I started writing about the private security industry in July 2001, when I sold a story to the Observer newspaper about a company called DynCorp. They were hired by the US to help the “reconstruction” of Bosnia and Kosovo by running the new post-war police force.
Kathryn Bolkovac, one of the US police officers sent by the firm, discovered DynCorp staff were trafficking women. DynCorp tried to stop her investigation then sacked her. DynCorp are a US company, but ran the Bosnian operation through their subsidiary in Aldershot, so Bolkovac went to an industrial tribunal in Southampton which backed her claims.
At the time this seemed like an odd piece of corruption from the fringes of the system. But then came the 9/11 attacks and, as Tony Blair told us, “the rules of the game changed”. Under the new rules, there was going to be a lot of privatised “reconstruction”. Indeed, even before the bombers started their “deconstruction” of Iraq, the US government handed contracts to Bechtel and Halliburton to rebuild what had yet to be destroyed.
An army of private military contractors – or mercenaries – guarded the corporate reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. DynCorp, fresh from sex trafficking in Bosnia, supplied the Praetorian Guard for Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
As a journalist I found that contractors gave me a steady stream of scandal stories. I wanted to try and understand the whole process of security privatisation, not just describe the many areas where it went rotten.
It quickly became clear that this was an Anglo-American operation. So, for example, the most important security contractor in Iraq – Aegis – is a British firm. Before the Iraq war Dick Cheney came to Britain to promote battlefield privatisation in a conference with Labour ministers and transatlantic businessmen because he thought that, “our British colleagues are far ahead of us” in commercialised warfare.
It was also clear that the privatisation went way beyond the well known examples in Iraq. Private companies supplied interrogators in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Contractors even helped the “waterboarding” of US captives in the secret “black sites”.
Corporations also run the massive databases, “data mining” operations and bureaucracies that make up “homeland security” in the US. In Britain the biggest “homeland security” contract, the ID card, will be run by big transnational firms.
When judges told the then home secretary Charles Clarke he could not lock up foreign nationals without a trial, he turned instead to “control orders”. This form of house arrest was nicely packaged and run for Clarke by private companies Serco and Group 4. All these are parts of the ongoing privatisation of “anti-terror” security.
Trying to understand the effect of War on Terror, Inc, meant trying to understand the “war on terror” itself. Gordon Brown and his boy wonder, David Miliband, came to my aid by offering an analogy. They said the “war on terror” should be like the Cold War. Their nostalgia for the era of anti-red witchhunts and support for “anti-communist” dictatorships was hard to understand, but their analysis was spot on.
During the Cold War the Anglo-American political leadership tried to brand every challenge to their leadership, at home or abroad, as part of international communist subversion. Similarly, in the “war on terror”, leaders in Washington and London try to use the terrorist threat to justify a whole host of new international interventions or authoritarian measures at home.
Within hours of the fall of the Twin Towers, Donald Rumsfeld said to his note taker that the US needed to attack: “Near term target needs… go massive – sweep it all up. Things related and not.” For the last five years we have seen the US “going massive” and trying to squeeze unrelated issues into the “war on terror” – most obviously by making the attack on Iraq part of the response to Al Qaida, despite Saddam’s lack of any connection to the terrorist killings in New York.
The whole point of the “war on terror” is not to deal with terrorism as such. It is to assert US political and military might. Britain’s leaders have decided to ride on the coat tails of that power.
There is a novel feature to the “war on terror”. While Britain and the US grabbed extra power, they quickly passed that power to private corporations. The new authoritarian state and the post-Thatcherite shrinking state bred and formed a new hybrid of subcontracted authoritarianism and privatised warfare.
During the Cold War, US president Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence” of the “military industrial complex” because “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist”. The new security industrial complex has created a powerful commercial lobby with a vested interest in new military interventions abroad and new authoritarian measures at home.
While politicians in Washington and London are quite capable of throwing themselves into the disasters of the “war on terror” on their own account, they are encouraged by their authoritarian and military urges magnified by the new security executives.
There are two main mechanisms. Firstly, the industry lowers the bar to wars abroad and crackdowns at home. Every time a minister ponders such a move, a gaggle of businessmen will offer some “can do” solution.
Secondly, when ministers and officials leave government they can now count on a comfortable seat on the boards of the security companies they previously hired. In addition the security industry funds a gaggle of paid-for academics to pump up “security” fears.
Recently the Labour linked think tank IPPR got funding from four firms cashing in on the “war on terror” – Raytheon, Booz Allen, EDS and De La Rue – to fund a “security commission” pushing new alarmist claims.
War on Terror, Inc is published by Verso. Solomon Hughes writes a weekly column for the Morning Star. You can contact him at [email protected]
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