When Security and Profits Don’t Mix

Taking Aim at PSC Reform

It looks like ArmorGroup North America will be down one lucrative contract next year.  The US State Department is reportedly severing its relationship with the private security firm following an investigation into allegations of lewd, drunken behaviour and sexual misconduct by ArmorGroup contractors protecting the US Embassy in Kabul.   

     I have long argued against outsourcing military jobs – such as guarding embassies – to private security firms.  The reason is simple. The military exits to protect and serve the national interest whereas PSCs operate for one reason and one reason only; to turn a profit.       The media has had a field day with the ArmorGroup North America story. But the sensationalist headlines decrying ‘mercenaries’ out of control often ignore the underlying cause of such abuses. Having worked as a private security advisor in hostile environments since 2002, I can say confidently that the majority of contractors on the ground are competent and strive to do their jobs professionally.   Scandals are not simply the product of individuals gone awry; they are the result of poor management structures, corporate cultures which place profits before the security of clients and employees, and above all, lack of external oversight.

     One area which clearly illustrates how PSCs and the military operate to different standards is alcohol consumption. The British military bans alcohol in all operational environments and strictly enforces its dry policies.  Some PSC’s by contrast have no rules against drinking or turn a blind eye to contractors who flaunt those that do exist. No one working in a warzone should consume alcohol – period.   Tasks in hostile environments usually entail long hours and can only be done properly if contractors lead what is essentially a monastic life.  Down time should be spent honing skills through training, keeping fit and resting up for the next shift – not getting pissed.  I’ve seen contractors misplace their weapons (leaving them in the toilet or on top of vehicles) because they were hung over or in some cases – still drunk.   It’s beyond unacceptable.   Another area where some PSCs fall short of military standards is saying ‘no’ to clients. If a diplomat in a hostile environment wants to engage in unnecessary high risk activities, such as shopping on streets that are targeted by suicide bombers, a military Close Protection team (bodyguards) can take up the issue with their superiors back home who can then go across to the diplomat’s bosses and nip the scenario in the bud.  No such chain of command exists in the private security world; hence why so many PSCs instruct their advisors on the ground to ‘give the client what they want’ rather than risk losing a contract.  Reforms prompted by unacceptable incidents are another area where some PSCs fail to respond as effectively as the military.  Due to negligent discharges and unlawful shootings by some contractors, there are now private, operational CP teams in hostile environments who are forbidden by their employers from carrying weapons with a chambered round   Could you imagine a general ordering his frontline troops to do that?

     In The Circuit, I argued for three key reforms to clean up the private security industry:  first, limit PSCs to servicing only commercial contracts; secondly, require PSCs to perform due diligence on all employees to ensure they have the skills and mindset to do their tasks effectively; and finally and most importantly, externally regulate the industry.

     Limiting PSCs to commercial contracts would not bar ex-servicemen and women from working military jobs.  What would change is the management.  I would like to see the US State Department and DoD and the British FCO and MoD hold a database of ex-military and law enforcement individuals who could be hired for tasks such as guarding embassies and providing close protection for diplomatic staff. The military and foreign office security managers would then be directly in charge of their teams on the ground.  Not only would this system graft military/ government command structures onto tasks and enforce higher standards – it would also be more cost effective.  Cutting out the often astronomical management fees of PSC middle-men would likely save a bundle.

     Of all the reforms I’ve been urging, external regulation is the most important. At present, PSCs in Britain are self-regulated.  It’s high time the British government did something about it. If PSCs were held to account by a system of external regulation, not only would it dramatically increase professionalism – it would throw light on an industry which currently operates in the shadows.  I personally would love it if PSCs were forced to disclose all incidents involving employees in hostile environments dating back to 2001; from negligent discharges, to contacts with civilians, to the number of private contractors killed, wounded and kidnapped on the job.  I’m sure the figures would be eye-popping, more so than any headline about ‘rogue mercenaries’.

4 thoughts on “When Security and Profits Don’t Mix”

  1. Bob,
    Great article and great write up by yourself. Having read these events and served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Private Security BG I have seen young lads get drunk, pull knifes and on many occasions pull pistols when arguments take place. This was without the influence of alcohol. With alcohol it is a terrifying place to be. My biggest concern is being caught up in one of these situations.
    My analysis of this situation is that for many contracts the cheapest guys are found to fill the required numbers. Over 70% do not have any experience of working in such a hostile environments. A lot of the contracts are ex young soldiers who have not had “Front Line” action whilst in uniform.
    A mixture of Brits and Yanks many storeman, cooks, office staff and communication guys thrown into something they have not done before and most importantly

    Because of this they turn to drink, they fight and there is a breakdown in procedures and command.

    Pay peanuts you get monkeys!!!

    If they selected highly trained experienced operators not only would this not happen but the client gets a service which they pay for.

    Ex SF guys and the like have been at the coal face many times and they can cope so much better than what is on offer today. So for the sake of the client and the industry get rid of these greedy, selfish money grabbing companies and have one government affiliated recruitment company who can service all the commercial contracts which require weapons of any kind

    They should run all contracts at a cost plus basis so everything is open and transparent. That way proper wages can be paid for your own skills and experience and you would not go to bed at night wandering if your were going to die by the bullets of the Taliban or the people you work with and are supposed to be providing protection.

    Bob you were a lone voice ….. not any more.


  2. Very good points Bob. I remember talking to a PSC medic who’d been on convoy with Danny Fitzsimons in Iraq and, on the first night out, had to sedate him with diazepam and morphine because he was blind drunk, looking for a scrap and a danger to the rest of the convoy. The medic filed a full report to Olive – who to their credit sacked Fitzsimons on the spot – but he was still rehired by ArmorGroup in Aug and, as we know, killed Paul McGuigan and Darren Hoare. You suggested regulations would have saved at least two lives.

  3. Bob, great article and I particularly enjoyed your talk at the SNE on 9 Dec. You are spot on, regulation of the industry is needed. I doubt however it will come any time soon, there are so many issues that need to be overcome before regulation can be introduced. For example there is still no clear definition of PSCs or what they do, there are few applicable laws that could be used to bring PSCs to trial (and those that could be applied are so loose that any decent lawyer could get them off). Additionally, who is going to pay for an oversight body? The current recession will mean any government would not want to pay out for a regulatory body even if some of the costs could be recouped. Finally there are difficulties involved in investigating potential crimes (i.e. in war zones) plus issues of extraterritoriality when PSCs operate overseas.

    The inability of international bodies to regulate or abolish mercenaries in the past are being repeated with todays PSC industry. Although I feel PSCs are far removed from the mercenaries of yesteryear I do think there are many similarities in terms of problems of regulation.

    PSCs are a global industry and therefore an international regulatory code is required. The Montreux Document goes some way to raising the awareness of what states and companies can do to help improve the image of the industry but still does not overcome the major issues involved with its regulatory control.

    I wait to see what codes of conduct the UK government are going to place on PSCs and more interestingly how they are going to enforce it and oversee its implementation.

  4. Bob,

    I currently work on an embassy security contract. I think your suggestions are valid, as long as they are seen in the context of Afghan or Iraq. There are many other embassy contracts with U.K diplomatic security teams, who face different pressures and operating environments than those you discuss. I feel that it would be wrong for the FCO to implement a overall security policy based on Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I’d also argue that your scenario in which a military diplomatic security team would be able to flag an ongoing situation up to their chain of command to protest against the actions of their principal as the situation is unfolding is over simplified. In my experience it is more likely that once his objections were overuled by the principal, the team leader would raise the issue upon safe completion of that specific task through his chain of command. This facility would also exist in the private sector, as you rightly point out the response may be different, and may be motivated by financial concerns. However the immediate operational result would have been the same with either a RMP (for instance) team or a PSC team.

    The British Army would struggle to provie the manpower required to meet the task of saffing all the diplomtic security contracts that are in place around the world. Retention would become an even bigger issue within the pool of CP trained soldiers.

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