Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Who started the mercenary push?

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Oddly enough, it turns out that one man can be identified as the prime mover into the US hiring mercenaries and setting them loose in a war zone: Mike McConnell. Frank Viviano of CBS reports:

Where does the buck stop? It’s a question that Washington has ignored through a long succession of scandals in Iraq, while senior officials plead ignorance and the buck – responsibility – skids to a halt at grunt level.

It is the question we ought be asking today about the widespread and controversial use of mercenaries, known formally as “private contractors,” in war zones. And it should be directed squarely at Admiral J. “Mike” McConnell, the Bush Administration’s Director of National Intelligence.

Admiral McConnell is not simply the boss of sixteen separate U.S. intelligence and security agencies. In the netherworld where private security firms and public institutions do business, he was a principal architect of the system that led to the Blackwater USA disaster, with its revelations of trigger-happy hired gunmen shooting innocent civilians in the name of the State Department.

Privatizing Security

In 1996, when McConnell retired from government service after a 30-year career in the Navy and the National Security Agency (NSA), few critical tasks in intelligence or security were delegated to private companies. The NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency performed most of the former duties, while the military – the Marines, in the case of the State Department – handled the latter.

A decade later, half of an estimated $45 billion in annual U.S. intelligence outlays, along with an unspecified amount of the general security budget, pays for work “outsourced” to the private sector. The Washington Post reported last year that private contractors now make up more than 70 percent of a key Pentagon intelligence unit, as well as 50-60 percent of the workforce in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service.

Up to 30,000 military contractors are currently in Iraq, part of an overall private employment force that is larger than the 160,000-strong conventional U.S. military presence there.

Blackwater, with its $1 billion in government receipts from 2001 to 2006, is the tip of an immense iceberg.

Where was Admiral McConnell in that decade of maxi-privatization?

He was senior vice-president of Booz Allen Hamilton, a private security firm conveniently located near Langley, Virginia, home of the CIA. With an army-for-hire of some 10,000 operatives, it is in the vanguard of contractors that achieved unprecedented power (and profit) as sensitive national objectives were farmed out for cash.

More important, McConnell was also chairman of the board at the 1,500-member Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), an industry association that is the primary voice of private security and intelligence firms in Washington.

The Contractor’s Architect

Admiral McConnell was extraordinarily successful at INSA’s helm. Equipped with a vast network of contacts from his years in the Navy, at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as director of the NSA, he was instrumental in the massive shift of security duties to private firms.

In 2002, Consulting Magazine named him “one of the top 25 most influential consultants” in the United States.

“When I think of government, military, or intelligence community – whatever – the government doesn’t make things,” Admiral McConnell said in his confirmation hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 7. “If you need to buy something like a tank or a satellite or airplane or whatever, that’s done by the private sector.”

The unmistakable implication is that you may also look to the private sector for intelligence or security personnel. In a word, you buy mercenaries, just as you buy tanks, satellites, airplanes or as the admiral put it, “whatever.”

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “the government found itself in need of special skills and special talent, and they were not available inside the government,” he continued at the hearings. “So the government turned to the private sector to get some special skills and capabilities. So I think – from the way I think about it, that’s the goodness of the American system…”

Admiral McConnell’s appointment as Director of National Intelligence was unanimously recommended by the Committee, with only cursory attention paid to his contracting experience. The full Senate confirmed the appointment in a voice vote, without debate.

Then came Blackwater USA, and a beam of terrifying light shone into the abyss.

No Questions, No Photos

In the summer of 2005, I was on assignment in Kirkuk, the most ravaged city in Iraq after Baghdad, conducting an interview of Major Khattab Omar Arif, commander of an elite rapid-deployment police force. Without even the courtesy of a knock on the door, six men suddenly barged into Arif’s office. They gave a withering look at me and my photographer colleague, both of us clearly not Iraqis, and immediately took up positions around the room, their arms cradling automatic assault weapons outfitted with sniper scopes.

I didn’t know what the purpose of their visit was then, and I don’t know now. The six men wore no identification badges, and their leader’s only response when I asked who they were was “no questions, no photographs.”

Their “uniforms” – black t-shirts, skull-and-crossbone emblems, camouflage hunting trousers – were drawn from the violent fantasies of Hells Angel comic books and Sylvester Stallone films. Indeed, the Iraqis called them “Rambos.” They sported either shaved heads or ponytails, and their firepower gave new meaning to the term “armed to the teeth.” In addition to assault weapons, all of them had combat knives and pistols strapped to their legs, and extra pistols in shoulder holsters or tucked into the rear of their slacks.

They and their fellow contractors are the most common face of America for many Iraqis, especially outside of Baghdad, where U.S. soldiers and marines seldom leave their walled bases apart from brief, precisely targeted sorties.

The image of the United States – the image planted by thousands of private contract workers in the employ of our public agencies abroad – is a team of hitmen. An image explicitly groomed to instill fear. An image of mercenaries roaming a shattered countryside, with no names and no accountability for their acts.

This is the world that private contracting in Iraq has wrought, the unintended consequence of what Admiral McConnell characterizes as “the goodness of the American system.”

The six men sat wordlessly in Major Arif’s office throughout the interview, listening intently to my questions and his answers. They remained there when the photographer and I got up to leave. Their gun barrels followed us to the door.

The Price of Catastrophe

The logic for hiring such men, according to Admiral McConnell and other advocates of private contracting, revolves around the related issues of necessary skills and costs.

Their arguments on both counts don’t stand up well to close scrutiny. There is no good reason why professionals of any sort cannot be trained and employed directly by our national intelligence agencies and military institutions, as they were for most of the 20th century.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, for one, seems convinced that private security firms are actually poaching skilled men and women who have been trained at public expense. “I worry that sometimes the salaries (private firms) are able to pay in fact lure some of our soldiers out of the service to go to work for them,” he recently told a Congressional inquiry.

Blackwater USA charges an astronomical $1,222 per day for each of the security workers it provides to the State Department. By contrast, the pay, housing and support costs of a veteran U.S. Army sergeant in Iraq is around $150 per day, according to the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The Committee opened hearings October 2 on “Private Military Contractor Activity in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Admiral McConnell is not one of those scheduled to testify.

We ought to be asking why.

Written by Leisureguy

5 October 2007 at 7:45 am

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