Thursday, April 23, 2009

Privatising the GWoT

FBI interrogator Ali Soufan has a remarkably illuminating piece in today's New York Times. In it, Soufan shreds the Conservatist arguments that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" were successful or that they produced meaningful intelligence that normal techniques could not.

Liss at Shakesville, on reading it, picked up something interesting in the narrative:
The debate after the release of these memos has centered on whether C.I.A. officials should be prosecuted for their role in harsh interrogation techniques. That would be a mistake. Almost all the agency officials I worked with on these issues were good people who felt as I did about the use of enhanced techniques: it is un-American, ineffective and harmful to our national security.

Fortunately for me, after I objected to the enhanced techniques, the message came through from Pat D’Amuro, an F.B.I. assistant director, that “we don’t do that,” and I was pulled out of the interrogations by the F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller (this was documented in the report released last year by the Justice Department’s inspector general).

My C.I.A. colleagues who balked at the techniques, on the other hand, were instructed to continue. (It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.) [emphasis added]
I share Liss' disgust at the transfer of military and intelligence operations to private entities, for much the same reason.

The Iraq conflict has employed at least as many "contractors" as it has servicepeople. Iraq needs a new base/barracks/school/whatever? Don't send in the Corps of Engineers: KBR can do that, and it'll only cost twice as much and need as much more in renovation of the electrical and plumbing systems. There's a new VIP coming to visit? Blackwater can cover the convoy (at 3x what it'd cost to bring in Rangers for the job), and they'll only shoot a few of the locals by mistake. The list is endless.

Now, through Soufan, we have an account that indicates the same busineses were among the first to "request" the interrogation tecniques Yoo, Bybee, Bradbury et al attempted to justify. Note that Soufan stipulates that it was the contractors, not the FBI nor the CIA, that made the initial requests.

It is becoming defensible that the GWoT, like the attempts to "reform" Social Security, was less a struggle against terrorism and more a means to outsource the Department of Defense. The advantages are clear: fewer "troops" would need to be deployed to a given theatre, reducing the visibility of the campaign at home; casualties would be the responsibility of the contractor, removing a burden from the Veterans' Administration; costly weapons programmes could be handed to the private sector which could write them off as business expenditures; shoddy workmanship in facilities and reconstruction efforts could be handed off to the private sector builders, who could at once claim benefit from the work perfomed and protection from litigation under the umbrella of the US government; and the private contractors could be far more free in their methods and tactics than US servicepeople constrained by law, duty and military codes of justice and conduct.

Disownership is perhaps the key item here: the US can at once contract with a private entity for a service performed, and distance itself from the success or failure of that service and the methods used to do the job. After all, it wasn't US soldiers/sailors that made such a mess, it was a contractor. But then again, the contractor can't be punished because it works for the US government. This gives the government a free hand to indulge its worst tendencies while still maintaining at least the pretense that those tendencies weren't its own.

Liss' perspective is quite clear:
At some point, I hope there's a reckoning for the influence private military contractors were allowed to have on our national policy during the Bush administration. I hope, but I suspect there won't be.

In fact, I suspect that outsourcing the really ugly stuff was the point all along.
Rereading Soufan's piece, and thinking back over the last eight years, I can't help but think she's right. But I think there's a larger problem: ShrubCo worked from the premise that that private anything was more cost-effective, and more efficient, than its public equivalent. I suspect that the interrogations and other "contract" work was an experiment in the effectiveness of a private defense entity, and that the eventual goal was to turn over all but the most basic command functions of the military and intelligence arms to private enterprise. If these "contractors" could be shown to be more effective, and less expensive, than their comparable DoD or intelligence branches, a case could be made to let them handle those tasks on an ongoing basis.

This vision is highly disturbing. Imagine, for a moment, a Blackwater or Custer Battles type of business possessing aircraft carriers and advanced attack aircraft leased long-term to the US Navy. Imagine a similar organisation tasked with the incarceration and interrogation of combatants - without DoD or CIA supervision or input. The materiel would present far less risk to the US' worth (the value would be covered by private insurance and neither protected nor guaranteed by the federal government, yet could still be defended as "US sovereign territory" should it be attacked or lost. The contractors would be responsible for their own out-of-theatre expenses such as healthcare, counseling and housing, saving countless millions in such expenses for the DoD, yet still be "our boys" when in harm's way. Conversely, the contracted businesses would be under extreme pressure - not to remain within any budget, but to produce satisfactory results: losing people or equipment, or performing atrocities, would become a cost of doing business, and only the success of a mission or campaign would be measure of the value of the contract. The simultaneous liberation to indulge the worst behaviours of wartime and freedom from the burdensome expenditures required to maintain a peacetime military would enable the administration to engage in some of the ugliest fighting imaginable without substantial risk to public resources. And if an individual contractor became sufficiently unpopular to risk public support its contract could always be cancelled and awarded elsewhere.

That scenario raises two major potential horrors. First, and most easily understood - particularly in light of Soufan's article - is how far and how fast a contractor with no oath, and only a W2 to demand loyalty, can sink into the quagmire. Second is the horrific scenario when a contractor as well equipped as the US government is cut loose: where will it go? who will pay its salaries? what will it be prepared to do to remain in business and pay its shareholders? Neither scenario is at all pretty.

There are sound reasons for maintaining standing armed forces and well trained intelligence professionals as public resources. There are equally sound reasons for keeping those resources public and not delegating their activities to private industry. In each case, one of the reasons is the controls placed on public service that private enterprise avoids. It's defensible that the Bush maladministration advocated the privatisation of these functions as they did precisely to bypass those controls.

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