Mercenaries are nothing new; people outside of national armies have been fighting and dying for pay since the days of ancient Rome. Now in the midst of another empire’s reign, “private security companies”—as they are benignly called—have been on the rise in the United States for several decades. Under the Bush administration however, they have become central to the war on and occupation of Iraq.
In August 2005, there were an estimated 60 to 80 private security companies working in Iraq. Perhaps best known is North Carolina-based Blackwater Security Consulting, four of whose employees were killed in Fallujah in 2004—their charred bodies hung from a bridge. Others include Titan, Bodyguard and Tactile Services, Custer Battles, and Triple Canopy. Most security companies are headed by ex-Special Operations men, with former military or police officers making up their personnel.
In Iraq, tasks previously performed by the military, such as providing security details for high-profile officials, are increasingly being handled by private firms. Private firms have guarded former U.S. Chief Envoy to Iraq Paul Bremer, protected the Baghdad International Airport, and defended the Coalition Provisional Authority. Companies working on the reconstruction effort in Iraq, such as Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, are also hiring private security firms to protect workers in the face of a mounting resistance, as are some individual visitors, such as journalists.
One of the most obvious and indeed most powerful reasons for the government to outsource is that there simply are not enough troops to go around. Outsourcing jobs normally performed by the government frees up soldiers for actual fighting on the front lines. Using private security also makes war more discreet, as private personnel are not included in death tolls or counted in the numbers of troops on the ground.
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Region last fall, private security companies first began doing large-scale work here in the United States. It only took a few days for hundreds of private security personnel to cover New Orleans, making the city host to an extreme military presence that earned it the name “New Oraq.” Most of the private security personnel worked for businesses or very rich individuals. The Starwood Hotel hired Blackwater guards for its “security.” In a statement before the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, vice president of hotel operations Kevin T. Regan claimed that Blackwater’s presence kept Starwood’s employees safe and allowed them to reopen before any other hotel in the city. James Reiss, a wealthy inhabitant of uptown New Orleans and chairman of the city’s Regional Transit Authority, brought in an Israeli private security company by helicopter to guard Audubon Place, the gated community in which he lives. FEMA itself even hired Blackwater guards to patrol streets, run rescue operations, and “handle looters.”
By looking at Iraq and New Orleans, it’s clear that private security firms survive on the misery of others—profiting from the excessive militarism of war and increasingly from disaster “relief efforts.” As Custer Battles co-founder Mike Battles told a Wall Street Journal reporter, “For us, the fear and disorder [in Iraq] offered real promise.”
Unsurprisingly, security firms have intimate Washington connections. Erik Prince, CEO and co-founder of Blackwater, gave more than $80,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2000 and made generous donations to the Bush/Cheney 2004 primary campaign, House majority leader Tom Delay’s re-election campaign, and a number of Republican congressional campaigns. When Katrina hit, it was Blackwater that the Federal Protection Service—a department of Homeland Security—hired for assistance. Employees of Triple Canopy, including such high-ranking officials as the vice president and chief financial officer, gave $7000 to the Bush/Cheney 2004 primary campaign, and $2000 to the Republican National Committee. The Coalition Provisional Authority hired Triple Canopy to guard 13 of its compounds in Iraq.
Whereas the public theoretically elects its government and has a voice when it comes to the actions of the U.S. military, it has little or no control over what private businesses do. Intelligence firms gathering information, for example, may be violating people’s privacy quite unknown to the public. But unless suspected of illegal behavior, a private firm is not required to report on its actions.
Until recently, the legal status of private security contractors was widely characterized as a “grey area.” Were they considered civilians or military personnel? No government department wanted to be responsible for security contractors for obvious reasons. In Iraq, contractors accused of crimes were exempt from Iraqi court rule and were to be prosecuted in their home countries, creating a mess of red tape for victims of wrongdoing who sought redress. In July of 2005, Guy Taylor of the Washington Times reported that “some military officials say the Pentagon depends on contractors without defining limits on how they can be used, how they must be trained, and what they’re legally permitted to do.” The government did not ensure that companies ran background checks on potential security contractors, which some firms failed to do. In a New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Other Army,” private security contractor Lyle Hendrick recounted his discovery that a former colleague had been arrested while on leave in the United States. It turned out he was a fugitive in Massachusetts, having been charged with embezzlement and convicted of assault.
In the fall of 2005, the government finally took responsibility for private contractors when the Pentagon issued new regulations regarding contractors in combat zones. The regulations cover background security checks, the arming of contractors, medical care, and require contractors to carry cards stating they are bound by the Geneva Convention. Contractors are also required to coordinate their actions with local military authority, and the military must keep private security personnel informed of possible threats. Though new contracts will automatically be covered by these regulations, implementing them on existing contracts—if it ever happens—will be a difficult, slow procedure involving reopening those contracts.
Even with these new regulations, privatizing the military boils down to the frightening reality that with enough money, businesses and even individuals can command something akin to a personal army. In New Orleans, that single qualification helped to increase the divide between upper-and lower-class victims of Hurricane Katrina. The rich were able to hire gun-toting bodyguards to protect their homes and possessions, while the poor were intimidated and threatened. The mercenaries claimed to be quelling fear, yet it seems that having men carrying M16s about would only make citizens more fearful and distressed.
G. Simon Harak, the WRL’s Anti-Militarism Coordinator and co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, points out that as corporate interests play a larger role in creating and “cleaning up” wars for control of markets and natural resources, the business “with more military personnel, will make more money than a corporation with less military personnel working for it.” “Conceivably,” Harak explains, “personnel employed by a corporation could fight the military personnel of a country or even another private company for control of certain resources.” For those working against militarism and corporate power, the ramifications of private armies battling one another are alarming to say the least.
The privatization of the military poses new challenges to the anti-militarism and antiwar movements. New analyses and strategies will have to accommodate the often-concealed actions of private security firms.
“It’s not just the government, or the military, anymore,” says Eric Laursen, an activist who has worked with organizations including the WRL, No Blood for Oil, and the M27 Coalition.
Antonia Juhasz, a visiting scholar at the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies and author of the book The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time, agreed that the anti-militarism movement’s work has become harder because now that there are multiple targets, the work is more diffuse. Essentially the military has grown. Activists must now scrutinize a multitude of private companies working under government and corporate contracts, in addition to the “traditional” military.
Still, private security companies are “vulnerable to public exposure because they operate outside public scrutiny,” says Harak. Juhasz agrees that one of the most effective tactics against private security companies is simply to bring the companies’ covert operations to the public’s attention.
Exposing private security firms’ actions soils their reputation and could create public outrage. While private businesses don’t have to worry about things like re-election, they can be influenced by the public pressure around their actions. For example, Juhasz cites the case of CACI, a firm whose interrogators were involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal. After a San Francisco group launched a public education campaign telling of the firm’s involvement in the torture, CACI withdrew all its personnel from Iraq.
Bringing the problem of private security companies to the public’s attention could include billboard campaigns, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, educational events, and demonstrations. Civil disobedience could take place at recruitment stations or facilities of private security firms—blocking workers’ entrances.
The main motivation for private security companies to be in war zones is simply to make money. Activists working against security firms should therefore employ economic tactics. While it’s difficult for an individual to boycott private security firms, as the services they provide—such as WMD response training and perimeter searches—are not often used by individuals, activists can create “a reluctance by investors to supply them with the capital they need,” as Eric Laursen puts it. Laursen feels this is where the anti-militarism movement could learn from the work of the animal rights movement, “which has been very effective at pressuring big institutional investors not to put their money in exploitative companies.”
The WRL’s Stop the Merchants of Death campaign is working on a corporate counter-recruitment campaign against the war profiteer Halliburton, by exposing to prospective employees the firm’s insidious actions. A similar approach might be used against private security companies. By spreading the word among potential employees, such a campaign could convince them not to work for private security companies. Colleges and other sites of private security recruitment could show their disapproval by denying recruiters access to campus. Perhaps current employees could be convinced to leave, even in the face of an unpromising job market.
The privatization of the military has also increased awareness of corporate power within the anti-militarism and antiwar movements and provided an opportunity for them to work together with the anti- corporate globalization/global justice movement. Private security demonstrates just how much the United States is corporate-driven. Beyond the privatization of the military, empowering corporations is a fundamental part of the occupation and “reconstruction” of Iraq.
Laursen points out that “there’s at once something very new and very old about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. On one hand, no American imperialist war has ever been fought with so blatant a purpose of putting powerful corporations in charge of another country’s economy. On the other, this has always been what wars have been about. In ancient times it was about seizing the treasures of the enemy, which literally meant gold and other precious objects; now it’s their oil and other natural resources.” Laursen says that the Bush administration is trying to turn Iraq into “a testing ground for all the failed policies the global justice movement has been protesting against for years.” Therefore, the targets of protest for the global justice and the anti-militarism movements are deeply intertwined, if not the same.
Making the connections between the global justice and anti-militarism movements “could be very important in building a more generalized opposition to the Iraq occupation itself,” Laursen concludes.
Simon Harak agrees: “The ‘opponent’ has become much larger, as it were. But that only means that there is more opportunity for unity in the peace and justice movement …we need to unite with the anti- globalization movement.”
Just the Beginning
But the development of effective strategies to combat threats of private security has only just begun. When asked how privatization has affected the anti- militarism movement, Laursen responded, “not as much as I’d like to see. I feel very strongly that we should be directing more of our actions in this country on counter-recruitment and against war profiteers.” Harak says he believes the WRL Stop the Merchants of Death program is unique in making the connection between corporate globalization and militarism—a critical step in addressing private security companies.
As the private security industry increasingly infringes upon everyday life, it’s up to the anti-militarism movement to broaden its understanding of the military and corporate power, unite with other movements for peace and justice, and draw public attention to these secretive contracts, to ultimately stop growth of the private arm of U.S. militarism.