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October 10, 2007

Republican hints that some security contractors are spies

A lot of Iraqis believe that private security contractors are spies. The English-language press tends to be a little condescending when describing their concerns. ("Oh, those Iraqis, they think the mercenaries are spies!")

As Steve Aftergood relates in the FAS secrecy blog, some of them probably are spies.

According to one Virginia congressman, members of the intelligence committee are concerned that contractor accountability legislation will compromise their clandestine assets. In other words, they're afraid that holding contractors accountable under federal law will wind up exposing spies who break laws abroad.

Steve's post illustrates why the administration's obsession with enhanced "information sharing" between spies and cops isn't an unalloyed good thing:

The awkward fact is that intelligence collection operations are routinely conducted in violation of established laws, including international legal norms to which the United States Government is formally committed.

"The CS [clandestine service] is the only part of the IC [intelligence community], indeed of the government, where hundreds of employees on a daily basis are directed to break extremely serious laws in counties around the world in the face of frequently sophisticated efforts by foreign governments to catch them," according to a 1996 House Intelligence Committee staff report called IC21 (chapter 9, at page 205).

"A safe estimate is that several hundred times every day (easily 100,000 times a year) DO [Directorate of Operations] officers engage in highly illegal activities (according to foreign law) that not only risk political embarrassment to the US but also endanger the freedom if not lives of the participating foreign nationals and, more than occasionally, of the clandestine officer himself." [Secrecy News]

This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

You might wonder why the US government authorizes its agents to inflict felonies on foreigners. There's a reason the CIA is hated and feared in many parts of the world.

That's also why we need legal protections to keep domestic policing and foreign espionage separate. Cops and spies play by totally different rules--or they should.

Whatever you think of dirty tricks abroad, we can all agree that we don't want American spies turning their attentions on the homeland.

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Comments

Can you spell this out for me?

If a Blackwater employee in Iraq is a spy, who is he spying for and what is he doing besides guarding a US official and shooting Iraqis while transporting the official from one location to another?

I don't know if Blackwater does intelligence or not. The people the Iraqis suspect of spying may not be the ones who are actually conducting espionage for hire.

However, The Prince Group owns a private spying firm, "Total Intelligence Solutions." The official line is that Blackwater and Total Intel are completely separate and that Total Intel primarily serves the business community.

Although, "heavily armed private security contractor" isn't a bad cover if you're a big white guy who wants to nose around in Iraq. These days, there aren't many other plausible excuses for being there.

Lindsay: A lot of those felonies (most) aren't against people. Spying is one of the rare things which is both illegal, and not.

If I were to be convinced to give up/sell classified information, that's a felony.

If I were to let someone unauthorised into any number of places, that's a felony.

If I go to a foreign country, and persuade other people to do the same; that's a felony. Various of the means of communication are illegal in some places.

Espionage is a funny world. I know people who had three identities at time; who were living under assumed names in places were the people they were working with were in danger, just because they knew them.

Mostly the crimes committed are boring. Things like getting someone to sell you a list, paying a hooker to get them to do something compromising and then engaging in blackmail. We have cops who do that already (get someone to buy a lid, and them make them turn informant).

That doesn't mean I think turning it over to contractors is a good idea. I don't, for the same reasons I think having them doing things like guarding embassy officials is a bad idea. There isn't a nation around which doesn't engage in spying; they have to.

But it has to be controlled.

It's not illegal under US law for an authorized clandestine agent to set up a source with a hooker, right? Whatever the laws in Iraq say, it's not a crime in the eyes of the USA.

The new law holds contractors accountable under federal law. I don't see why they need a special exception for contractors who do intelligence work. If what they're doing is already legal in the eyes of the USA, they shouldn't have anything to worry about.

The whole privatization frenzy for the GWOT and use of “private” goons to do things the “official” U.S. government doesn’t want to be seen getting its hands dirty with, tastes a bit too much like Air America.

Since a fair number of contractors are third country nationals, I'd be amazed if some of them aren't spies for other countries, and possibly for non governmental groups hostile to US interests (such as AQ). Having intimate knowledge of US military SOP would be extremely useful for any country that might face US intervention or intervention by US trained forces. I'd bet good money that at minimum China and Russia have spies working for contractors. Even just an observant server in the chow hall could pick up information of potential usefulness by observing goings-on while off duty, not to mention the possibility of overhearing scuttlebutt from the soldiers while they eat.

US spies are the least of it. Given the special forces background of many of the security contractors the CIA probably doesn't even need a formal relationship - just an occasional chat with them on the down low.

Much more troubling is the possibility that some of the third country nationals might be working for or at least vulnerable to recruitment by Iran. Can you image how useful it would be to have an intelligence asset on base if the US attacked Iran and Iran decided to retaliate against forces in Iraq? Even if the person on the inside wasn't willing to commit sabotage, the information gleaned about troop movements and readiness would be priceless.

I can see here that a decades-long, steady diet of right wing propaganda has served to incapacitate the cultural memories of many of us.
(I can understand; history has been so drastically rewritten by the Right Wing Noise Machine that all dissent from the 60s and 70s was officially carried out by the dirty f--king hippies, and who wants to be identified with them? And all subsequent dissent against abhorrent gov't policy has come to be dismissed beneath the conversation stopping rubric of "conspiracy theory.")
With that, I must remind you all of COINTELPRO, that wonderful web of barely clandestine totalitarianism where all levels of our nation's 'law' enforcement-- including the CIA-- went after the ideologically incorrect with widely ranging levels of violence and subterfuge (all illegal, of course).
What we truly need to worry about is outfits like Blackwater being deployed as a Praetorian Guard for an increasingly imperialist and totalitarian executive branch. The danger of foreign spies infiltrating them is infinitesimal compared to the damage that is being done to our constitution right here, even if much of the activity is as yet happening overseas. You need to read some of Jeremy Scahill's coverage of Blackwater and the violent wingnuts who run it. And don't forget that the chickens always come home to roost.

That's also why we need legal protections to keep domestic policing and foreign espionage separate.

Hence the difference, for instance, between MI5 and MI6. (Not just that one stars Matthew Macfadyen and another has starred Daniel Craig among others....)

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