|The Wild West of American
The information revolution has
spawned a global industry of private intelligence
services, and some members of the US Congress have
recently asked whether their activities should be
regulated. There is good reason for this -
according to Corporate Watch, 50% of the US$40
billion given annually to the 15 intelligence
agencies in the United States is now spent on
The rapidly growing
private intelligence and security industry has
become a multibillion-dollar business. It can be
roughly divided into two sectors:
That which deals with security threats and
provide intelligence and security in
That which provides companies with vital
intelligence needed to expand business and avoid
unnecessary pitfalls in an emerging marketplace.
These companies also collect data on private
citizens, which is often sold to companies wishing
to market their products or to those in the
business of guarding airports and other vital
national infrastructure from terrorist attacks.
Threat to privacy
of the US Congress are worried that the
unregulated spread of private intelligence
agencies could constitute a threat to privacy
rights enjoyed by US citizens.
statement dated February 22, 2003, US Senator
Patrick Leahy (a Democrat from Vermont) cautioned
his colleagues that the case of ChoicePoint Inc -
a private, US-based company that inadvertently
sold 145,000 personal and financial records of
Americans to con men posing as legitimate
businessmen - is an indication that "new
technologies, new private-public domestic security
partnerships, and the rapid rise of giant
information brokers ... have all combined to
produce powerful new threats to privacy".
According a Washington Post report on
January 20 this year, ChoicePoint has contracts
with the Justice Department and the Central
Intelligence Agency to provide public records
online. The paper noted: "ChoicePoint and other
private companies increasingly occupy a special
place in homeland security and crime-fighting
efforts, in part because they can compile
information and use it in ways government
officials sometimes cannot because of privacy and
Leahy has pointed out
that databases of giant information companies
contain billions of records on individuals "that
include sensitive information such as financial,
travel, medical, and insurance data".
"Very little is known about the integrity
and handling of this information, and there are
insufficient rules and oversight to protect public
privacy," Leahy said.
Immune from parliamentary oversight
committees and many restrictions governing their
activities, private security and intelligence
services are being hired by intelligence agencies
for myriad tasks. Often run by prominent former
spies, these privately owned companies present
themselves as an alternative source of information
gathering and offer other special services.
The US State Department lists 29 private
companies doing business in Iraq. Among them are:
AKE Limited, based out of the United Kingdom
and described on the State Department's website as
a company that offers "hostile regions' training,
twice-weekly Iraq security briefings, private
intelligence, and security reports".
Meyer & Associates from Texas, which
offers, "Security consulting and problem
resolution ... intelligence; transportation ...
threat assessment; kidnap negotiations;
investigations; reporting; analysis; liaison with
government, diplomatic, military, local and
Overseas Security & Strategic Information
Inc/Safenet, based in Atlanta, Georgia, provides
"threat and intelligence reporting" and claims
that its approach "is responsive, personalized,
These and other
companies working in Iraq have US government
contracts to provide intelligence reports, man
security posts for government facilities in the
country, debrief prisoners, serve as translators
in jails, and guard oil pipelines from sabotage.
Many employees of these companies have been killed
by Iraqi insurgents or terrorist attacks.
One such private
intelligence company is Athena, a subsidiary of
the Israeli-based Merkhav Group. Athena, which has
offices in the United States, Greece and Israel,
is headed by ex-Mossad head Shabtai Shavit. His
former subordinate, Yossi Maiman, is the head of
Merkhav and is considered by many to be one of the
most influential men in Israel - and Turkmenistan.
Athena promotes its services in a brochure
available on the Internet titled "Intelligence
From Open Sources" that says, "Intelligence is no
longer reserved solely for government and state
organizations. Today's terror attacks have brought
about an awareness of the need for advanced
information. Public and private organizations can
now perform a self-assessment of their
vulnerability and the security risks posed by
Athena is very clear in its
understanding of the world of intelligence:
"Intelligence, until the end of the 80s, was a
subject dealt with by governments and nations. It
brought with it connotations of military and state
security issues. Companies and private people
dealt with information - not with intelligence.
During the 1990s, more and more corporations
developed the concept of business and industrial
intelligence as a competitive tool."
companies such as Athena claim to gather
information only from open sources, there is
always the danger of these companies straying
beyond such self-imposed restrictions and gaining
access to non-public, confidential sources in
order to satisfy clients. How such sources are
tapped can become a delicate matter, and in
certain circumstances privacy laws could be
The question facing lawmakers is
what to do if any of these private intelligence
services become "rogue elephants" and -
inadvertently or not - sell their information to
criminals or terrorists.
As reported in
Asia Times Online The metrics of losing
on May 25:
In Iraq, the numbers of "private
security contractors" - always referred to
politely as such in the American press, never as
"mercenaries" or "hired guns" - is unknown.
There can be no question, however, that they
make up by far the second-largest contingent of
"coalition" fighting forces in Iraq, well ahead
of the British. Estimates of the number of
foreign hired guns in Iraq usually fall in the
15,000-20,000 range, with possibly tens of
thousands of Iraqi hired guns thrown in as well.
According to Agence France-Presse, 60 foreign
firms, with exotic names like Blackwater and
Custer Battles, as well as 40 Iraqi firms, are
in the mercenary business there. But as with
their casualty figures, so their force numbers
exist in a murky world beyond all public math.
Almost completely unregulated - in one of the
last decrees issued by the defunct Coalition
Provisional Authority, pro-consul L Paul Bremer
granted immunity from prosecution for private
security contractors working with the Americans
and US-backed Iraqi government - they constitute
the paramilitary "Wild West" of American Iraq.
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