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.

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