Wow, there’s a lot to digest after attending the Cofer Black talk at the Texas Tech International Cultural Center yesterday. If you need a reference point, the A-J was there and covered it well, including using one of Black’s answers to the question I asked.
Cofer Black was the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism from 2002-2005. Prior to that, he was a CIA field officer. In 2005, he took a Job with Blackwater USA, a private security firm. Needless to say, this guy is an authority on American counterterrorism.
The first part of his talk was devoted to a rough history of counterterrorism in the U.S. — how we got to 9/11. I won’t summarize the whole thing, but will point out a few points from this part of the talk that I think are worth highlighting:
Historically in the U.S., terrorism was seen as the responsibility of law enforcement, not military or national intelligence.
The Clinton administration took Cofer’s / CIA’s terrorism threat assessment seriously.
The early Bush Administration was focused on missile defense, not counterterrorism.
Cofer Black, along with many in the American intelligence world, was not surprised by 9/11. He compared the intelligence view at that time to Romans looking out over Hadrian’s wall.
After 9/11, there were basically two grand strategies for the U.S. to adopt: the “Worldwide Attack Matrix” or the “War Plan.” The Worldwide Attack Matrix basically means going after the 114 terrorist groups in the world and arresting, detaining, or killing them. The War Plan involves degrading terrorism “host countries” (most notably Afghanistan) to the point where they are no longer adequate training grounds for terrorist groups. It seems that we have ended up doing both, with emphasis on the War Plan. Indeed, one of the post-hoc “strategic” justifications for the War in Iraq is that it is now a magnet for Jihadists, as opposed to the United States.
In 2007, where are we now and where do we go from here? Cofer Black had some points from the latter half of his talk and from the Q&A that I want to emphasize:
At 9/11, the world was with us. Now, that view has been “greatly degraded,” and we are seen “in a new light.” Rather, our government is seen that way while our citizens are still looked on generally favorably.
We appear to be safer after 9/11 since we have not been struck. Ambassador Black offered driving fatality statistics of 30-45K per year as a contrasting metric.
The most pressing international issue is resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Iran is not a war threat, but a counterterrorism threat. We should use all of our national resources — statecraft, economics, special forces, intelligence, etc — to reward and punish Iran’s behavior without hurting it.
I want to devote the remainder of this post to the topic of privatization of government functions, since Cofer Black more or less embodies this trend. After 30+ years of service to our country in the fields of intelligence and counterterrorism, Cofer Black accepted a position at Blackwater USA. This type of move from government to the part of private sector that deals directly with government has been increasingly popular since World War II. I’m reminded of Eisenhower’s dire warning in his farewell address to the nation: watch out for the military-industrial complex.
I think it’s safe to expand Eisenhower’s warning to say: watch out when the leaders of industry are also leaders of the nation. Out-of-control privatization is one path to that state.
Ambassador Black made what I think is an excellent point: Blackwater and other companies would not work for the government if the government had not offered the work. Blackwater and others respond to RFPs from the government; in other words, they are invited. Far from being a justification for the ever-expanding roles for private contractors, I think it should be a call to action: stop electing leaders who want to privatize everything!
Don’t get me wrong, I think that private contractors have a useful role to play in some areas of government — specifically those where innovation is key. I do not believe that representing our nation on the field of battle is an appropriate area for private contractors, however. There are many functions of government that should not be privatized, and no area of government should be permanently privatized, period.
Accountability is a key issue here as well. Ambassador Black hinted that he believes a government contract is accountability enough. It isn’t. Suppose that the current allegations of killing Iraqi civilians brought against Blackwater personnel turn out to be true. Those who would be guilty would not face punishment from our system of courts-martial, and possibly they would face no punishment at all. Blackwater’s contract would very likely still be intact, and they would likely be free to pursue other contracts with the government.
Conservatives are often keen on the idea of “incentives.” Well, there’s no incentive here for private contractor personnel to behave honorably, but there are always many incentives for our armed forces to behave honorably. Sending in private contractors to do military jobs will only hurt us in the long run.
I have heard that there are now more U.S. private contractors on the ground in Iraq than there are U.S. troops. What are we doing? We cannot simply purchase our diplomacy, security, and coercive force and call ourselves a sovereign nation. We will become just another customer.