Has the role of private military and security companies been overlooked since the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001? With everything that has been written and said about the subject, from Afghanistan to Iraq and KBR to Wackenhut Services, it is difficult to think that is the case.
Yet that is the exact point made by David Perry of the Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. In his article "Private Sector's Role in American Counterterrorism" in the current issue of Comparative Strategy he writes:
"Since September 11, 2001, these companies and their contractor employees have played an increasingly important role in executing all aspects of American national security strategy. Despite this reality, the majority of the literature on security privatization has focused primarily on PMSC support for U.S. military operations in Iraq. As a result, wider PMSC involvement in the primary national security priority of the United States since 9/11, counterterrorism, has been largely ignored... More important, since private actors currently play a larger role than public state agents in American counterterrorism efforts, this omission fundamentally misrepresents the nature of contemporary counterterrorism."
While it is not exactly true that the role of the private sector in counterinsurgency has never been written about -- see, for example, the beginning of the 2006 book Licensed to Kill by Robert Young Pelton -- Perry's primary point, that the PMSC role in counterterrorism is under-appreciated, is reasonable.
Perry's article examines the role of PMSCs in supporting contemporary U.S. counterterrorism operations two areas: operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as U.S. homeland security initiatives.
The first part of his article deals with why the use of private contractors has increased in recent years. This is well-trod ground so I won't retread it here except to note his observation regarding the fact that that the use of PMSC concentrates national security powers within the executive branch and greatly reduces congressional oversight. Perry notes that,
Although Congress has increasingly attempted to assert control over contracted forces since 2007, congressional initiatives have been far more successful at governing contractors working in Iraq than those employed to support other aspects of the war on terror.
When it came to counterterrorism, to paraphrase from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, it seems that there was:
One PMSC to rule them all, One PMSC to find them,
One PMSC to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
That would be, no surprise, the PMSC originally known as Blackwater. Perry writes:
Blackwater and its subsidiaries have been directly assisting the CIA in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the agency's post-9/11 operations in Afghanistan began. The company was awarded a contract to protect the CIA station in Kabul in 2002 and contracts to protect several other CIA bases throughout the country soon followed.53 As a result, the 2009 al Qaeda attack at a CIA base in Khost killed two Blackwater guards in addition to several CIA ofﬁcers. From this starting point, the company's relationship with the CIA strengthened over time, in part due to several ex-CIA ofﬁcials joining its corporate ranks, including Cofer Black, the former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. These links helped the company develop ties so close to the CIA that according to former intelligence ofﬁcials, "there was a feeling that Blackwater was an extension of the agency."
On this basis, Blackwater expanded its CIA contracts to include direct participation by its contractors on CIA "snatch and grab" operations designed to apprehend suspected militants and terrorists, and in "targeted killings" of al Qaeda leadership. While the utility of such programs has been debated, these activities have been a core component of American counterterrorism strategy since 2001. However, until CIA director Leon Panetta revealed Backwater's participation in these programs to Congress in the spring of 2009, it was not known that they had been outsourced.
Blackwater also played an instrumental role in another component of the targeted killings program, by supporting the CIA's drone attacks on suspected terrorists and militants in Pakistan, which have increased markedly under the Obama administration. Blackwater employees are responsible for loading and launching the Predator UAVs that target suspected terrorists in Pakistan, in addition to protecting their bases.
Perry notes the company has reportedly also carried out very similar operations for the military's far more secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). These contracts involved Blackwater "tactical operations operatives" conducting covert raids into Pakistan against suspected al Qaeda training camps.
Furthermore, the company supports JSOC's UAV operations in Pakistan, which run in parallel to the CIA's drone activities. Notably, Blackwater's operations in Pakistan involve planning the targeted killings ultimately carried out by JSOC operatives.
But in Perry's view Blackwater's tactical and contractual success may be a national liability.
Problematically, these contracts with Blackwater have been used by the CIA and JSOC to avoid both outside scrutiny and Pakistani sensitivities. For JSOC, contracts with Blackwater are "an attempt to get around the Pakistani government's prohibition of American military personnel's operating in the country." Similarly, using the company for its targeted killings program enabled the CIA to avoid reporting the operations to Congress f or over eight years. This use of PMSCs to avoid congressional oversight dramatically curtails the public's understanding of American counterterrorism activities.
Private contractors are also deeply involved in and intertwined with the intelligence community. Those wanting detail should read Tim Shorrock's book Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing Given its obvious role in counterterrorism this is obviously relevant. As this is a small part of Perry's article I won't dwell on it other than to cite this part:
The pervasive spread of contractors into American intelligence analysis has extended to the point that they now inﬂuence the composition of the President's Daily Brief, the nation's most sensitive national security document. This fact is troubling, since CIA Director Leon Panetta expressed a desire to see the agency's reliance on contractors reduced because of their questionable loyalties. For contractors to be simultaneously distrusted by the head of the CIA because of questionable loyalty yet charged with brieﬁng the president points to a convoluted approach to outsourcing.
Finally there is the role of PMSC in the Department of Homeland Security. Unlike the Pentagon or the CIA, the DHS has from its beginning recognized its role as one of collaboration with the private sector. This is obvious as public-private collaboration is required because the DHS has responsibility for maintaining U.S. critical infrastructure, and over 70 percent of this is privately owned.
But, Perry writes, for this to work "the government needs to clearly articulate "what only government can do well, the so-called inherently governmental functions." In contrast, the DHS has from its inception instead adopted a policy of outsourcing whatever functions it could. As a result, the department spends more than half of its budget on contractors."
In 2003, in its ﬁrst year of existence, the DHS spent $3.5 billion on contracts, an amount that rose steadily to $15.2 billion by 2006 with little planning or scrutiny. What Stanger describes as "laissez fair homeland security" offered little consideration of which functions should be privatized and instead focused on which could be. This approach lead to scandals such as the U.S. Coast Guard's ( USCG) Deepwater program, which was almost 50 percent over budget before it was cancelled. In this case, the same company building the new USCG boats was responsible for managing its own contract and ensuring value for the taxpayers. Clearly, such practices are unwise.
As with the intelligence community, the DHS witnessed its most senior staff, including inaugural director Tom Ridge, leave the department to join private sector homeland security ﬁrms. Since its creation, almost two thirds of the DHS's senior personnel have left government to work in the private sector, raising concerns about the level of institutional knowledge and the DHS's ability to meet its mandate. When these ex-employees are rehired as contractors, a recent report asserts that the government pays an additional 60 percent premium for the same services they performed before leaving. Much like the intelligence community, this has led to concerns that contractors are performing inherently governmental tasks by inﬂuencing DHS policy. The GAO recently found that "program ofﬁcials did not assess the risk that government decisions may be inﬂuenced by, rather than independent from, contractor judgments." In this climate, the GAO argued that the department risked losing control over mission-related decisions.
In Perry's view the agencies involved in counterterrorism have recognized their reliance on the private sector with varying degrees of success. Clearly the military has gone the farthest in attempting to improve upon its heavy dependence on the private sector. It is followed by the intelligence community which has taken the ﬁrst steps in recognizing the integrated nature of its government/contractor workforce. DHS, on the other hand, makes no mention of contractors whatsoever in its latest strategic documents.
For nearly twenty years now I've been saying that PMSC are the equivalent of the Pentagon's American Express Card, i.e., it dares not go to war without them. Perry has a similar view with regard to counterterrorism:
Simply put, America cannot counter terrorism without PMSCs. To date, however, this reality has not been acknowledged. As a result, overall congressional oversight of the war on terror has suffered.