim or suggestion that either Blackwater, Erinys, or any of their people, have ever or would ever do anything illegal or that they believed were not in the interests of their governments. My concerns are more philosophical and structural.

Credit for factual material goes to Jeremy Scahill and The Nation, and to Frontline. I draw heavily from those sources as well as Amy Goodman's interview of Jeremy on Democracy Now and NPR's Terry Gross's interview of Scahill onFresh Air.

Posted by John Paul McCarty at April 7, 2007 9:17 AM
Comment #215456

Interesting artical John,
I wonder if the conservatives are willing to say that the military is not up to the job performed by private contractors. I guess this is what “support the troups” means to this administration? On the other hand, is out sourcing war much different from the proxie wars we faught in the past? At least you can fire a mercinary. I wonder tho, do mercinaries pay taxes? Can they collect unemployment?

Posted by: 037 at April 7, 2007 1:37 PM
Comment #215475

I couldn’t guess what administration officials privately believe about the performance of military troops vs. private security. If anything is lacking in the military, it is up to the administration to see that troops are properly trained, rested, and outfitted. What the administration gets out of the deal, first, is privatization itself. Second, the administration gets political cover and some ability to hide what they’re up to. Third, they get generous support at election time from the folks that profit from the “business” of war. This movement does share characteristics with proxy wars, but the two are not the same, and neither practice should be engaged in lightly, if ever.

Posted by: John Paul McCarty at April 7, 2007 5:06 PM
Comment #215486

This makes me wonder if these Mercs are subject to the Geneva Conventions, and what, if any, are their “rules of engagement”.
Likewise, are they protected by the Geneva Conventions?

Posted by: Rocky at April 7, 2007 6:56 PM
Comment #215495

Privatization like this is a joke. We probably pay more for their services, definitely get less control, and end up tagged with whatever crap they did by the Iraqis. You know the burned corpses that the Iraqis strung up on that bridge in Fallujah? Those were some of these guys, who had strayed into the wrong neighborhood.

The trouble with most privatization efforts is that government contractors aren’t perfectly private. They’re funded by the government, which means that competition has to be artificially inserted. Only a completely taxpayer-independent company can be truly private in that way. But then, the American people can’t really tell them what to do!

When we go the government route with some project, or with defense matters, it’s important to have oversight, to have the government be a discerning, knowledgeable customer, and not some dupe waiting to get robbed.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 7, 2007 9:28 PM
Comment #215531

Rocky, My points exactly. In overseas engagements, as at home, the rules are not clear. I don’t have geneva texts in front of me at the moment, but when you have non-military players playing military roles, do the rules for military engagement apply? Do the rules for prisoners of war apply? I would say yes, especially if the players are American and acting on contract for the U.S. government. A cynical administration could as easily say “no” if it serves their purposes. This administration tends to say, “no, and we are not bound by your rulles and treaties.”

Stephen, Privatization is a very bad joke as you imply, and the great lie of hard-core conservatives. The philosophy goes that any function of government (besides their own jobs) can be done better and more efficiently when market forces are applied. The part they too often miss is that the principle would necessarily include economic and performance-based competitions for the contracts in the first place. The second part is that when the contractor has a profit motive, they will do the job with less waste. What actually happens in the second case is that there is a very strong drive on the contractor’s part to increase utilization, that is, to do everything that is allowed under the scope of work, needed or not, to get the maximum government payment. It takes a massive bureaucracy to manage contracts and contractors and still, the process results in a government loss of control of outcomes and potential for egregious errors.

Posted by: John Paul McCarty at April 8, 2007 8:49 AM
Comment #215547

Mercenaries make up the third largest force in Bush’s phony coalition,right after the Brits. Whenthe Brits pull out they will be second.
Mercs are the scum of the earth. A collection of socio-pathic murderers. Apartied South Africa used them extensively to terrorize their nieghbors. We used them in Central America as death squads. They provide cover for leaders to violate any civilized rules of engagement. That is what they are for.And yes they can collect unemployment and I hope they do so soon.

Posted by: BillS at April 8, 2007 1:14 PM
Comment #215630

John Paul,

“I don’t have geneva texts in front of me at the moment, but when you have non-military players playing military roles, do the rules for military engagement apply? Do the rules for prisoners of war apply?”

Do the words “enemy combatant” ring a bell?

Posted by: Rocky at April 8, 2007 7:55 PM
Comment #215634

Rocky, Wow—that’s a frightening thought. Reminds me of something of Noam Chomsky’s I just read, where he turns around the whole Iran thing with the British soldiers and the American occupation of Iraq, posing hypotheticals about how the U.S. would react to invasion of a nearby neighbor, hostile military ships off the coast etc. See The Nation.

Posted by: John Paul McCarty at April 8, 2007 8:26 PM
Comment #215651

John Paul,

Actually it sounds more like the match that lit WW1.
Everybody was ready to go to war, it took only a small incident to ignite it.

Posted by: Rocky at April 8, 2007 10:58 PM
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