Outsourcing war is a bloody business

I just published a story at The Nation about the recent kidnapping of three U.S. contractors in Baghdad. The tale underscores an important truth about the vast expansion of military contracting in war zones over the past 15 years: it’s an extremely dangerous occupation.

Screenshot 2016-02-03 16.01.10

According to the latest statistics compiled by the Department of Labor, 3,712 people working for US and foreign companies under contract to the Pentagon and other US agencies were killed between September 1, 2001, and December 31, 2015. Not all are American; the numbers include citizens from dozens of countries who were caught up in the war as contractors for U.S. and foreign companies working for the U.S. government.

“Most of the killed are local nationals,” who make up most of the work force and are predominantly translators and truckers, said Doug Brooks, a Washington consultant and the former president of the International Stability Operations Association, which represents dozens of private security contractors in Washington. Brooks said the Department of Labor numbers, which are compiled by DOL’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, are considered accurate by the contracting community.

Most of the contractor deaths—3,259—took place in Iraq (1,630) and Afghanistan (1,629), where the United States has been at war for most of the past decade. Large numbers of contractors also lost their lives in Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. In comparison, over 6,800 US soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2015.

Companies linked to L-3 Communications, a key Pentagon and intelligence contractor, accounted for 378 of the contractor deaths – more than any other single company. Most of its dead worked for L-3’s Titan unit, which provided thousands of interpreters and linguists who served alongside US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. (L-3 had no comment, but a spokeswoman noted that Titan was acquired by L-3 in 2005 and spun off in 2012 as Engility Holdings Inc.)

DynCorp International, the single largest US contractor in Afghanistan and a major contractor in Iraq, lost 169 people.

The third-highest total, 151, were working for KBR Inc.,,the former subsidiary of Halliburton that became notorious for winning Army logistics contracts in Iraq due to its close ties to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Nearly all of that total, 140, were employed by KBR subsidiary Service Employees International Inc. It was a major provider to KBR of truck drivers, hundreds of whom were attacked during the early stage of the Iraq War.

Also high on the list is Blackwater, the notorious contractor, now known as Academi. It listed 29 deaths.

Click here to read my story. Below is annotated version of the chart pictured above, with links to all the companies listed.

L-3 Communications Inc. 378
DynCorp International 168
KBR Inc. 151
Armor Group International 64
Hart International 64
Mission Essential Personnel Inc. 54
Triple Canopy 41
Blackwater Security Consulting 29
Sterling Global Operations Inc. 26
Sallyport Global 23
Subtotal, Top ten companies 1,001
Total, All companies 3,712
Source: US Department of Labor Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, January 2016.






Posted in Corporations, Intelligence, Iraq, Military Industrial Complex, Spies for Hire | Leave a comment

Raising a ruckus with the South Korean government

Screenshot 2015-12-13 17.18.51Over the last 10 days, I’ve been in the middle of a dispute with the South Korean government of Park Guen-Hye, which is none too pleased with my reporting on the political situation in South Korea. The government’s calls to my editors at The Nation blew up in their faces by sparking a row with the Korean press and the South Korea’s political opposition, both of which denounced the government for interfering with foreign reporting on Korea. I greatly appreciate the show of solidarity, which tells me that democracy is still alive and kicking in South Korea.

For me, the most touching tribute was a graphic spread prepared by Hankyoreh, South Korea’s only independently owned daily newspaper, of my reporting on the United States and Korea over the years. In all my years in journalism, this is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received, and I thank Hankyoreh’s editors for recognizing my contributions. But the solidarity is mutual. As I concluded in an essay I wrote for OhMyNews,

Last May I was made an honorary citizen of the City of Kwangju. So I feel like I’m a citizen of both Korea and the United States – and as a citizen and a journaliist, it’s my duty to shed light on what’s wrong with both of our countries and seek ways to make us better. No government should be afraid of the truth. 

Here’s the run down about what happened.

The fun started on December 1, when I posted a story at The Nation magazine’s website called “In South Korea, a Dictator’s Daughter Cracks Down on Labor.” This is how I began:

Following in the footsteps of her dictator father, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea is cracking down on labor and citizens groups opposed to the increasingly authoritarian policies of her ruling “New Frontier” party known as Saenuri.

The situation could reach a critical point this weekend, when tens of thousands of workers organized by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) join forces with farmers, students and other civic organizations in a national action in Seoul to protest Park’s conservative labor, education and trade policies.

On Saturday, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency banned the march, with Park’s Justice Minister Kim Hyun-Woong vowing to “uproot illegal and violent demonstration…no matter how much sacrifice is required.” Meanwhile, the President herself equated the protesters – some of who wear masks as protection from riot police – to terrorists.

“Given that the extremists of the Islamic State group hide their faces, we should ban demonstrators from wearing masks in the future,” Park said, before flying off to Paris for this week’s Climate Change Conference. She last visited Washington in October, when President Obama, her country’s strongest ally, promised that the United States “will never waver” in its commitment to South Korea. (Note: the December 5 demonstration took place as planned, with no interference from the government).

I went on to describe the legacy of Park’s father and the fact that he was assassinated during a turbulent time in 1979 when South Korean workers and unions were massing in the streets to protest his repressive policies and demand a return to democracy. A few days later, I was interviewed on HuffPostLive with Hyun Lee, a Korean journalist in New York City.

For some reason, my article drew a complaint from the South Korea Consulate-General in New York, which contacted my Nation editor a few days later. Apparently the consul was asked to make the call by his home government after my original article was translated into Korean and then went viral when OhMyNews, a major news site in South Korea, posted the story.

When I heard about the Consul’s call, I took to Facebook to describe what happened. Next thing I knew, the story, and my posting, had gone viral in Korea. One of the most circulated articles was an interview I did with Og Lim, a Boston-based citizen journalist who works with NewsPro, an organization that translates important English-language articles in Korean. My story also appeared in Huffington Post Korea.

Here’s how the brouhaha was reported by Hankyoreh. The story had a great headline: “Critical article earns The Nation a creepy call from the S. Korean general consulate”:

The South Korean consulate general in New York City called and emailed The Nation magazine to protest an article it had printed criticizing the Park Geun-hye administration’s demonstration suppression tactics, a journalist is claiming.

Tim Shorrock, the freelance contributor who wrote the piece, posted the allegations on his Facebook page on Dec. 4. Shorrock wrote a piece that ran in the weekly’s Dec. 1 edition titled “In South Korea, a Dictator’s Daughter Cracks Down on Labor.”

“Just got a note from my editor at The Nation saying the Park government has complained to them vociferously about this article,” Shorrock wrote on his page.

Shorrock went on to quote the editor‘s note.

“I received an e-mail, followed up by a phone call — actually, a spate of phone calls — from the Korean Consulate General here in New York wanting to have a meeting, in our office, with me ‘to discuss’ [Shorrock’s] article,” it read.

“The man I talked to on the phone did not go into any details, nor did he point out — or even claim — that there were factual errors. Just vague words along the lines of the ‘remarkable progress Korea has made over the past four decades,’” it continued.

Following the quote, Shorrock wrote, “Thanks to the Korean netizens who immediately translated the article into Korean and spread it far & wide! Words have power. Maybe even President Obama can listen.”

I picked up the story in my OhMyNews essay:Screenshot 2015-12-13 17.13.49

When I heard last week that the South Korean Consulate in New York had contacted my editors at The Nation about my article on President Park Guen-Hey’s crackdown on the labor movement, I was surprised and a little shocked. I’ve been writing about South Korea for over 30 years for the Nation and other US publications. But until this call, I’d never heard a direct complaint about my article from the Korean government. So I wondered: why did this article catch their attention?

From what I’ve been able to piece together, the person at the Consulate contacted my editors on direction from his boss in Seoul. But he wasn’t contacted until after my article had been translated into Korean and posted on the Internet, drawing thousands of readers and comments. My article, which was quite critical of the Park government and included many details about her dictator father, Park Chung Hee, apparently deeply offended someone inside Park’s foreign ministry, which then instructed the Consulate to complain to the Nation.

Aside from the fact that I refered to “a dictator’s daughter,” however, there was little in my article that was new or unusual. I believe that it caught the government’s attention because it was so unlike most reports about South Korea in the U.S. press. For the most part, American reporters in Korea see the country only in Cold War terms, with the “bad” North Koreans always the villains and the “good” South Koreans always the victim of those villains. And of course they consistently see the United States as the ultimate champion of “good” South Korea.

In any case, the reports about the Consulate General calling The Nation drew scathing denunciations from Hankyoreh and Kyunghyam Daily. Here’s Hankyoreh, in an editorial called With foreign media missteps, Park government bringing shame on itself”:

While it is impossible to know whether the consulate took this action on its own or was instructed to do so by a higher authority, it is not only inappropriate but also disgraceful for one country’s diplomats to comment on the editorial position of a magazine in another country.

The important thing is to avoid actions that the foreign media will criticize, not to complain when the foreign media runs critical stories on those actions.

Just like the [recent] editorial in the New York Times criticizing the administration of President Park – saying that “the biggest risk to South Korea’s reputation abroad, however, is not economic but political” – and a sarcastic tweet by the Wall Street Journal Seoul bureau chief about Park’s comparison of masked protestors to terrorists, this ought to be viewed as a lesson in what not to do.

Kyunghyang was just as scathing. As translated by a friend, it said “it’s shameful to call The Nation. And they also argued that President Park made its diplomats do stupid things just as her father did during Yushin period” of Park Chung Hee.” Meanwhile, the independent investigative news site Newstapa ran a detailed video story about the Park government’s critique of press coverage that included an interview with me at the end (in Korean, with me in English).

After this, the political opposition took up the issue. As reported by the television network KBS,

South Korea’s main opposition political party, New Politics Alliance for Democracy has called for an investigation into government attempts to silence foreign journalists critical of the Park Geun Hye administration.

This follows the revelation that US-based journalist Tim Shorrock’s editor at The Nation received phone calls from the Korean Consulate in New York calling on him to change the content of an article describing the recent crackdown on organized labor.

Last week, E-Woong Koo, a Korean writer who wrote an opinion article for the New York Times on Park’s attempt to rewrite history, published an important article on his own website, “War of Words of the State of South Korea.” His words are timely:

There are troubling reports that the government tried to influence the editorial staff at The Nation and its writer Tim Shorrock after the magazine ran Shorrock’s article “In South Korea, a Dictator’s Daughter Cracks Down on Labor.”

That revelation, coupled with known information about standard government and corporate control over domestic journalism, paints a dreary picture of the state of free expression in South Korea. All this leads me to view the consul general’s letter to the editor of the NYT as a very positive development. In this case the government chose to address a critical editorial in a reasonable fashion, by writing a public rebuttal, in lieu of any intimidation or subversion tactics that I am aware of (unless you see the mysterious call from the foreign ministry that went nowhere as a form of intimidation).

I am sad, however, that this kind of dialogue must and can only take place in the pages of a foreign newspaper. It is downright tragic that the only way to force the government to enter into what could be a meaningful conversation over matters of national importance is subjecting the government to ‘bad press’ for readers outside South Korea to see.

Well said; hopefully the South Korean government will learn from this.




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Labor crackdown in Seoul: Transport Union fights police raid

Screenshot 2015-11-08 12.15.28

South Korean police raided the national offices of the Korean Federation of Public Services and Transport Workers Union (KPTU) on Friday but were thwarted by workers and union members. The raid is part of a broad crackdown on organized labor by the government of Park Guen-Hye, in preparation for a major labor protest scheduled for November 14 in which 150,000 workers are expected to flood the streets of Seoul. The KPTU is part of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which was organized in the 1980s after quasi-democracy was restored in South Korea after decades of dictatorship. 

Here’s the story, as reported today by Voice of the People, an independent media site in South Korea (in Korean). Thanks to Hyun Lee of NoDutDol in New York City for the quick translation.

Alleging criminal charges against the Korean Federation of Public Services and Transport Workers Union (KPTU) in relation to the ongoing aerial protest by members of the Pulmuone branch of the Cargo Workers Union, the police attempted to raid the KPTU headquarters on November 6.

Thwarted by union members who resisted the raid, the police from the Yeongdeungpo precinct of Seoul instead raided the office of the Cargo Workers Union of KPTU on charges of obstructing government administration and violating the Law on Assembly and Demonstration.  The raid began at 10 am on November 6 and lasted approximately 2 hours.

The police allege that on October 24, when members of the Pulmuone branch of the Cargo Workers Union, Yeon Je-bok (age 48) and Yu In-jong (age 43), began their aerial protest on a billboard tower on Yeouigyo 2 bridge, 4 men suspected of being union members “assaulted” a police officer by making him kneel and taking away his walkie-talkie.

The police explained that it suspects that the union premeditated the action and that it carried out the raid to gather evidence.  In addition to a search warrant, the police also obtained arrest warrants for 12 members of the union on November 4.

The police first attempted to raid the KPTU office, but the union refused to allow the search and engaged in a physical scuffle with the police.  The police ultimately abandoned its original plan and instead confiscated documents and a computer hard drive from the office of the Cargo Workers Union.

One male in his 40s was arrested in the process on charges of obstructing government administration.

KPTU spokesperson Park Jun-hyeong called the police raid an “excessive action aimed at union repression.”  “The attempt to raid the entire KPTU headquarters in response to the aerial protest of its affiliated union is an excessive action aimed at intimidating and undermining union activity,” he said. “To obtain arrest and search warrants and raid the union office even though there is no evidence that the assailant was a member of the union is clearly an act of retaliation against the union.”

The Pulmuone drivers have been on strike since September to demand that the company carry out its agreement to respect the union and continue negotiations to improve conditions; stop union repression; recognize the Cargo Workers Union; and guarantee workers compensation.  As the strike dragged on with no response from the company, union members Yeon Je-bok and Yu In-jong began their aerial protest on top of a 30-meter billboard tower in Yeouido on October 24.


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Roundup: US militarism in Asia-Pacific, Oct. 19-30, 2015

A Storify listing of stories I posted on Twitter from China, Japan and Korea over the past two weeks, prepared for the Founding Meeting of the Korea Peace Network. I’m giving a talk Friday morning on the “Geopolitical contest and U.S. militarism in the Asia Pacific.”

U.S. flattop Ronald Reagan arrives at S. Korean port

U.S. flattop Ronald Reagan arrives at S. Korean port

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Did John Brennan suck as a contractor? The CIA thinks so.


Brennan on the big screen during a recent appearance at a contractor-sponsored intelligence event in DC. Photo by Tim Shorrock.

In January 2010, a few days after a Nigerian terrorist came close to blowing up a US passenger plane on its way to Detroit, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser made an extraordinary confession. “I told the President today I let him down,” John Brennan said in a White House briefing about the incident that’s come to be known as the “Christmas Day bombing.”

At the time, Brennan’s comments were widely seen as a sign of his deep loyalty to Obama. The CIA veteran had advised Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign and remained with him even after he was passed over as the president’s first national intelligence director because of his close association with the CIA’s torture regime.

Now he was taking the hit for the new administration’s first national security failure, which he blamed squarely on “shortcomings in the watch listing system” maintained by the CIA and the Transportation Security Administration.

But why did Brennan use the pronoun “I” when he was only an adviser to the president, and therefore had no direct line of authority over either the CIA or the TSA? I’ve always wondered about that, and concluded long ago that he was actually talking about his role in the company that first developed the electronic watch lists for the government, and would have been directly involved in the Detroit fiasco: The Analysis Corporation (TAC).

TAC is the intelligence contractor Brennan headed from 2005 to 2009 before joining the Obama administration. By that time, it was a key player in a global monitoring system that included the TSA, the State Department, and the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. And last week the Corporation was back in the news after Wikileaks released a CIA report on the company as part of a larger dump of emails uncovered by a high school student who hacked into Brennan’s personal AOL account.

The report on TAC, which is posted here, concerns a CIA contract that Brennan’s company bid for but lost in 2007 while he was still its CEO. It underscores that Brennan would have known far more about TAC’s potential role in the Detroit incident than he let on in public. But, more surprisingly, it shows that the CIA’s contracting office thought that TAC was technically inept, intellectually dishonest, and heavily reliant on a handful of former officials—such as Brennan and his former boss, George Tenet—to get its way in the high stakes world of intelligence contracting.

Essentially, CIA officials concluded that Brennan and other former CIA officials working for TAC and its subcontractors provided “insider information” to their procurement office. That could be a violation of federal contracting rules that, according to legal experts and contracting laws, forbid “unauthorized disclosures” of such information prior to a contract award by individuals who “have worked for, acted on behalf of, or advised the Government.”

Those are charges rarely heard in U.S. intelligence agencies. And they’re particularly serious when they’re directed against a company headed by a former high-ranking official like Brennan, who rose from Middle East analyst to chief of staff to former CIA Director George Tenet. He is now Director of the CIA.

In other words, by telling the president he had “let him down,” Brennan may have been accepting personal responsibility for a massive failure by the company that he once served. And he may have been trying to deflect reports that the CIA at the time considered TAC to be, in Wikileaks’ words, “deeply incompetent.”

* * *

Before getting to the new document, it’s important to review Brennan’s history with TAC, which is now owned by Sotera Defense Solutions Inc., an important contractor for the National Security Agency with close ties to former NSA Director Keith Alexander. Here’s how I described TAC in 2008, in my book Spies for Hire:

TAC specializes in providing counterterrorism analysis and watchlists to US government agencies. Its president and CEO is John O. Brennan, who was the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center and spent nearly 35 years at the CIA….

During the 1990s, TAC developed the US government’s first terrorist database, called “Tipoff,” on behalf of the State Department. The database was initially conceived as a tool to help US consular officials and customs inspectors determine if foreigners trying to enter the United States were known or suspected terrorists.

In 2003, management of the database, which received information collected by a large number of agencies, including the CIA, the NSA and the FBI, was transferred to the CIA’s Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) and, later, to the National Counterterrorism Center. In 2005, Tipoff was expanded and renamed the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDES, and fingerprint and facial recognition software was added to make it easier to identify suspects as they crossed US borders.

TAC remains an important NCTC contractor: in 2005, it won a $2.3 million contract in a partnership with CACI International to integrate information from the Defense Intelligence Agency into the TIDES database. TIDES is now “the wellspring for watch lists distributed to airlines, law enforcement, border posts and US consulates,” with nearly half a million names in the database, and it is also the first intelligence database to include both foreigners and US citizens, according to the Washington Post.

TAC has become a critical private sector player in the nation’s counterterrorism efforts; in the five years after 9/11, its income quintupled, from less than $5 million in 2001 to $24 million in 2006. In 2006, TAC increased its visibility in the intelligence community by creating a “senior advisory board” that included three heavy hitters from the CIA: former Director George J. Tenet, former Chief Information Officer Alan Wade and former senior analyst John P. Young.

The TAC document released last week is a CIA letter FROM 2008? about an agency watchlist training contract called HAWKEYE that Brennan’s company bid for and lost in 2007.

In 2008, while Brennan was still with TAC and advising then-candidate Obama, the Government Accountability Office rejected TAC’s appeal of the CIA’s decision. The CIA was now urging GAO to stick to its guns.

The CIA, the letter states, “eliminated TAC from the competitive range because its proposal was far inferior” from bids from three competing contractors—SAIC, Raytheon, and SpecTal, the letter said. (SAIC and Raytheon are two of the largest contractors in the intelligence business. SpecTal, now owned by the British defense contractor BAE, was a small company that worked with the CIA in Afghanistan on classified missions of various kinds.)

The letter further charged that Brennan, as TAC’s CEO, had directly participated in meetings with TAC’s partners, BAE Systems and SRA, over a software program that CIA acquisition executives thought was too risky. This kind of collaboration apparently struck the CIA as unethical.

Its lawyers noted that TAC’s documents “show that it possessed what it now calls ‘inside information’ from its subcontractor BAE, from at least one former senior Government official on TAC’s staff who obviously was familiar with the Program, as well as from other Watchlist Program participants.” That former official, of course, is John Brennan.

“Against this background, the Agency is extremely concerned regarding the apparent disingenuousness of TAC’s protest,” the CIA wrote. “Additionally, we have clear evidence that…statements made by TAC in its protest documents are directly at odds with TAC’s contemporaneous documents.” In other words, the company might have been trying to mislead contracting officials. The CIA, of course, would not come out and say this of its former chief of staff, but the inference is clear from the letter’s conclusions.

An agency should…be able to rely upon offerors doing business with the Government to communicate openly with it during an acquisition…and to communicate with candor both during the acquisition and in any challenges thereafter. In our view, TAC, and TAC alone, has failed to meet these reasonable expectations of a party to this important process.

Attached to the CIA letter is TAC’s original bid for the HAWKEYE contract. One section—entitled “quality personnel ready to go”—explains why TAC expected to win. “We have 200 fully cleared professionals ready to support the Watchlist Project,” it says. “They include professionals with experience in the Terrorist Screening Center, National Counterterrorism Center, National Targeting Center, Department of State, Defense Intelligence Agency, and CIA.” That’s a lot of revolving doors.


The CIA’s rejection of the contract, and its analysis of Brennan’s company, would have been good information for Congress to get when it confirmed the veteran agent as CIA director in 2013.

At the time of his appointment, Democrats cited Brennan’s role as a contractor as in important part of his resume. Brennan “has distinguished himself outside of government,” noted Senate Majority Harry Reid in a March 6, 2013, speech on the Senate floor:

He spent four years in the private sector as president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation. His extensive intelligence background and executive experience uniquely qualify him to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

Clearly the CIA didn’t share its information about TAC’s record as a contractor with Senator Reid (or maybe it did, and he just ignored the report). Meanwhile, any lingering animosity between the CIA and Brennan seems to have dissipated in the wake of WikiLeaks’ release. “The private electronic holdings of the Brennan family were plundered with malicious intent,” the agency said of the emails. It would not comment on any of the documents released in the latest dump.

One last note: I looked back at the coverage of the Christmas Day bombing and found that only one reporter, Eli Lake, then of the Washington Times, wrote about the connection between Brennan, TAC and the CIA’s watchlists (I’ve had a lot of differences with Lake over the years, but I have to give credit where it’s due). On December 31, 2009, Lake (now with Bloomberg) reported that TAC’s parent company “confirmed that the contractor helps develop the watch lists for the National Counter-terrorism Center (NCTC),” and quoted directly from the company:

Since 2004, [TAC] has been a member of the large team that supports the U.S. government’s terrorist watch-listing efforts,” said Lauren Peduzzi, a communications manager for Global. “As part of the team, Global TAC personnel review intelligence data and provide analysis to aid U.S. government decision-makers in their ongoing efforts to align the national security policy with today’s counterterrorism challenges.” She said she could not go into further detail because the work is highly classified.

Lake went on:

White House attorneys reviewed whether Mr. Brennan would be violating ethics rules by conducting the review of watch lists in light of his previous position and determined that the benefit to the public interest of having Mr. Brennan conduct the review far outweighed any potential conflict of interest.

It’s clear that both the White House and Congress gave Brennan a huge pass on this one. The story of The Analysis Corporations is a living example of how the privatization of intelligence creates its own conflicts of interest – and underscores why greater transparency is so important.

Update: I posted this piece here because my editor at The Nation – the person who oversees its website – decided against running it (I’ve been posting there regularly since last fall). After I mentioned my story on Twitter, The Exiled offered to post it: you can read that version, which includes more graphics, here. Thanks to Yasha Levine and Mark Ames for that.

Posted in Corporations, Intelligence, Military Industrial Complex, Spies for Hire | Leave a comment