The Rise of the Mercenary

Steph­en Arm­strong pub­lished an inter­est­ing art­icle in today’s New States­man magazine. Based on his new book War plc: the Rise of the New Cor­por­ate Mer­cen­ary, it exam­ines the rise of the cor­por­ate secur­ity con­sult­ant. Or in basic Eng­lish – mer­cen­ar­ies.

I met Steph­en when I was invited by James Whale to review the book on Press TV. I was impressed with his research and depth of know­ledge on this sub­ject. It was an unusu­ally har­mo­ni­ous talk show — rather than arguing, we all took a broadly sim­il­ar approach to the issue of mer­cen­ar­ies, over­sight and account­ab­il­ity.

The increas­ing privat­isa­tion of intel­li­gence is an insi­di­ous devel­op­ment in the world of espi­on­age and war. For many dec­ades there have exis­ted on the fringes of the offi­cial intel­li­gence world a few private secur­ity com­pan­ies; think Kroll, Black­wa­ter, Aegis. These com­pan­ies are often the last refuge of .….. former intel­li­gence officers of the west­ern spook organ­isa­tions.

These people, often frus­trated at the overly bur­eau­crat­ic nature of the gov­ern­ment­al spy organ­isa­tions, resign and are gently steered towards these cor­por­a­tions. That, or the relo­ca­tion officers get them nice juicy jobs at mer­chant banks, arms com­pan­ies or inter­na­tion­al quan­gos. It’s always use­ful to have reli­able chaps in use­ful places, after all.

In the last dec­ade, how­ever, we have seen an explo­sion in the num­ber of these com­pan­ies. One of my former col­leagues is a founder of Dili­gence, which is going from strength to strength. These kinds of com­pan­ies spe­cial­ise in cor­por­ate spy­ing, the neut­ral­isa­tion of oppos­i­tion and protest groups, and secur­ity. The lat­ter usu­ally boils down to provid­ing mil­it­ary muscle in hot spots like Iraq. While I can see the attrac­tion for sol­diers leav­ing crack regi­ments and won­der­ing what on earth they can do with their spe­cial­ised expert­ise, and who then decide that earn­ing £10,000 a week risk­ing their lives in Bagh­dad is a good bet, this has wor­ry­ing implic­a­tions for the rule of law.

Leav­ing aside the small mat­ter that, under inter­na­tion­al and domest­ic UK law, all wars of aggres­sion are illeg­al, our offi­cial Brit­ish mil­it­ary pres­ence in Afgh­anistan and Iraq is at least to a cer­tain degree account­able. The most egre­gious war crimes have res­ul­ted in court mar­tials. But the new mer­cen­ar­ies live in a leg­al no-man’s land, and in this ter­rit­ory any­thing goes. Or can at least be covered up.

This is the same prin­ciple that has guided these unof­fi­cial spook com­pan­ies over the years – plaus­ible deni­ab­il­ity. What little demo­crat­ic over­sight there is in the UK of the intel­li­gence com­munity still does give them lim­ited pause for thought: what if the media hears about it? What if an MP asks an awk­ward ques­tion? By using former col­leagues in the cor­por­ate intel­li­gence world, MI5, MI6 et al can out source the risk.

The over­sight and account­ab­il­ity for the offi­cial spooks and the army are bad enough. The privat­isa­tion of intel­li­gence and mil­it­ary might makes a fur­ther mock­ery of the feeble over­sight pro­vi­sions in place in this coun­try. This is a wor­ry­ing devel­op­ment in leg­al and demo­crat­ic terms; more import­antly, it has a dir­ect, daily impact on the rights of inno­cent men, women and chil­dren around the world. We need to ensure that the offi­cial and unof­fi­cial spooks and mil­it­ary are account­able under the law.

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