Saturday, October 17, 2009

Private Armies by Tony Geraghty

Reagan's new policy was given strident expression in October 1984 by Secretary of State George P. Schultz, in an address to the Park Avenue Synagogue, New York, entitled "Terrorism and the modern world". It was a scary speech that argued, in clear reference to covert, unconventional operations, that 'our nation has forces prepared for action, from small teams able to operate virtually undetected to the full weight of our conventional military might.' But public understanding would be needed in advance of the use of such power. 'The public must understand before the fact that there is a potential for loss of life of some of our fighting men and the loss of life of some innocent people...that occasions will come when their government must act before each and every fact is known to ensure public support for U.S. military actions to stop terrorists before they commit some hideous act or in retaliation for an attack on our people."

If America was 'to respond or pre-empt effectively...there will not be time for a renewed national debate...We never have the kind of evidence that can stand up in an American court of law. But we cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations...Fighting terrorism will not be a clean or pleasant contest but we have no choice but to play it."

Here, plainly laid out, was an agenda for covert, pre-emptive use of lethal force, or for retaliation, without pause for thought or argument or adequate proof, combined with an acceptance that innocent lives would be lost.

Action soon followed in the bombing attack on the Imam Rida Mosque in a suburb of Beirut which killed 86 persons and wounded 256, mostly women and school girls though the intended target, the alleged mastermind of the bombing of the Marine barracks, escaped unharmed. According to Bob Woodward, senior Saudi government officials and CIA director Bill Casey directed this bombing using several English-speaking, U.S.- trained 'rogue operators' acting in cooperation with elements in the Lebanese government.

During the Iran-Contra hearings in July of 1987, some Senators were not overjoyed to discover a foreigner acting as a surrogate for a covert American military program. Senator William Cohen questioned 'whether it is appropriate to use private entrepreneurs to carry out covert objectives without specific and very rigid guidelines to make sure that profit motives don't contradict or corrode the public purpose...Whether it is a tolerable practice to authorize a covert solicitation of foreign countries to pay for programs either not authorized by Congress or rejected by Congress.'

Representative Henry Waxman's long campaign to investigate Halliburton, the U.S.'s chief private military contractor both at home and abroad, has met with nothing but foot-dragging delays, censorship and lies, probably resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars lost to U.S. taxpayers in overcharges, waste, bribery and fraud. When Halliburton or its subsidiary Kellog, Brown & Root have been caught red-handed their fines have been minimal and their rewards renewed, no- bid contracts negotiated in secret.

Following the deaths of seventeen Iraqi civilians, at the hands of Blackwater guns protecting U.S. diplomats in Baghdad on 17 September 2007, Senator Hillary Clinton announced that she had co-sponsored legislation to ban the use of private military companies in Iraq. Her statement said:

From this war's very beginning, this administration has permitted thousands of heavily-armed military contractors to march through Iraq without any law or court to reign them in or hold them accountable. These private security contractors have been reckless and compromised our mission in Iraq. The time to show these contractors the door is long past due..."

If neither nation-states nor the UN could legislate effectively against the excesses of the worse kind of mercenary- and plenty of those are still at work-- then there is one final, forlorn hope. That is the International Criminal Court (ICC), a worthy body invented by the UN in 1998 after a mere 50 years of gestation. As the UN itself explained:

An international criminal court has been called the missing link in the international legal system. The International Court of Justice at The Hague only handles cases between States, not individuals. Without an international criminal court for dealing with individual responsibility as an enforcement mechanism, acts of genocide and egregious violations of human rights often go unpunished.

The ICC was able to start work in 2002 when 60 countries ratified the relevant treaty but progress was slow. One of the reasons for this limping progress was the decision of President George Bush not to ratify the ICC treaty since he feared that American soldiers serving as peacekeepers in such places as Bosnia might be the victims of show trials characterizing them as terrorists. In fact, the U.S. did get its way in arranging with the UN that its peacekeepers were exempt from arrest or trial by the ICC for one year. The UN caved in after the US threatened to veto UN peacekeeping missions one by one.

Washington went further. It offered a number of hard-up governments trade-and-aid deals, so long as the recipients did not sign up to the ICC. By 2003, a total of 37 countries worldwide, some in Africa, had agreed to join Washington's ICC-Boycott club. Philippe Sands, and international lawyer and author of Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules, recalled in 2005 a typical shoot-from-the-hip Bushism : "I don't care what the international lawyers say."

Some observers noted the extent to which private security companies based in the U.S. were on the ground in large numbers in some of the key areas affected by Washington's attitude towards the ICC.

In such a climate the prospect of bringing the security companies (however they identified themselves) under the rule of law seemed very unlikely. It was not only Paul Bremer's Order 17 that provided the better-connected freelance soldiers with a license to kill in Iraq. Bush's opposition to the ICC potentially extended the process to many other parts of the world.

His approach had deep roots. One might almost say that to impose US law outside its proper jurisdiction was almost part of the American tradition by the time Bush expressed his distaste for any alternative. A policy known as "the Presidential snatch option'- the arrest anywhere of terrorist suspects as an alternative to assassination- was invented by Reagan in 1985. The new doctrine was set out in a secret legal opinion entitled 'Authority of the FBI to Override Customary or Other International Law in the Use of Extraterritorial Law Enforcement Activity".

In the post-9/11 world US jurisdiction was extended beyond the reach of US jurisdiction, at Guantanamo Bay and countless secret CIA prisons around the globe. In such a world, the prospects for any viable international law to control freelance soldiers were less than good. The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, appeared to bow to the inevitable when he wrote his introduction to his department's Green Paper in 2002. He said, "One of the reasons for considering the option of a licensing regime is that it may be desirable to distinguish between reputable and disreputable private sector operators, to encourage and support the former while, as far as possible, eliminating the latter."

Selective self-regulation, commercially controlled in a world of privatized warfare and corporate peacekeeping, was now seen as an alternative to the vision of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations in defending the rule of law and fundamental human rights.


  1. Private Security Companies employ hundreds of thousands of individuals worldwide- nobody knows the exact number. There are at least 17 members in the relatively transparent British Association of Private Security Companies representing enterprises "that provide armed security services to countries outside the UK." Some of these companies offer a full range of services, others are niche players. Looking at how they openly promote themselves helps provide a practical framework for the preceding discussion.

    In 2004 Aegis Defense Service & Risk Management obtained a $293 million contract from the Pentagon to establish an interface and tactical headquarters to link US and UK regular military with the 50 or so private security companies licensed to operate in Iraq. They are "a good, caring employer" with pay scales between $120 and $170 thousand a year.

    Edinburgh International is an employee owned company serving corporate clients "without unnecessary overhead costs". Minimal Risk Consultancy Ltd is a security officer employment service: "our aim is to get people into work- we're not chasing big bucks" Eriny's (UK) Ltd. promises no money laundering or rackets.

    Janusian Security Risk Management assists business to get established in dangerous areas and practices "futurology" to anticipate threats. Olive Group provides business and legal expertise in the protective services but also has a 700 acre center in Mississippi which provides live fire and explosive entry methods training up to Special Forces standards.

    Akegroup specializes in medical crisis management. Centurion Risk Management provides self-help hostile environment and emergency first aid training. Blue Hackle Group does "low profile security escorts", and are among the best at protecting their clients.

    Global Strategies specializes in nation-rebuilding by synthesizing security, protection, counter-terrorism "in support of the U.S. led effort against international terrorism."

    Control Risks specializes in kidnap and ransom crisis response, corporate investigations and has an extensive record of service to officers of the British government. Henderson Risk has "privileged access to information and contacts outside normal 'open source' material, an ability to obtain the "unofficial" views of individuals, business and governments. Saladin Security Services offers an extended range of conventional security services and has long standing, influential contacts in the Conservative Party.

  2. Most of the owners and prime operators of these companies are former, high-ranking military officers or government ministers with extensive "security operations" experience some of which goes back as far as the 1960s. There is even "revolving door" through which active duty officers are released to private companies for specific operations and then returned to regular service without demotion. Among the most controversial of mercenaries is a group of about 1,000 South Africans, some of who served in quite bloody capacities during the Apartheid regime, confessed at the "Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals" but who manage to evade strict controls on foreign service for private companies imposed by their native government.
    ay rates for security officers in Iraq is sometimes as high as $18,000 per month, many times the amount of those in the regular service. In addition, most companies maintain off-shore tax-havens for their employees though adequate medical benefits or pensions so far have been practically nil. Even in the field most of these companies rely on the medical services of their country's regular army. Managing rapidly growing demands for proper medical care and insurance, however, is an emerging enterprise in the private security field. That, and hiring less experienced persons from poorer countries who will settled for far less pay and benefits.

    The "boom" times provided PSCs by the invasion of Iraq are winding down. Many doubt they could operate effectively in the absence of their nations' regular army. (their nation's regular army totally depends upon their presence in Iraq but what contribution they have made to the success of the over-all mission is, of course, highly debatable.) At any rate, as far as the future of PSCs goes, one can hear a giant sucking sound coming from Afghanistan; a crisis which, set upon its current course, is expected to last a minimum of twenty years with many opportunities for the proverbial "soldier of fortune" and his bosses back in London and Washington. Even so, many other opportunities will continue to present themselves in many other parts of the world.

  3. "Soldiers of Fortune; A History of The Mercenary in Modern Warfare" by Tony Geraghty;Pegasus Books, N.Y., 2009