For weeks, people in Washington had wondered what had shocked CIA director Leon Panetta so much that he decided to expose the exploits of a 2004 government program to assassinate high-level Al Qaeda members. As Mark Mazzetti reports in today’s New York Times, it was Blackwater USA that convinced him, since the private security contractors had been hired to assist with the operations: “Bringing outsiders into a program with lethal authority raised deep concerns about accountability in covert operations.”
The fact that Panetta spoke publicly about the program has been a positive move, shedding light on the illicit work and helping to restore a more judicious approach to what Americans are doing in the world. But anyone who was in Iraq at the time that the program was being discussed could hardly be surprised by news of Blackwater's involvement. The company’s scurrilous activities in Iraq have been scrupulously chronicled by Jeremy Scahill in his book on the subject and currently on his blog RebelReports.
Moreover, private security contractors worked alongside military officers and the CIA during interrogations at detention facilities in 2003 and 2004. As I discovered while doing research for my book Monstering, the contractors were the cool ones at places like Abu Ghraib because they did not have to follow the military codes: Instead, they wore fleece jackets and had long hair and also scored with the female soldiers. The contractors were the studs, as the soldiers told me. Along with their freer approach to fashion, the contractors also had a more freestyle approach to the interrogations, mainly because they were not confined by the military rules. In many ways, the contractors were role models for the soldiers and encouraged them to rev up their approach to detainees. It was a vicious cycle, and the detainees paid the price – they were treated harshly by the private contractors, and also by the soldiers who emulated their style.
Given the close -- and brutal -- relationship fostered between the contractors and the military who often worked in tandem with the CIA, as well as the overall importance of the contractors at the prisons and in other areas, it would have been surprising to hear that they were not involved in a program like the one described by Panetta. It does not mitigate the troublesome aspects of contracting out sensitive work to the private sector, but it is a reminder that by and large that was how business was conducted.