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October 09, 2007

In Defense of Privatization . . . sort of
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over the past few weeks, there has been a great deal of abuse hurled not only at Blackwater but also private military contractors in general. Much of it is certainly deserved, but some of it risks going a bit overboard.

I would be the first to argue that we need more oversight of contractors and better regulatory enforcement (in fact, I've been saying it for two years), but the experience of using contractors in Iraq shouldn't cause us to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to using non-state actors in meeting important foreign policy goals.

Case in point: Rita Katz, a freelance intelligence gatherer, whose private company, the Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute (SITE), provides some of the most up-to-date intelligence about terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda. As the Washington Post revealed today, SITE obtained a copy of last month's Osama Bin Laden video before it's public release - and before even US intelligence agencies.

SITE immediately notified the Bush Administration with the caveat that they keep it under wraps until its official release. Try to guess what happened next:

Within 20 minutes, a range of intelligence agencies had begun downloading it from the company's Web site. By midafternoon that day, the video and a transcript of its audio track had been leaked from within the Bush administration to cable television news and broadcast worldwide.

The result was equally predictable:

This premature disclosure tipped al-Qaeda to a security breach and destroyed a years-long surveillance operation that the company has used to intercept and pass along secret messages, videos and advance warnings of suicide bombings from the terrorist group's communications network

The incompetence of the Bush Administration, notwithstanding, there is an important lesson here - non-state actors and private individuals can play a constructive role in helping meet America's national interests. SITE and others in the freelance intelligence field have been extraordinarily effective at ferreting out time-sensitive and actionable intelligence resources.

Moreover, groups like SITE or the Investigative Project, headed by Steve Emerson, have shown an ability to harvest public sources of information in areas that traditional intelligence-gatherers eschew. If groups like SITE have resources and skills that allow them to complement public intelligence agencies, it seems to me that policymakers would be wise to figure out an effective way to utilize them.

There are numerous other examples of non-state actors furthering national security goals, whether it political consultants and NGOs advising opposition movements; philanthropsists financing public health initiatives; and yes, even, military contractors who have not only trained modern armed forces, but also, in some cases, provided assistance to US national security operations.

We absolutely must do a better job of overseeing those non-state actors, such as contractors, who are working on behalf of America's national interests. The Blackwater incident has brought this lesson home and showed the failure of lackadaisal oversight. But we must also realize that there is a place for private inidividuals in 21st American foreign policy. It would short-sighted if we allowed Bush Administration incompetence to stop us from utilizing this potentially effective weapon in the future.


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It's so much worse than you're making it out to be. What reason do I have to trust a private intelligence gathering firm? How do I know they're not violating people's civil liberties here in the U.S.? Why should I have any confidence that when a firm like Booz Allen Hamilton does a bunch of data mining work for the NSA that they're not also using that information to aid their corporate clients?

In short, why do you trust these people?

Mike, take the time to read up on SITE - what you describe is not remotely close to what SITE does or the kind of work that I am referring to. Frankly, this kind of knee-jerk response is exactly what I'm describing in my post.

Sorry for implying that your friends are villains. So let's leave SITE out of it. And talk about Abraxas, SAIC, Boeing, Blackwater, Booz Allen Hamilton... all big companies acting on behalf of our government without proper oversight. Indeed, no oversight is really possible since their contracts are all classified. This can't be done without transparency. There have already been too many abuses.

I am not friends with anyone at SITE. I dont know that all their contracts are classified but I find that very hard to believe. But if you think there needs to be more oversight and transparency in government contracting then we are in agreement. Contracting and govt outsourcins is not necessarily a bad thing - what's bad is lack of proper oversight and regulatory enforcement.

OK Michael, so you have no friends at Site. Do you have friends at Emerson's Investigative Project? Do any of your corporate clients purchase intelligence from SITE? I'm just wondering why you have taken such an interest in these two outfits, which you also mention in your "YouTube War" article.

Both outfits seem to have a track record of making wild charges that don't result in prosecutions, or do result in prosecutions that fail, and attacking every Muslim entity that moves. (Whatever came of that whole Mar-Jac chicken laundering accusation?) Their work is seized upon regularly and eagerly by the freepers and wingnutosphere. And now SITE is mixed up somehow in the dissemination of this highly suspicious Bin Laden video - a video in which all references to current affairs are contained in a long segment where the video image doesn't move; and a video whose script, according to some US intelligence officials, appears to be the work of Adam Pearlman rather than Bin Laden.

The problem with outsourcing US foreign policy is not just the need for more transparency on the government contracting side. It's that private commercial enterprises and NGO's are inherently shielded from public scrutiny and accountability. We don't know who they work for, who gives them their funding and what there full agenda is, since they are not required to tell us that. For example, you yourself work for a company who has many corporate clients. But we don't know who those clients are. So how do I know how to interpret your foreign policy work for the National Security Network, or the motivations behind your enthusiasm for public-private partnership in the foreign policy realm expressed through your foreign policy privatization project? I don't even know what your motives are for posting here at Democracy Arsenal.

And why should I subsidize the overseas work of corporations who are, after all, in the business of serving their own private interests, not the public interest? US foreign policy is already a massively undemocratic undertaking, largely out of the hands of the public. Why should I want to remove even more of it from public accountability?

I found your YouTube war article to be be extremely cryptic. I couldn't quite figure out what exactly you are advocating. You say:

Heads of international transport unions, banks, agricultural and industry conglomerates, and even the World Diamond Council offered models of how new standards and information-sharing could help to expose havens of criminal activity. Above all, business leaders acknowledged that thus far their efforts have been reactive -- protecting employees and assets -- but precious little effort has been put toward proactively countering terrorist operations.

Aside from my difficulty in conceiving of agricultural and industry conglomerates and the World Diamond Council (!) as progressive organizations, I simply don't know what kinds of "new standards" and "information sharing" you have in mind. Are you suggesting the US government should buy more intel from the likes of SITE? Or that the CIA should share more of the government's intelligence wealth with your clients?

You continue:

Initiatives to harness the resources and innovation of the private sector are encouraging. Collaboration between business and government to fight terrorism can be especially effective when implemented at the local and regional level. But this is no easy task. Government officials are often unable to speak the language of non-state actors and the communication gap has frustrated a number of well-intentioned proposals. Congress must ultimately ensure that the engagement of the private sector is abetted with incentives and leadership, so that segmented actions become a sum greater than their parts.

Again, I tried hard to read between the lines here. But I couldn't figure out what you are proposing. What is the "language of non-state actors"? Could you give a few concrete examples? And I gather you want Congress to step up with some sort of legislation that will enhance collaboration between business and government. What kind of legislation exactly? Protection against litigation? Subsidies? What?

One simple reason why the SITE institute obtained the Bin Laden video before anybody else -even before the Islamic websites- could be that the SITE institute actually made that video. That would explain why Bin Laden videos often appear at critical times when the White House needs war support. And I would not be surprised since Rita Katz from SITE has a history of using fake Arab identities. Read the full story at

Emerson, a Jew who gets it
A perspective of a moderate Muslim

At the risk of sounding anti-Semitic, I want to say this: either American Jews are completely clueless about the internal struggle inside Islam or they are so cowardly, that they are even afraid to voice their opinion. Or maybe it's a combination of both.

Every time there is a development that involves radical Islam, be it a Mayor of New York attending an Islamist parade, DOJ's officials attending an Islamist conference, or a protester being sued for having the balls to expose an Islamist-sponsored event at an amusement park, the American Jewish community is as quiet as a church mouse. It's like it is not even there.

The effect of this silence is devastating. Not for the Jewish community, not yet. That time is still to come. The silence affects the American Muslim community. Every time moderate Muslims are ignored and Islamists are legitimized (by either direct support from government representatives or silent support of the ADL), radicals gain ground. In the current PC climate, moderate Muslims have pretty much no choice but to keep their mouths shut.

Luckily for us, not everyone in the Jewish community is like that. There are some Jews that are speaking out. One of them is Steven Emerson, who has been warning the West about the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism since before PanAm 103. Most of his current work is focused on exposing the radicals masquerading as the moderates – those radicals who are embraced by the DOJ and the Pentagon, by the mayor of New York Bloomberg (Rudy would never get into bed with terrorist supporters) and the Treasury Department, by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, by the Congress and the White House.

There is a war of ideas within Islam, and moderate Muslims are losing. Most of Muslim clergy and Muslim establishment are paid for by the Wahhabis. Moderate Muslims are being run out of Mosques and community centers, and in many cases are physically threatened. Moderate Muslims have no place in the media or public debate, because the place reserved for Muslims is filled by Islamic radicals, who attempt to make criticizing anything Islamic a taboo. According to the Islamists, a Muslim can do no wrong.
1. When a non-Muslim criticizes Islam or Muslims, he/she is an Islamophobe.
2. When a Muslim criticizes Islam or Muslim, he/she is not a real Muslim, therefore see #1.

This is a tactic used by "moderate" Muslims, the darlings of the government and the media. But how can you call someone who praises bin Laden, or has ties to Hamas, or calls for the elimination of Israel, or wants to replace the Constitution with the Koran a moderate? They are anything but moderates, however nobody except for a few people like Steven Emerson seems to notice that. But even when the Emersons of America appeal to the public, they are often being dismissed as alarmists and racists. Well, they are anything, but. You don't have to be a clairvoyant to predict the future when it comes to expansion of radical Islam and extinction of moderate Muslims. All you need to do is get your heads out of the sand.

Why our government is so forgiving and forgetful when it comes to individuals or organizations with known terrorist ties and anti-American views is beyond me. Why the Jewish leaders are so timid when it comes to the subject of radical Islam is incomprehensible.

I thank God every day for people like Steven Emerson, because they are the last glimmer of hope for moderate Muslims.


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