Thugs of Fortune

by , August 29, 2009

A singular absurdity of the 21st century is that the nation that spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined needs to hire mercenaries to fight wars against enemies who have no defense budget at all.  

An August 19 New York Times article revealed that in 2004 the CIA hired Blackwater USA to help "locate and assassinate top operatives of al-Qaeda."  This is the secret program that Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to not tell Congress about for seven years.  "It is unclear," wrote Times reporter Mark Mazetti, "whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program."  The program, says Mazetti, "did not successfully capture or kill any terrorist suspects," which makes it sound like they tried to kill terrorist suspects and blew it.  There’s something about assassinating "suspects" that makes the mercenary aspect of the program seem trivial.   

It was the mercenary facet, though, according to Mazetti, that led CIA director Leon Panetta to cancel the program in June and then tell Congress about it.  Panetta would have been fine with assassinating suspects, I reckon, if only CIA types had been involved.  

But wait a minute.  An August 20 Times article by Mazetti and James Risen says the CIA is still using mercenaries to help them kill terror suspects.  A "division" of "the company formerly known as ‘Blackwater’" is loading Hellfire missiles and guided bombs on drone aircraft at "hidden" bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The Blackwater mercenaries, now known as "Xe" (pronounced "zee") mercenaries, also provide security at the bases.  They don’t pull the trigger or pickle off bombs though; CIA "employees" do that by remote control from the agency’s Langley, Virginia headquarters.  CIA types also pick which terror suspects to target.

How is this drone assassination program different from the assassination program Panetta cancelled in June?  Both employ mercenaries.  Both target "suspects."  Both rely on iffy information; our intelligence in that part of the world amounts to beating people up or bribing them so they tell us what we want to hear.  

Our intelligence is so bad that we don’t even know for certain if our drone assassination program has killed any suspects.  We know for sure that we’ve killed a lot of people who aren’t terrorists through collateral damage though, so we can be fairly sure the drone assassination program — like the rest of our woebegone war on terror — creates two or more new terrorists for every one it eliminates.   

In the assassination program that Panetta cancelled, operations to kill or capture suspects had to be approved by the CIA director and presented to the White House.  Risen and Mazetti say that drones land or take off from the bases in the Bananastans "almost hourly," so it’s a good bet that nobody at the White House is getting told about the drone assissination missions, and the CIA director probably gets a weekly summary that he may or may not read.  That means that "employees" are deciding when and where to create collateral damage.   

The assassination program Panetta cancelled probably violated U.S. and international law.  The drone assassination program does too.  We’re running airstrikes, which are acts of war, against targets in Pakistan.  Congress has not specifically approved combat operations in Pakistan, unless you consider the September 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force as a blank check for any president to apply military power anywhere at any time if it involves counterterrorism.  If that’s the case, Mr. Obama can fire bomb Dresden and nuke Nagasaki if he thinks suspected terrorists are hiding there.  Heck, he might delegate those decisions to CIA "employees," or even employees of Blackwater/Xe.  

It speaks philosophical volumes about contemporary American values that an illegal secret assassination program that involved mercenaries had to be shut down, but an illegal overt assassination program involving mercenaries continues without objection.   

In March 2009 Blackwater/Xe lost its billion-dollar contract to protect U.S. diplomats in Baghdad, a job normally done by the U.S. Marines.  Blackwater had been under fire for a 2007 incident in which its security personnel killed 17 civilians in an unprovoked shooting.  Another mercenary outfit, Triple Canopy, won the contract and hired the same security personnel who had just been fired to do the same job they’d been fired from.  Some in the Iraqi government speculated that Triple Canopy subcontracted the job to an outfit called the Falcon Group, which was a Blackwater/Xe affiliate.  

Two former Blackwater/Xe employees have filed sworn statements in a federal court alleging that company founder Erik Prince may have been involved in the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.   The statements assert that Prince "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe," and that Prince’s companies "encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life."  There’s plenty more and it’s plenty sordid, and it’s mighty salacious stuff for people to swear to in front of a federal magistrate if it has no basis in truth.  Prince is a former Navy Seal, he’s rich, and he’s politically connected.  He probably knows a few good lawyers.   

There are a number of reasons to hire mercenaries.  Some of them are financial; it’s cheaper to rent a shooter for a short-term job than it is to train a career soldier or intelligence officer or torture specialist whom you have to provide with benefits and retirement pay.  The main reason to use mercenaries, though, is that they exist in a legal twilight zone.  If they operate overseas, they’re not exactly subject to U.S. law or host nation law or international law.  They don’t operate under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or congressional oversight either.  They can get away with shenanigans that even the CIA and Special Forces wouldn’t dirty their hands on.  Nobody has to know how contract interrogators get information from prisoners, and the second the government pays a mercenary outfit the money vanishes from the books forever.   

If, as Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker says, a certain former vice president formed death squads that answered directly to him, they likely contained mercenaries.  Blackwater/Xe may not have been directly involved in any trigger pulling, but former Middle East CIA field officer Robert Baer noted recently at TIME.com that "Blackwater was not the worst of the contractors, some of which did reportedly end up carrying out their assigned hits." 

Doesn’t all this make you proud to be an American?

Read more by Jeff Huber