Le Mercenaire Americain
These few young men
The few who dare
To battle in hell
-- Warren Zevon, "Jungle Work"
The Blackwater USA scandal reveals a number of disturbing things about America's security infrastructure: Most notable among them is that when the nation that spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined engages in wars, it has to hire mercenaries to fight them.
An October 17th Wall Street Journal article stated that "U.S. officials face a blunt reality as they weigh whether to replace Blackwater USA as the prime protector of U.S. diplomats in Iraq: They have no easy alternative." Presumably, the official military can't take the job because it's already strapped fighting wars in Iran and Afghanistan. (It's interesting to note, though, that Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen recently said, "From a military standpoint there is more than enough reserve" to conduct combat operations against Iran if the Bush administration wants to do that.)
Blackwater's contract to guard diplomats in Iraq runs out in May, but officials say it would take at least that long to find another private security company to take over from them. Even then, the new company would have to hire the mercenaries Blackwater just let go, because hiring and training new guards would take several months.
So it's a fait accompli; we're stuck with Blackwater and other private security firms fighting our wars for us. How's that for your peace dividend?
Lawyers, Guns and Money
Defenders of the supposed need for outfits like Blackwater will argue that even history's best trained, best equipped military--i.e. the one we have--can't be the best trained and best equipped at everything. There's resonance in that argument, but one would think that history's best military would be trained and equipped to occupy countries, which is something that militaries used to invade other countries generally have to do. One might also think than an occupying military might be prepared to protect its own diplomats, since diplomats have a penchant for flocking to countries their militaries occupy.
Maybe we're being too critical. After all, guarding State Department types in hostile territory is kind of an esoteric mission, a perk if you will. Except, yeah, providing security for American Embassies has been a core mission of the U.S. Marine Corps for donkey's years. But let's not get hung up on a minor detail.
Our military's raison d’être is to defend the country and protect its interests overseas, and on those scores our armed services have, uh…
Well, let's see. The 9-11 attacks were a coordinated series of fourth generation warfare style air raids on American soil. Our military did not defend us from those attacks, nor did it deter them. One could argue that the military isn't organized or structured to counter those kinds of attacks except for the existence of something called the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The U.S. and Canada established NORAD in 1958 to protect North America from nuclear-armed Soviet long-range bombers. Today, NORAD says that "The events of September 11, 2001" demonstrated its "continued relevance to North American security." Hmm. What was it doing to justify its existence between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11? Keeping track of Santa's sleigh?
Our military misadventures overseas subsequent to 9/11 have proven that the U.S. form of military might is no longer an effective means of achieving America's foreign aims and can be defeated strategically by asymmetric forces and weapons. The shame of it is that we didn't need to pour a sultan's ransom worth of strength, muscle and blood into Iraq to expose our critical vulnerability to the bad guys. They were already well aware of it.
Dad, Get Us Out of This
The U.S. isn't just outsourcing its military security tasking, as the recently reported SITE Intelligence Group affair illustrates. SITE, one of several firms that specialize in intercepting al Qaeda's internet communications, had its electronic cover virtually blown when someone in the White House released Osama bin Laden's latest video tape before Osama bin Laden did. Teeth and eyeballs flew in the subsequent furor over who might have leaked the video, but the incident features far more important issues. The first was illustrated by White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend's statement that the government needs the help of private individuals and companies to fight the war on terror. Why does the government need private help breaking into al Qaeda's intranet, do you think? Is the National Security agency too busy listening in on Uncle Fred's phone sex conversations? Is the Central Intelligence Agency still tied up helping James Bond duke it out with SMERSH?
Further, government security and intelligence agency operations are--at least in theory--bound by congressionally imposed legal constraints. From all appearances, however, Blackwater operations in Iraq are completely unrestricted by either Iraqi or U.S. law. Are the spy-for-hire outfits working under the same no-holds-barred arrangements that the gunslinger types have?
Moreover, the activities of these mercenary groups aren't limited to actions overseas. Blackwater operatives arrived in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit and well before federal and non-governmental aid organizations did. Tales abound of Blackwater personnel driving around the city in unmarked cars with no license plates, brandishing M-16s and other assault weapons, and commandeering a private residence for use as a headquarters. Many if not all of them had worked in Iraq. One of them complained to Jeremy Scahill of The Nation that he was only making $350 a day plus per diem on the New Orleans gig. Another private security firm engaged in a shootout with a group of what the company's chief referred to as "black gangbangers" at an overpass near the city's poor Ninth Ward neighborhood.
With this kind of sanctioned overt vigilantism going on in a major U.S. city, what sort of undercover shenanigans are private spies like the SITE Group up to within America's borders?
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword and ePluribus. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books, ISBN: 9781601640192) will be available March 1, 2008.