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01 Jul 2008

Private intel, the new gold rush

Blackwater helicopter hovering over Baghdad, courtesy of jamesdale10/Wikipedia
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Blackwater helicopter over Iraq Republican palace

As the proliferation of private military and security companies expands, intelligence gathering and analysis for sale becomes the next commercial opportunity.

By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN

In February 2007, Erik Prince, founder of the infamous private military company, Blackwater Worldwide, started what seems to be the next most lucrative market for such companies: intelligence gathering and analysis.

The new venture exists as a nexus of three companies that were quietly assembled by Prince the year before: the Black Group, LLC, the Terrorism Research Center, Inc (TRC), and Technical Defense, Inc. These companies form Total Intelligence Solutions, LLC, a company run out of an office in Arlington, Virginia, offering "evolved intelligence gathering and analysis" for "Fortune 1000 companies."

Robert Richer, former CIA deputy director of operations (who is said to have been "forced out" due to insubordination) is now the CEO of Total Intelligence Solutions. J Cofer Black, who served 28 years with the CIA - three of those as the director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center (CTC) - serves as both chairman of Total Intelligence Solutions and vice chairman of Blackwater.

According to Washington Post Managing Editor Bob Woodward in his book Bush at War (Simon and Schuster, 2003), Black predicted and alerted the Bush administration of a potential attack just weeks prior to 9/11 and later persuaded Russian authorities to comply with the impending US invasion of Afghanistan. Black would later merge his company, The Black Group - a large, international network of high-profile government, military and corporate contacts - under Prince Holdings.

Total Intelligence develops its product by utilizing its "Global Fusion Center" (GFC), a 24-7 computer-based intelligence center that scans the internet and extrapolates information ranging from "political violence and terrorism" to "environmental and health-related threats." The GFC also provides "crisis response services" in the event that customers require immediate expert opinion or physical assistance that can be "deployed on short notice" in emergencies.

The company does not hesitate to advertise its abilities. Indeed, its website presents several plausible "scenarios" to potential clients. One example describes a client wishing to evacuate dozens of people in the midst of a sudden conflict between Israel and Lebanon. In this scenario, Total Intel uses "electro-optic satellite imagery and topographic maps" to locate possible safe evacuation routes in high-risk areas while tapping "high-level contacts in a neighboring country [...] to determine the best strategy" for the customer. In the end, the customer is advised to remain in place and is given a list of "safe" areas in the region and is then "ensured corporate personnel are included in official US [g]overnment evacuation plans."

Other scenarios could include potentially dispatching physical support services offered by Blackwater via ground, aerial or maritime security.

Outsourcing responsibility

According to the associate director of national intelligence, the budget set aside for private intelligence contractors has more than doubled since 9/11.

"There is a very wide range of companies involved in what you might call information assessment or intelligence work. Some of them are involved in classic information gathering and analysis from open sources; others are involved in support services to governmental intelligence operatives like CACI. But there are also some firms that have developed, particularly in the last few years, what has classically been considered counterintelligence and psychological operations," James Cockayne, a security expert for the International Peace Institution (IPI), told ISN Security Watch.

In what can be seen as a post-9/11 gold rush, a slew of private intelligence companies have since attempted to market themselves as offering services that can crudely be categorized in two forms: investment information and risk assessment; and operational, security and combat-related intelligence operations.

While many companies offer only one of these, Blackwater's Total Intelligence not only offers both, but also maintains the ability to back up those services with heavy-duty machinery and strong corporate and government connections.

Critics of the phenomenon are concerned that previous abuses by private intelligence firms are an indication of what happens when states opt to outsource operations to the private sector.

The same concerns developed in 2004 when private companies CACI International and Titan Corporation (now L-3 Communications) were implicated in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse case. More recently, the CIA director issued statements confirming that along with government operatives, contractors had probably participated in waterboarding techniques on detainees in CIA black sites and other interrogation centers. Before engaging the private sector, Black developed a lead role in some of the rather controversial CIA programs dealing with extraordinary rendition and interrogation techniques.

"Sometimes governments can do things via the private sector that they would be prevented from doing with public agencies," Deborah Avant, director of international studies at the University of California-Irvine and author of The Market for Force: the Consequences of Privatizing Security, told ISN Security Watch.

"The process of mobilizing people and approving policy is often different, which leads to fewer checks, less transparency, etc. This is both a benefit and a disadvantage, depending on your perspective."

Different game, similar problems

From the perspective of the private sector, companies are simply filling a gap in the market by offering a service to specific customers requiring specific information. This is precisely what Black suggested in an interview with Homeland Defense Week: "Total Intelligence Solutions offers the private sector - corporate America - a situational awareness product in the same vein that intelligence agencies support their national government."

But this attitude is precisely the problem with privatizing parts of the national security apparatus. Issues and concerns over accountability and regulatory oversight, which have long been central to the discussion of private companies engaged in combat operations, are now also a concern with private intelligence firms.

"Even once they are deployed, it is harder for Congress to oversee the use of contractors. Many reporting mechanisms to Congress contain no data about individual contracts, individual companies or even if a particular mission is accomplished via troops, a mix of troops and contractors or simply contractors. Without this information, it is difficult or impossible for Congress to weigh in on the performance of different companies or the policy ends they serve," Avant said.

"And it is not clear whether Congress always wants control over contractors. With little constituent knowledge about the role of [private companies], many in Congress have felt little need to say much about it."

Members of the US Senate and House Intelligence Committees have not replied to inquiries from ISN Security Watch regarding the regulation of private intelligence companies.

Because Total Intelligence is also contracted by non-state entities such as large corporations or wealthy individuals, regulatory oversight could prove to be even that much more difficult.

With whom Total Intelligence will choose to do business and how those clients will choose to utilize the information remains to be seen. It seems easy to speculate the amount of influence Total Intelligence will have, especially given that much smaller intelligence companies have been able to achieve so much.

Such was the case in March 2005 when California-based intelligence and communications firm, Titan Corporation (now L-3 Communications), was investigated and charged by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for violating anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for funneling approximately US$2 million to the re-election of President Mathieu Kérékou of Benin. The bribe was reported to ensure Titan a contract in the country.

"Intelligence in the hands of a for-profit company becomes a commodity that, like any commodity, will be made available to the highest bidder," Dan Kenney, an investigator and activist against the construction of Blackwater's northern, rural Illinois facility told ISN Security Watch.

"A CIA official takes an oath of office, and still there are violations of public trust; however the private intelligence contractor swears allegiance only to his company and his company is sworn to make a profit."

While it is no challenge to find critics of the private military and security industry, the solution to many of the issues and concerns raised above should not automatically reaffirm state monopoly.

Precisely in the area of intelligence gathering, the CIA and other intelligence agencies have not always been immune from the type of sloppy work and unethical practices that are often raised in the debate concerning the role of privatized operations.

While the vital discussion on how to regulate private industry's involvement in national security continues, missing is a discussion on how to redesign existing norms, practices and institutions in such a way that both state and non-state actors alike are less reliant on or persuaded to businesses that engage in illicit and unethical activities yet continue to receive contracts which sustain their existence.


Jody Ray Bennett is an independent writer, researcher and journalist. His areas of analysis include the global defense industry, private military and security companies and the materialization of non-state forces in the global political economy.

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