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August 26th, 2009
Once Upon a Coup
Video: The Controversial World of Private Security Contractors

At the end of the Cold War, private security contractors became vital to many countries’ national security as armies trimmed their ranks. Often staffed by former military members, private security companies were originally hired to provide lower-level logistics services thereby allowing the military to concentrate on fighting. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, contractors became further integrated into the national defense industry. They were asked to carry out duties previously reserved for uniformed soldiers and intelligence officers, like convoy protection and prisoner interrogation. Contractors attained notoriety while fulfilling these new roles as high-profile incidents such as detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and civilian killings in Iraq made headlines around the world. The industry was similarly tarnished by the involvement of private contractors in an attempt to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea as depicted in the film Once Upon a Coup.

WIDE ANGLE speaks with James Thornett, an ex-British military officer who has worked as private military contractor in Iraq and Africa, about the more nuanced reality of an industry whose workers have been demonized as mercenaries by some and lauded as peacekeepers by others. And we talk to J.J. Messner, program director for the International Peace Operations Association, a trade organization made up of companies such as Triple Canopy and Dyncorp that send contractors to conflict areas around the globe. Thornett and Messner respond to criticisms leveled by Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer who is leading the call to reform an industry he believes still operates with relative impunity.

  • Zsombor Varsovczky

    There is so much to say about these “security contractors” I don’t even know where to start. One thing I learned from the 80’s and the Communists wehn we lived in Romania is that we will never ever get anywhere in the Middle East. We so easily forget that they have lived there since 4000 BC. Ten times longer than the US has been around and that’s only to the end of BC era. The middle east might not be much to us but to them it’s their home and the only one they have and I honestly don’t think after all they have gone trough to be there that we are gonne change anyhting in the middle east. Maybe once we sucked them dry of oil they can have some peace and quiet. Maybe that’s what they are hoping too.

  • vaxorcist

    just google the phrase “Large splodge of Wonga”

  • quiet professional

    Mr. Thorton is obviously not speaking from a position of knowledge. He is speaking from a position of conjecture and supposition. There is (and has been since at least 2004) accountability system in place to and within not only the US, but Iraqi Governments. He quoted “thousands of violations.” That is an absolutely baseless statement, that cannot be supported with evidence. Of the numbers of reported violations on the ground in Iraq, less than 2% are reported due to the actions of security contractors. I appreciate the unbiased presentation of both perspectives from the producers…top notch.

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