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31 December 2007

Of PSDs and future assassinations

It is no surprise that highly visible political targets under significant threat would seek the very best protection money could buy. Thus the news that Benazir Bhutto sought to obtain the services of a Blackwater protective security detail prior to her assassination is not entirely without precedent.

However, we are reminded of Mountainrunner’s admonition that private military companies play into US foreign policy overseas – and in particular, US public diplomacy – in a manner that few analysts or decision-makers take into account. Blackwater is among the most visibly associated with US engagements in the Long War – even though it plays a protective rather than offensive role. In the minds of many in the Gap, Blackwater is just another instrument of the United States itself.

In this case, there is little doubt that a more professional PSD would have likely never permitted the risk of moving the principle standing in an open sun-roof, given recent attack history and threat intelligence. The likelihood therefore that Bhutto would have survived the attack – whatever one believes about the mechanism which may have actually inflicted the lethal wound (bullet, blast, or blunt trauma impact) – seems to mark the incident down into the “missed opportunities” column, the fodder for counterfactual analysis and alternative history for a long time to come.

It has long been a maxim that any political target can be taken by a sufficiently motivated suicidal attacker. While modern protective intelligence and operational TTPs have thankfully greatly reduced the margin of success for an attack, the PIRA’s warning to Lady Thatcher after the failed 1984 IED attack still haunts every practitioner: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

Given this backdrop, one can only imagine the consequences of a successful attack should a Blackwater PSD have been engaged to protect Ms. Bhutto. The conspiracy minded would have a field day – and such suggestions have a way of turning to riots in the global Street. Belmont Club has a few of the headlines that we might have seen run in the past few days in such an alternative history.

Any PMC which might take on such a high visibility, high threat contract in the future must be prepared for this kind of aftermath from the start. The State Department should also be planning for such contingencies, both to counter the inevitable immediate reactions as well as the potential long term impact to an American image which is inextricably tied to PMC actions abroad.

More significantly for the purposes of our profession, those engaged in providing protective intelligence support to such engagements must be exceedingly mindful of the possibility that all intelligence activities and products will no doubt come under the microscope of public examination in the days and weeks following an attack. We can think of little better fodder for the kind of damaging political grandstanding that has been favoured in the Beltway as of late, or for the kind of lawfare that has sapped critical capabilities on so many accounts. Even if such protective intelligence is provided under the auspices of official USG liaison, should contractors have been involved in the analysis and production process, we could well see the same sort of scrum develop. (This creates one of the better arguments for defining publishing and release authority as an inherently governmental responsibility, we should think – as it is done in most shops. However, there will likely always be a number of unresolved questions regarding uncoordinated products and unpublished or internal papers sufficient to keep such arguments alive for some time. The buck may stop at a government officer’s desk, but we are sure the damnable lawyers will have their day with the underlying process in any event.)

This has significant implications even in the domestic homeland security environment. Those of the numerous fusion centers and watch desks around the community that have protective intelligence for state and local officials as a secondary (and often implied) responsibility will no doubt face very similar challenges, to perhaps even a greater degree of political vitriol – including the same dynamics that arise with any degree of privatized support.

Let us be clear, though – such issues need not arise from any impropriety on the part of the private contractor capability, be they intelligence officers or PSD operators. This is an emergent property of the current political and media atmosphere that has not yet reconciled to the business of privatized intelligence or PMCs – largely because of the continued illusion that the state can (or should) somehow magically still provide the range of capabilities demanded in the Long War. In a perfect world, it might be so – but as we fight on an ever more specialized basis across increasingly far flung locations, the impossibility of the drain on high demand / low density assets that attempts to service such illusions would create should be ever more obvious, even to the outsider. That the market organizes to meet the unfilled demand should not be such a surprise – and should be rationally discussed rather than sensationalized. Unfortunately, the Beltway and media does not often function on the logic of reality, but rather according the rules of transient political advantage.

Strategic communications, public affairs, and public diplomacy professionals that will have to deal with the consequences of such an incident in the future had best start preparing contingency planning for this sort of political football. It is only a matter of time – and of adversary kinetic and IO action.

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