Much has been written over the past few years on the role of private security companies (PSCs) (or PMCs, whomever you’re asking) in today’s conflict zones. Companies like Blackwater USA Xe have been criticized for their lack of accountability in regard to the laws of armed conflict.
Incidents involving Blackwater contractors blasting away civilians in Iraq have solidified the picture of an out-of-control private army that is driven only by its pecuniary interests. Now states are rushing to sign conventions regulating these companies’ activities.
Finally you might think.
But rather covertly another similar business model has flourished in the shade of the PSCs/PMCs without much being written about it: Private intelligence companies (or PICs), which according to Wikipedia are a:
[P]rivate sector (non-governmental) organization devoted to the collection and analysis of information, most commonly through the evaluation of public sources (OSINT or Open Source Intelligence) and cooperation with other institutions.
If this definition was entirely correct, there would be no obvious problems with the activities of such companies. After all they are only a bunch of newspaper readers writing intelligent analysis on political risks. Or are they?
I think it’s rather unlikely that they rely solely on information from open sources to create their intelligence products.
Many ex-intelligence officers from governments are being employed by these companies, which have the knowledge and the skills to acquire knowledge in the style of covert operations you know from the movies.
I suspect that some of the companies have the knowledge necessary to conduct economic espionage and other illegal activities including handling agents in foreign countries.
There exists an interesting paradox within many countries when it comes to intelligence activities. While they are illegal within a state’s own borders (except for the official security services), the same state acts knowingly illegally by sending its intelligence officers abroad to gain information from human sources.
So why should the activities of PICs then be a problem if states are acting illegally in foreign countries?
The difference between government intelligence agencies and PICs is the same as the difference between PSCs and the military: accountability.
In almost every western country there is a parliamentary oversight of intelligence activities of the government. While this didn’t prevent some of the scandals in the past where intelligence agencies overstepped their boundaries by spying on their own people or torturing, at least the stakes are higher than for PICs who are only accountable to their customer.
Wait till the first scandal involving a PIC shows up in the press!
As there is now a call for the regulation of PSCs, there might be a call some day to regulate PICs as well.
Should you happen to need the services of such an outfit, here is a list of the ones I found by Googling:
- Total Intelligence Solutions
- ASI Group
- Tangiers International
- Olive Group
- Jane’s Information Group
- Control Risks Group
Did I miss any?