The scary rise of private intelligence companies

In almost every aspect of life, things that used to be done by governments are being outsourced to the private sector with often predictably bad results.


While private military security companies (PMSCs) have been subject to some press scrutiny, most infamously after contractors for the company then called Blackwater massacred 17 people and wounded dozens of others in Iraq’s Nissour Square in 2007, rather than making governments wary about privatizing war, the industry has only grown in the years since. The use of what used to be called mercenaries has not been limited to NATO countries but has also emerged in rivals like the Russian Federation, whose Wagner Group has been on the frontlines in Syria and Libya, drawing accusations of what amount to war crimes in both.

It should be remembered that the vast majority of private contractors in conflict zones, regardless of their country of origin are in non-combat roles like food services, but those that are armed are often found to behave in ways that soldiers can’t, as PMSCs are usually not subject to the bare minimum of military justice. Further, deals are often made with local governments to ensure that these mercenaries are immune to local law

At the same time, casualties among military contractors are less of a problem for governments in that while most of them are veterans cashing in on the skills provided to them at great cost by their home governments, they’re not counted in the stats and when they die in foreign lands, they don’t return home in flag covered caskets.

These kinds of companies can also provide cover for shadowy groups or governments engaged in illegal activities. In one prominent example, in order to fight the war in Yemen the government of the United Arab Emirates used its Presidential Guard, led by a former Australian soldier and filled with foreigners, especially Colombians, to take and hold territory, including some of the country’s blockaded ports, control of which seemed to be one of the absolute monarchy’s main goals. 

The growing use of PMSCs has been to some degree quietly mirrored by the growth of companies that commercialize another aspect of what was previously, outside of corporate espionage and some private detective agencies, seen as exclusive functions of states. There are now many private entities that act as for profit intelligence agencies, especially in terms of electronic surveillance and the use of tools like malware in online information gathering, offering increasingly sophisticated and legally dubious tools to governments, private individuals and companies.

Three major stories involving private companies engaged in what was once the purview of government entities have been in the news in recent months, each revealing a different aspect of how espionage is being privatized. The most widely covered, at least in alternative media, involves an Israeli company that specializes in spyware, NSO, which like many of these kinds of firms allegedly has connections to the country’s security services and government

The firm has been accused of aiding some of the world’s most repressive regimes to surveil dissidents, journalists and activists by compromising their phones using an expensive hardware and software combination called Pegasus.

Pegasus spyware was found on the phone of the fiance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018, As reported by the Post, besides dozens of journalists and human rights activists, at least ten prime ministers, three presidents and a king were found to have NSO’s malicious software on their communication devices, prompting a short-lived international scandal. 

Another Israeli security company, the appropriately named Black Cube, which seems to mix some techniques used by intelligence agencies with the old school tactics of corrupted private detectives was at the heart of the defense of one powerful man, Harvey Weinstein, which gave us a shocking view into how a wealthy sexual predator can deploy such a company to try to silence their victims and investigative journalists looking into any allegations against them.

Another case that shows how private intelligence companies can be used by governments and intelligence agencies, probably in part to create some level of plausible deniability, in this case by both Ecuador’s intelligence service SENAIN and, seemingly unknown to them, the CIA, is offered by the case of a Spanish firm, Undercover Global S.L., which spied on Julian Assange during his time at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, passing along privileged conversations the Wikileaks publisher had with his attorneys in a story first broken by El Pais that prompted an investigation by Spain’s highest court.

As reported by the Spanish daily, David Morales, the owner of the company, asked employees to keep the connection with U.S. intelligence a secret, saying that the association put their company in “another league”.

The last and most recent story we will look at is in some ways the most troubling for those living in Western nations, as it shows how someone with knowledge of the techniques of espionage and the will to use them for purely political purposes can potentially endanger basic democratic norms.

As was reported at the end of October, the former head of the American Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Michael Flynn, was accused by a Senate candidate from Pennsylvania of trying to get him to “gather intelligence” on others within his orbit earlier this year to force them to support election audits in the hope they would somehow show that Donald Trump won the 2020 election (and likely future ones when elections don’t go in favor of the American rightwing).

Aides to the former three star general reportedly approached the candidate under the auspices of a group called the Patriot Caucus, which is funded by a Texas billionaire, Al Hartman. Interestingly, the Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate in question, Everett Stern, has said he believes he was approached due to the fact that he is the owner ofhis own private security company, Tactical Rabbit, which has connections to a number of politicians. 

As Stern told Newsweek after going public with the story, “They [the Patriot Caucus) wanted to gather intelligence on senators, judges, congressmen, state reps, to move them towards the audit. The word ‘move’ was emphasized tremendously. What they wanted was to extort and to literally move people towards the audit with dirt.”

Stern also told the magazine that he believed the Patriot Caucus was operating in multiple states and that their activities could be viewed as treasonous.

While dirty tricks and opposition research are time honored traditions in American politics, modern surveillance tools are taking what’s possible to whole new levels, adding bad actors like Flynn into the equation only increases the risks for opposition politicians and activists. On top of this, unaccountable, ideologically driven billionaires can use the services of companies like Black Cube to go after any target imaginable. It also isn’t that hard to believe that a fossil fuel company or other extractive company might use the services of one of these companies to target local opposition to them in poorer countries with little in the way of accountability.

In almost every aspect of life, things that used to be done by governments are being outsourced to the private sector with often predictably bad results. This leads to corruption at all levels of government, but in the case of privatizing things like law enforcement and intelligence gathering, this is a recipe for many future disasters.


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