By Ann Hagedorn
By the time President Obama announced the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, PMSCs [private military and security companies] were in line to collect billions of dollars in contracts for at least another five years. They included SOC, Inc. (the firm with the extensive training site in Nevada, whose contract to safeguard the Baghdad embassy would bring in nearly $1 billion), Triple Canopy (a five-year $1.53 billion contract for embassy security), ArmorGroup, Control Risks Group, DynCorp, Erinys, and Aegis. And as always, there were many smaller firms working as subcontractors, though these were not listed on the government’s Baghdad Embassy website. What was noted on the site, however, was a rather big caveat: “The U.S. government assumes no responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms whose names appear on the list.”
These contracts hardly resembled the feeding frenzy of the Iraq PMSCs surfacing in Iraq, some without track records and many in search of subcontracts. There were, in fact, enough unknown firms with unfamiliar names popping up in Baghdad that some underwriters at Lloyd’s of London were uneasy. Insurers typically demanded that these companies produce what were called security protocols from the military if the companies wanted insurance for operating in unstable environments.
The Iraqi contracts would cushion some of the top firms during the industry’s transition from wartime. And while the gold rush in Iraq was ending, the pursuit for the next rush of markets had already begun. Where exactly were these markets? Wherever instability threatened development; wherever the military commitments of states exceeded their capacities; wherever preventive war was a ruling principle; wherever governments were viewed as incapable of supplying defense and security fast enough in times of sudden conflict; wherever maritime terrorists threatened the shipping industry; and wherever kings, dictators, or presidents felt endangered by mass protests, such as the nations involved in what became known as the Arab Spring in 2011.
To be sure, there was plenty of work for PMSCs during the Arab Spring, especially protecting companies trying to operate in the midst of the political unrest. For example, in Bahrain, where Aegis had an office in Manama, the capital, the firm, according to its own release, implemented a “crisis management plan” for an unnamed multinational energy company and evacuated 100 or more people.
A few months after the protests abated, the United Nations released a study showing that the use of “mercenaries in armed conflict” had vastly increased in recent years. Examples included Arab countries during the spring protests. Muammar Gaddafi, it noted, had brought in hired guns from Eastern Europe and from African nations to fight prodemocracy protestors. Although leaders in the PMSC industry argued that the hired guns in the Arab Spring were not the companies that formed the backbone of their industry, there were clearly some mainstream companies acting as brokers of combatants deployed to stop the protests. The U.N. stressed that the presence of private forces, whether employed by companies or self-employed, was growing worldwide without enough control to stop “an onslaught of human rights problems.”
In America, too, business was picking up for PMSCs. The idea of preventive war at home was seeping into the collective consciousness of Americans, echoing that familiar rationale for using private-sector security when governments appeared unable to come through with mandates to safeguard its citizens. Case in point: the Mexican-American border.
If unstable environments stimulated the market for PMSCs, then the Mexican-American border was a candidate for another bonanza. Capitalizing on such potential in the summer of 2011 was the firm International Security Agency, or ISA. With headquarters in Houston, ISA employed former Special Forces members as well as former police, and told the press that it had done work in thirty-three nations. Its rationale for security work was, as the Texas Tribunedescribed it, “If the government cannot protect its citizens, it’s up to the individual.”
In August 2011, ISA announced that it had received the “required licenses to operate” in McAllen, Texas, on the Mexican border. At the time, ISA President Jerry Brumley told the press: “I love my country. If I were king or emperor of America, I would do exactly what Ronald Reagan did. [Reagan said,] ‘You know what? You hurt an American citizen—I don’t care where you are—and I am coming after you.’ And we’re in America.”
In its presentation to the McAllen business community that summer, ISA showed a newsreel clip of a car chase along the U.S. border that ended with one car in the river. Another clip displayed the devastation following the explosion of car bombs on the Mexican side of the border, and an animated rendering of Glenn Beck telling the audience that drug dealers were tantamount to terrorists and that the government would not and could not protect Americans from the violence they caused. In its corporate slide show, the company then informed potential clients about the expertise of its employees, who were trained in military skills and who, as the ISA president implied, had aggressive rules of engagement. The presentation harkened back to Iraq in 2004 or 2005.
“Our practice,” said Brumley, “is if someone raises a weapon to me and I feel threatened, with my life or the life of my client, I am taking action. I am not going to lose an American because my rules of engagement say ‘Well, you know, they have to shoot at you [first].’” The Texas Tribunecommented, “[The presentation] demonstrates what a military-style ‘cadre’ is, complete with a photograph of a camouflaged soldier raising a weapon and taking aim.”
ISA, according to its website, required its applicants to be “former military with at least four years of service and an honorable discharge, a federal law or civilian law enforcement officer with at least two years of service, a security officer with six years of experience or a personal protection agent with more than three years of experience.” Pay scales ranged from $200 a day per agent, to $2,500 a day promotional material, was to stop drug-cartel-instigated violence in the United States before it started—the Wild West version of preventive war.
When asked whether it was appropriate to hire private security firms to guard the border and what his concerns for accountability might be, Texas Governor Rick Perry, then a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, said, through his deputy press secretary: “Let’s be clear here: It is the federal government’s responsibility to protect Americans by securing the international border between the U.S. and Mexico. Since the federal government is not fulfilling that responsibility, it is unfortunate but not surprising that the citizens living along the U.S.-Mexico border feel so unsafe on their own property that they could be looking to hire personal security.”
Quelling fears along the Mexican border promised to become a profitable business, and it extended beyond the realm of guarding homes, individuals, and businesses. There was money to be made, for example, in the crackdown on immigration. PMSCs could run and sometimes own detention centers. This was a high-growth market. In 2005, there were 280,000 detentions and by 2011 there were 400,000. The demand was such that the close proximity to the Mexican border of some training sites—for example, Playas, only forty miles from the border—meant they could easily be used as future detention centers. After all, immigration enforcement had become another growing market for PMSCs, especially in the U.S., U.K., and Australia.
By 2011, for example, private contractors controlled half of all immigration detention beds in the United States. Although it was a niche market, it was often identified by analysts as one source of potential growth for the PMSC industry. Detention attracted the large multinational firms known for their vast offerings of what were once government services. G4S, with more than 600,000 employees in 125 countries, was one. G4S owned both the British ArmorGroup and the large American security company Wackenhut. It had been one of the corporate participants in the 2008 meetings at Montreux. As part of its immigration work, it was under contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to escort illegal border-crossers back to Mexico.
But despite the Border Patrol work and immigration-related armed security, PMSCs remained nearly invisible to the American public. That they would continue to have a presence and an influence in Iraq or Afghanistan would have surprised most Americans. But that they would play a bigger role back home, within U.S. borders, would have been more surprising. And yet they were establishing a presence on Main Street. By the fall of 2011, there were dozens of municipalities, counties, and townships in the United States that had hired a private military and security company to train their police forces—often Blackwater. Big cities on the list included Atlanta, Washington, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
There was no law prohibiting the training of police in military methods. Blackwater figured that out, thus identifying the training of domestic police as a potentially lucrative part of its business, and then cornering the market. In the beginning, the market consisted mainly of the Department of Homeland Security, which was in a hurry to improve local police protection in the event of a terror attack. It was quick to utilize Blackwater’s police-training services, funding and supporting police departments nationwide to employ Blackwater. In addition, some municipalities were considering contracting PMSCs for special duties, such as patrolling a city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The theory was that this saved the city proof vests and uniforms.
The difference between a police officer trained to “keep the peace” and a soldier was quite easy to identify. A policeman was legally required to protect and to serve the citizens of the state, to assume innocence unless there was a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, and to use weapons against a citizen only as a last resort. A soldier was trained to identify enemies and if necessary to kill them while protecting any nonenemies in the vicinity. “I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat” was their creed. And although most policemen trained by a private military company would remain dedicated to their oaths to serve and protect the public, there was the possibility of the exception.
Evidence of potential problems bubbled up in autumn 2011 when the Occupy Wall Street movement inspired demonstrations in U.S. cities and towns and on university campuses, as people protested the greed of what they called “the 1 percent” of the U.S. populace. Although there was no direct involvement of PMSCs, as had been the case in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina when Homeland Security brought in Blackwater, there were clear signs of the militarization trend in policing. The protests began on September 17 in New York with the occupation of a park near Wall Street.
These were nonviolent political protesters using their First Amendment rights to express their views, thus inspiring some journalists to refer to “the American Autumn” following “the Arab Spring.” But in early October things began to change. In their black full-battle uniforms armed with assault rifles, sometimes even M4s like the ones the military used in Iraq and Afghanistan, some police began to act the way they looked. In Oakland, for example, police kicked and attacked demonstrators, including war veterans, shooting them in the face with teargas canisters. An ex-Marine who had spent two tours of duty in Iraq was hit so hard in the head with a police projectile—while he was texting—that he was taken to a hospital in critical condition and for nearly two months lost his ability to speak. As if in a flashback scene from the disaster at Nisour Square, Oakland police threw a “flashbang grenade” at the people who ran to help the wounded vet.
In November, a former Washington State peace officer who had earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart while serving in Iraq teamed up with a lawyer from Arlington, Virginia, to warn in the Atlanticabout the consequences of bringing military-style training to domestic law enforcement: “When police officers are dressed like soldiers, armed like soldiers, and trained like soldiers, it’s not surprising that they are beginning to act like soldiers.”
It was a potentially shameful situation for the United States, especially when the U.N., the watchdog of human rights violations across the globe, turned its gaze on the nation that considered itself the world’s icon of freedom and human rights. In early December, Frank La Rue, the U.N.’s special envoy for protecting free expression, drafted a memo to the U.S. government demanding to know why it was not protecting the rights of the Occupy Wall Street protestors. From his view, as long as they were peaceful nonviolent demonstrators occupying public spaces, the government had an obligation to protect their rights and not to exert excessive force against them. What was at risk, La Rue wrote, was America’s credibility as a model democracy.
In late 2011, another affront to democracy was taking shape as the government was outsourcing jobs to design, maintain, and operate cybercapabilities for national security. This included devising defenses against cyberattacks, and even orchestrating offensive cybertactics. In what some government officials were calling the cybercontractor complex, there was a shift in 2011 from internal defense of the infrastructure to offensive strategies, including cybersurveillance sometimes aimed at American citizens—a startling reality that would soon be exposed to the world by former private contractor Edward Snowden. Equally unsettling was the fact that a few of the new surveillance systems operated by companies under contract to the United States had customers other than the United States.
For the industry, it meant yet another market to inspire “the incubation of new and more powerful capabilities from within the industry [of PMSCs],” as a British journalist wrote. At least cybersecurity was not armed security and it was not on the list of usual services offered by most PMSCs—not yet anyhow.