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Privatizing War

By Greg Guma

08 July , 2004 by
United Press International

The use of mercenaries was once a dirty, little secret most governments were loath to acknowledge. But today they're called private military contractors and perform almost every function essential to military operations. The Financial Times has labeled this trend the "creeping privatization of the business of war."

During the first Gulf War, about two percent of U.S. military personnel were private workers. As of 2003, it had reached 10 percent. The Pentagon employs more than 700,000 private contractors, and at least $33 billion of the $416 billion in military spending overwhelmingly approved by the Senate last week will go to PMCs.

In Iraq, these companies supply more trainers and security forces than all remaining members of the "coalition of the willing" except the United States. Approximately 15,000 civilian security guards are stationed there, at least 6,000 of them armed. Some contractors maintain sophisticated weapons systems that used to be handled by the army. More than $20 billion -- almost a third of the Army's budget for Iraq and Afghanistan -- goes to contractors.

One advantage of using private forces is to keep down the casualty count. Although non-military casualties aren't included in official Pentagon reports, Peters Singer, author of "Corporate Warriors," estimates that at least 30 contractors have been killed in Iraq and about 180 have been wounded.

But giving contractors prominent roles does pose risks. For example, Caci International and the Titan Corporation have been implicated in charges of torture, humiliation and rape leveled at the U.S. military in Iraq.

How did we get here?

In 1969, the U.S. Army had about 1.5 million active duty soldiers. By 1992, the figure had been cut by half. Over the last decade, however, the United States has mobilized to intervene in several significant conflicts, and as a result, a corporate "foreign legion" has filled the gap between policy imperatives and what a downsized, over-stretched military can provide.

The push to privatize gained significant traction during the first Bush administration. After the Gulf War, the Pentagon, then headed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, awarded a Halliburton subsidiary nearly $9 million to study how PMCs could support soldiers in combat zones. The company has since won at least $2.5 billion to construct and run military bases, some in secret locations, as part of the Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program.

Although the number of active duty U.S. troops has recently climbed to 1.4 million, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's desire to make forces lighter and more agile has helped to accelerate the trend.

Use of high-technology equipment also feeds the process. Private companies have capabilities that the military needs, but doesn't possess. Contractors maintain the B-2 stealth bomber and F-117 stealth fighter and operate some of the newer weapons systems, such as the Global Hawk and Predator unmanned drones. Military systems like the Army's Guardrail surveillance aircraft are designed to be operated and maintained by private companies.

DynCorp, the largest PMC in Iraq, has Department of Defense contracts worth more than $2 billion to provide "post-conflict police training" around the world. Over the last decade, it has dispatched trainers to Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Liberia, East Timor, Afghanistan and now Iraq.

The company has also handled aviation services for drug-eradication programs in Latin America as part of Plan Colombia; updated information systems for the State and Justice departments, Department of Defense, FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Security and Exchange Commission and Drug Enforcement Agency; and maintained or managed U.S. border posts, weapons-testing ranges, Air Force bases and the president's fleet of planes and helicopters.

All this government work made it an attractive acquisition target for Computer Sciences Corp., a software company that branched into federal contracts. One of its key clients became the National Security Agency. Acquiring DynCorp cost $950 million, but meant that a leading information technology firm was joining forces with one of the largest PMCs, making it a major force in the military-intelligence-industrial complex.

It was a timely move. In April 2003, just a month after the deal with completed, DynCorp won a 5-year, $500 million contract to build a private police force in post-Saddam Iraq, with some of the funding diverted from an anti-drug program for Afghanistan.

With 92,000 employees worldwide, CSC works with virtually every major U.S. agency. Through its State and Defense Department contracts, it implements foreign policy by proxy. Its "private security personnel" are effectively immune from criminal sanctions.

Through its Information Technology work with the NSA, it upgrades and maintains the world's most expansive and highly secure surveillance and communication systems. It also manages Air Force bases and information warfare planning, Army weapons systems, naval security, most of NASA's air fleet, and Department of Homeland Security border-crossing technology.

In Britain, the debate over military privatization has been public and sensitive, since the activities of one U.K. company, Sandline, in Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea embarrassed the government in the late 1990s. But no country has clear policies to regulate PMCs, and the limited oversight that does exist rarely works.

In the United States, hey have mostly escaped notice, except when U.S. contract workers in conflict zones are kidnapped or killed.

It's a troubling situation. PMCs have become an adjunct foreign policy apparatus that is largely invisible, rarely mentioned by the press, and not currently subject to congressional oversight. The Freedom of Information Act doesn't apply, and any background on how they operate is private, proprietary information.

In some cases, the use of private contractors is a way to get around congressional scrutiny. But it also represents something deeper: the gradual outsourcing of U.S. defense and national security.

Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom, a Vermont-based world affairs magazine and author of "Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do." An investigative feature on CSC and DynCorp is available at

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