If at first you don’t privatize, try, try again

erik prince

by David Isenberg

Question: What does a man worth billions of dollars want? Answer: More billions. Now such a description could apply to more than a few people in the fields of finance, investing and technology, but in this case it applies to Erik Prince, the Energizer Bunny of the private military and security contracting (PMSC) industry. Despite past rebuffs, he just keeps going, and going, and going.

Prince, founder of the Blackwater private security company was in the news this past summer, with his plan to turn the U.S. war in Afghanistan over to the private sector, which I previously wrote about here and here.

Although it was not widely appreciated then, Prince was doing an excellent imitation of Milo Minderbinder, the legendary fictional war profiteer in Joseph Heller’s famed Catch-22 novel. Minderbinder essentially believed that all wars should be conducted by private enterprise—so long as the governments pick up the expenses. For him, the main business of the American public should be his business.

Although his plan was not adopted by the Trump administration, that has hardly deterred Prince. It has barely been three months since President Trump announced his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, implicitly rejecting Prince’s proposal, but he’s already back with yet another plan to privatize a critical national security function. In fact, for those who follow PMSC issues lately it has been all Prince, all the time.

First up was a December 8 Intercept article that claimed, “The Trump administration is considering a set of proposals developed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a retired CIA officer—with assistance from Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal—to provide CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the White House with a global, private spy network that would circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies.”

There is a lot to digest in the article, some of it comical, such as the idea that North “was the ‘ideological leader’ brought in to lend credibility,” but the really important takeaways are these:

It is important to note that what Prince is proposing is less a new idea than a repackaging of an old one.  In fact, ever since the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq the private sector has marched right along with them. Private contractors were doing long range reconnaissance and direct action in the earliest days of Afghanistan. Erik Prince’s Blackwater happily worked for the CIA when it could get a lucrative contract out of it. Private airline companies have long been involved in transporting prisoners (some of them innocent) who were captured as part of the CIA’s rendition program.

However, a private network would enable Prince and company to more effectively divert money to their own pockets and render any efforts to get information about what they are doing virtually impossible.

More importantly and frighteningly, a direction action network that would report directly to Pompeo and Trump should give anyone pause. The idea that a direct action network would, at least in part, focus on countering “deep state enemies” in the U.S. national security bureaucracy makes it a thinly-veiled version of McCarthyism or Nixon’s Enemies List.

As this Salon article noted:

Maguire [longtime Prince associate and his longtime associate, CIA veteran John R. Maguire, who currently works for the intelligence contractor Amyntor Group] was on the Trump transition team and is apparently convinced that Deep State operators plan to “kick the president out of office within a year” and must be stopped. He has reportedly told at least two people that he believes National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster ordered surveillance on Bannon, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and has “used a burner phone to send information gathered through the surveillance to a facility in Cyprus owned by George Soros.”

Opposition in a bureaucracy is one thing, but what Maguire is reportedly thinking goes beyond the implausible straight into the realm of the delusional. It is like a 21st century version of Seven Days in May.

However, Maguire is hardly the only one who believes in conspiracies. As Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote:

On October 7, 2016, WikiLeaks began posting emails stolen from John Podesta, the Clinton campaign’s chairman. Earlier that day, the US intelligence community issued a statement declaring the Russian government was behind the hack-and-dumps targeting Democrats during the election… Yet Prince joined Trump and his crew in denying there was any Russian connection to the hacking aimed at Democrats… In the heat of the presidential campaign, Prince was pushing pro-Trump (and Putin-helping) disinformation.

 

…Prince has gone even further in fueling the anti-Clinton fevers on the right. During a Breitbart radio appearance four days before the election, Prince, citing a “well-placed source” in the New York Police Department, said that emails discovered on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman then separated from Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide, included evidence of Clinton perversion and criminality.

That, by the way, is hardly Prince’s most outlandish theory. He also suspects Soros of “trying to orchestrate an effort to sabotage the Trump administration through a so-called “Purple Revolution.” This campaign of resistance was purported to have begun in the moments right after the election, spurred along—supposedly—by Hillary Clinton and her husband, who each wore purple on stage as Clinton offered her concession speech in November 2016.”

Of course, given the fact that the country elected as president a man who believed that Barack Obama was not an American citizen, such delusional thinking may seem credible.

However, if, for example, someone in the CIA or other intelligence agency is not doing their job there is a simple solution. Fire them. The man who spent 14 years firing people on The Celebrity Apprentice certainly knows how to do that.

But creating another covert operation with minimal, if any, oversight and accountability by people who don’t have a self-interested, profit-maximizing axe to grind is not the way to deal with a bureaucracy you find inconvenient.

Ironically, what Prince is pushing is more likely to bring about the “deep state” he purportedly opposes. As UCLA Law School professor John Michaels wrote:

Based on the reporting we’ve seen, Prince wants to contract out intelligence work because he doesn’t seem to trust the U.S. intelligence community. Thus, this privatization push isn’t about hiring contractors to leverage market efficiencies; it isn’t about using contractors to break free of the shackles of constitutional and statutory law; and, lastly, this isn’t even about employing contractors to avoid tedious internal debates with career officials about the prudence or legality of intelligence operations.  It seems, instead, that Prince sees the need for a parallel intelligence service that takes orders from the President and CIA director and answers directly to them.

 

If that’s a fair reading of what’s being proposed, then we must consider the Prince plan to be profoundly different and far more alarming, particularly if his private intelligence service will be tasked with “countering”—perhaps undermining or discrediting—their (distrusted) government counterparts.  All of this is to say that if the raison d’être of Prince’s intelligence team is indeed to neutralize federal officials who’ve shown no signs of disloyalty, that’s precisely the type of domestic counterintelligence work we can expect.  And, as Rebecca Ingber puts it, it is the creation of a private, domestic counterintelligence squad, more than anything else, that draws us closer to an “actual ‘deep state.’”

Furthermore, for those concerned about such little things as the rule of law, Prince’s plan runs up against certain legal realities. As the Project on Government Oversight pointed out, “a federal regulation bars contractors from performing inherently governmental functions, or functions that directly impact the government’s discretionary authority, decision-making responsibility, or accountability. The regulation specifically lists directing intelligence operations as an inherently governmental function, which could create legal problems for the administration and Amyntor if the proposals are green-lighted.”

It is not at all difficult to find examples of contractors involved in intelligence activities that had a negative impact.  Contractor interrogators and interpreters were involved in the abuses that took place at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. More recently, there was the controversy over the CIA paying two contractor psychologists to develop and sometimes carry out the methods of torture used to extract information from detainees.

Reportedly, specific components of the plan include collecting intelligence on terrorists using “a network of assets in a denied area” (meaning spies in hostile countries), an online propaganda operation to counter Islamic extremism, and a rendition plan.

When it comes to propaganda, often euphemistically described as “strategic communications,” there is reason to be skeptical of private sector involvement.  In 2009 the Pentagon severed a contract with the Rendon Group after it was learned that the company was weeding out reporters who might write negative stories.

In fact, the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command has long played a key role in countering violent extremists via its psychological operations troops, so using a private network for that purpose would be redundant, to say the least.

As if undermining democracy at home wasn’t enough, we now know, thanks to reporting by BuzzFeed News, that Prince also wanted to further gut Afghanistan by ensuring U.S. access “to Afghanistan’s rich deposits of minerals such as lithium, used in batteries; uranium; magnesite; and ‘rare earth elements,’ critical metals used in high technology from defense to electronics.

The BuzzFeed article, by the way, should be read if only because it includes the slapdash Power Point presentation that Prince put together as part of his push earlier this year to turn the U.S. fighting over to private contractors.

Finally, on November 30 Prince testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The hearing transcript, released December 6, runs 106 pages, so it can’t be summarized here. But you should read it, if only so you get a sense of the real Erik Prince. You might start with the exchange he had with Rep. Adam Schiff (starting on page 78) that begins thusly:

Prince: I’d say the extent of your questions is so far outside the scope of what you’re actually looking for is that I’m not here to indulge your fishing expedition any longer.

Really, you have to go back to Ollie North testifying the Iran-Contra hearings in the 1980s to find something comparably arrogant. Come to think of it, maybe that is why Prince brought North in to help.

But it is not Prince’s arrogance that should concern us. It is his contempt for the basic tenants of governance, and bedrock principles of oversight and accountability which should scare us.  Josh Marshall, editor of TalkingPointsMemo.com, put it well when he wrote:

This is precisely the kind of stuff Prince has always been trying to do – use ex-military and intelligence operatives to build parallel national security forces that operate for profit and outside the rule of law. In this case, he has a President who is particularly, perhaps uniquely, open to that idea. He’s also clearly pitching his plans to his potential client’s mix of paranoia and mendacious blame-shifting. The world of military contracting long predates Trump and Prince, as have its inherent challenges to accountability and democratic governance. There are many different factors pushing in money in the direction of privatizing military and national security services. But few Presidents would find the attractions, both for evading the law and for acting with quasi-dictatorial power, more inviting than Donald Trump.

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David Isenberg

David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.