12/20/2010 11:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jack Bauer Beats Blackwater

Who knew that we needed Jack Bauer, he of the famed Counter Terrorist Unit on the 24 TV show, to fight Blackwater as it prepares to set off a nuclear device? I certainly didn't.

Well okay, not Blackwater, exactly. And fortunately, it appears that it doesn't have the capability, at least for now. Still, after all the years of covering private security contractors, and watching them be depicted as the newest villains in popular culture, the idea that private military contractors (PMC) potentially represent a class of non-state actors who may pose a risk of nuclear terrorism for their state masters is, to say, the least, new.

Yet a paper published earlier this year finds that the technical and military capabilities of PMCs may be greater than those of terrorist organizations with respect to nuclear weapon construction or delivery. But, they are still insufficient, and PMCs must also somehow acquire fissile materials. Thus, while PMCs may be more capable than most terrorist organizations if they sought to acquire nuclear weapons they are still unlikely to succeed. Good news for us; I guess we don't have to call Austin Powers out of retirement to make another sequel as he battles Erik Prince, I mean Dr. Evil.

The paper, Private Military Corporations: A Non-State Actor-Nuclear Terror Nexus? by Robert L. Brown of Temple University, which was delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in September considered the question of whether PMCs have sufficient autonomy from states to permit the illicit acquisition of nuclear weapons.

In fairness Brown notes that there is no empirical data suggesting that any PMC desires or is pursuing nuclear weapons; he simply argues that PMCs provide an interesting case to learn about the relative probability for NSA nuclear acquisition for terrorist use.

Brown finds, for a variety of reasons, that the answer is no, for which we can all be thankful. But he does make some points that should give us pause. First the oversight of PMCs by multiple agencies represents a risk of nuclear terror because PMC are more capable than most NSAs. So we can comfort ourselves that most PMC are more efficient than Al-Qaeda.

But consider that at its peak, when Blackwater had nine business units, including an air wing, it had some capacity to illicitly transport and deliver a nuclear weapon, assuming it not only acquired the device but also the ability to arm and activate it. While ground transport is within the capacity of any non-state actor, Blackwater also had air (medium-lift helicopters and a Boeing767) and marine (survey-class ship) transport options with cargo capacity sufficient to carry many weapons currently in the US or Russian arsenal.

And, even assuming the best of intentions on the part of PMCs they can never be completely sure of their staff, as they have little control over who is in their employ, despite their screening and selection processes. Remember that in 2007, Blackwater reported dismissing 122 employees during 2004-2006 for excessive force, drug and alcohol abuse, inappropriate/lewd conduct, insubordination, aggressive/violent behavior, and other causes.

Fortunately for us, though oversight of PMC is deliberately designed to cut PMC some
slack, what the author calls 'autonomy" from governmental oversight, and we've all seen what results that has brought us in the past, it is not that bad to give PMC the ability to plan or organize a nuclear attack.

Though if a PMC does ever use a nuclear weapon the PMC trade organization who have called for more self-regulation of the industry are going to have some explaining to do.