Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Rise of Large Private Armies

I recently listened to a very disturbing discussion on NPR radio about the growth of the private security forces being used in Iraq. The interview was with Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. This is partly a story about Blackwater, but it goes well beyond that.

There are now over 40,000 private security forces in Iraq, over 180,000 if you include people hired by the U.S. to do non-security work (cooking, cleaning...). That's more than the total number of military troops we have there. Blackwater is providing security for all our diplomats and top military officials. Even General Petraeus has become dependent on Blackwater to provide his own personal security. But Iraq is just the beginning. There are plans to pay these private security forces in the "drug wars" in South America, and Blackwater is lobbying to get the contract to guard the boarder with Mexico. The amount of money they stand to receive from these contracts is substantially more than the billions they're currently getting paid for the work in Iraq.

Blackwater, the largest and most infamous of these private security forces, has been in the news recently for its excessive use of force and careless killing of civilians in Iraq. It has really become a private "army for hire", with enough capability to take on the militaries of some small countries already. And they're growing considerably in size, fire power, intelligence gathering capabilities, and influence. . While they are currently being hired mainly by the U.S. government, in principle they could be hired by any government or corporation with enough money and the motivation. These companies have no oversight by the U.S. military or apparently any other U.S. laws when operating overseas. Unlike the U.S. military, they're not subject to control by an elected official, international treaties (such as the Geneva Conventions), or often even by a board of directors. Blackwater is a privately-held company and does not publish much information about internal affairs.

But the most troubling possibility is that they can become an "army for hire" for use within the U.S. boarders. There are many legal restrictions about deploying the U.S. military again U.S. citizens on American soil. These restrictions do not apply for private security firms. Black water was already hired to provide security in several states after hurricane Katrina - a dry run for future projects. Imagine a future president that decided to hire Blackwater to provide security for all Federal property during a major protest demonstration in Washington D.C. that over 100,000 people were expected to attend. Imagine if these security operations included gathering intelligence on all the groups that were potentially involved. And imagine if the orders were given to break up the demonstration because of some perceived danger after it started? If this doesn't frighten you, then you probably don't fully appreciate what could happen. (Of course people who consider "obedience and respect for authority" to be among their most valued moral principles may find this scenario appealing.)

You may think that we can control and rein in such private security firms if they get too out of control at some point, so why worry now? But this may be next to impossible once they get too large with too much political influence and the money to buy even more, plus more extensive intelligence capabilities to collect damaging info on any perceived opponent, and once they start to be considered indispensable because of the security they are providing for top government officials. They are already considered indispensable to our oversees military and diplomatic operations.

An economic market has some great features, but there are some situations where it does not work at all. One of these is privatizing our military and intelligence operations. A key component of any sovereign government is a monopoly on the use of force and violence within its boarders, and for very good reasons. If private individuals or companies are able to assemble (or hire) their own military and intelligence forces with enough capabilities to rival those of small countries, we will enter a dangerous new era that will undoubtedly have many painful lessons to teach us. This is one dark side of future possibilities that is not getting nearly the attention it deserves.


bobbi said...

What a terrible scenario. I've been disturbed about the mercenaries, but I never thought of some of the situations that you have projected. Maybe this should be a topic for "Issues of Our Times."

Charlie said...

This is actually from Anne - Charlie's wife
Today I heard parts of an
interview that recounted the story of a family which had to pick up and move at a moment's notice, leaving all of their belongings behind. They did this over a dozen times. The children were never told why. One of them, the author of the book under discussion, grew up, became an investigative reporter, and dug up the truth behind his troubled family life during childhood. It turns out that in 1946, his mother had attended a meeting at a church in Boston that the FBI had declared a front for communists. The family was hounded by government operatives for decades, forcing them to move, on several, different occasions to remote areas of Mexico, to escape persecution. If the government can do this to a family that was not implicated in anything at all "for security reasons", just think what a private security firm, accoountable to only itself, would be capable could'nt get far enough from them.