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Security contractors participated in CIA counterinsurgency operations

Employees of the private security firm Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, directly participated in CIA counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. European leaders threaten Iran with imminent sanctions. North Korea announces that it is ready to co-operate with the United States. All this and more in today’s security update.
Oliver Scanlan
11 December 2009

On Thursday, it was revealed that security contractors employed by the private firm Blackwater had played an integral role in CIA counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Former Blackwater employees and intelligence officials have reported that contractors had participated in raids on suspected insurgents and the transportation of detainees, two activities regarded as among the most sensitive performed by the CIA. With former employees stating that, as a consequence, the line between the private company and the CIA became so blurred as to be almost non-existent, the revelations have raised critical questions about the use of so-called ‘guns for hire’ in war zones.

One CIA official is quoted as saying that the relationship between Blackwater and the CIA was ‘very brotherly’ and that ‘there was a feeling that Blackwater eventually became an extension of the agency.’ Congressman Rush D. Holt has condemned the revelations, stating that the overly close relationship between private contractors and the secret services was ‘a scandal waiting to be examined.’

The openSecurity verdict: The role of security contractors in theatres of operations was brought into the media spotlight by the murder of four Blackwater employees on 31st March 2004 in Iraq, an event which precipitated the highly controversial pacification of Fallujah by US forces. Significant questions regarding their legal status and their place in the military chain of command remain, despite of the US military’s increasing reliance on their services.

The Washington Post reported in 2006 that at that time there were about 100,000 private security contractors in Iraq, a figure four times higher than the previous estimate given by the US military, ten times higher than the number of such personnel employed during the 1991 Gulf War, and nearly equal to the number of deployed US military personnel. In Afghanistan, there were 3,847 contractors in country as of March 2009.

A 2008 report published by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) noted that there were major ambiguities regarding the appropriate roles for such contractors, relating to both their legal status and their place in the military chain of command. In particular, the report suggested that it was doubtful whether security contractors could be considered as legal combatants, meaning they would not be covered by the Geneva Convention. It also catalogues a number of concerns about the quality of the oversight of contractors, illustrating several instances where mistakes arose from ambiguity in the chain of command and, in several cases, drastic incompetence.

The most egregious example of the latter was in 2006, when a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed the bodyguard of an Iraqi politician. Other examples relate to the apparent widespread illegitimate use of lethal force. Blackwater employees were involved in 195 instances of firearms discharges between 1 January and 12 September 2007, in 163 of which cases the contractors opened fire first. Finally, the report focuses on the ambiguity of oversight at Congressional level; security contractors are not required to report to Congress regarding their activities, and so are not held to account by political representatives.

The revelations that security contractors have been so intimately involved with some of the most secret activities of the US secret services underscore concerns regarding accountability and oversight in combat theatres. The privatisation of warfare, which expanded dramatically under the Presidency of George W. Bush, cuts to the core of the debate surrounding the relationship between the state and its armed forces, with several analysts viewing it as symptomatic of the erosion of democratic processes in the US and a risk to the integrity of the republic.

North Korea agrees to co-operate with US

State media in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) have quoted a foreign ministry official as saying that the North Korean government is prepared to co-operate with the United States over its nuclear programme. The spokesman said that Pyongyang is prepared to work with the US to ‘narrow remaining differences’ as well as stating that an understanding had been reached on the need to resume the moribund six party talks. The announcement follows three days of talks between senior North Korean officials and the US special envoy to Pyongyang, Stephen Bosworth. Bosworth characterised the talks as ‘useful’. Analysts are suggesting the discussions were aimed at highlighting the benefits that would accrue to the Communist state from rejoining the diplomatic process.

Iran sanctions imminent

On Thursday, ambassadors from the UK, Germany and France made clear that Iran faces the imminent prospect of sanctions if it refuses to comply with UN resolutions concerning its nuclear programme. Speaking at a meeting of the UN Security Council, Garaud Araud, France’s ambassador to the UN said that ‘there is no longer any reason to wait’. The ambassadors’ comments come in the wake of a report to the Security Council from the sanctions committee which found that Iran has been engaging in an ‘apparent pattern of sanctions violations involving prohibited arms transfers’. Specifically, the report cited two instances in the last three months where arms-related materiel, transported by sea, had been intercepted en route from Iran to Syria.

Israel has alleged that this materiel was destined for Hizbollah arms caches, a charge that Iran has rejected. Also highlighted within the report was the revelation of a hitherto undeclared enrichment facility near Qom, and the recent declaration by Tehran that it intended to build another ten such installations.

The ambassadors’ statements were followed on Friday by an affirmation from US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates that additional sanctions against Iran were likely. Speaking to American troops in Kirkuk, an oil rich town in northern Iraq, Secretary Gates said that ‘significant’ additional sanctions were likely if Iran did not ‘change course’ and open its nuclear programme to international inspection.   

Human Rights Watch criticises Uzbekistan’s treatment of activists

In a press release on Thursday, Human Rights Watch heavily criticised the government of Uzbekistan for its treatment of human rights activists. Citing recent harassment of activists, HRW’s director for Europe and central Asia, Holly Cartner, said that recent praise accorded to Uzbekistan for improving its human rights record was ‘wholly undeserved’. HRW claims that on 5 December police in Karshi in southern Uzbekistan detained two members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, thus preventing them from meeting with an HRW researcher. This latest incident follows the detention of seven human rights and political advocates last month, three of whom were beaten by security forces.

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