The Latest “Betrayal”

Will Bunch has posted a must read (linking to this Washington Post story) on how the Bush administration leaked the latest Bin Laden tape before Al Qaeda released it. This tipped off Al Qaeda to the fact that its internet operation had been compromised. Worse, the Bushies leak was clearly done to simply score political points (it was days before Petraeus visited Congress). The tape had been acquired through surveillance and the early release caused Al Qaeda to shut down its internet operation and effectively destroy years of work to infiltrate that system.


6 Responses to “The Latest “Betrayal””

  1. More than a little disturbing. The libertarian in me marvels at the ability of a privately run organization to do a better job of intelligence gathering on its own (read: no government contract) than the government’s own intelligence agencies who have the advantage of being legally “authorized” to use torture with impunity, tap phonelines without warrants, etc. The libertarian in me also marvels at the ability of the government to completely and utterly destroy the advantage given to them by the hard work of this privately run organization.

    I’m not a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist, but somewhere, Murray Rothbard is having a great big chuckle.
    (cross-posted at PE)

  2. Mick Arran says:


    The “libertarian in people” always frustrates me because it requires a severe paucity of knowledge to function. Libertarians are so far behind the curve, so ignorant of how things actually work, that every libertarian slogan needs a book-length exposition to debunk. Since I don’t have that kind of room – or time – let’s try this, and keep it as simple as possible, since libertarians don’t do complexity.

    The libertarian in me marvels at the ability of a privately run organization to do a better job of intelligence gathering on its own (read: no government contract) than the government’s own intelligence agencies…

    It may help if you understand the difference between funding public agencies with public money and funding private agencies with public money. In the former, even in the case of intelligence agencies, “shoe-string” is the word of the day. In the latter, the sky’s the limit. This is true of all such comparisons. Conservatives are always willing to pay private companies tons of money to do less than they’re willing to pay public agencies pennies to do in the very same field. Look at Blackwater contractors v. US soldiers or private v public education consultant fees or virtually any number of other equivalencies.

    For example, the NSA will be allocated a couple of hundred thousand $$$ for a team of – to be generous – 10 people to try to break into AQ’s internet security. They will also be charged with breaking into the Taliban’s internet security, the Filipino rebels’ internet security, and probably a whole lot more. By contrast, this private contractor was paid $$millions$$ to do a single job and most likely had a team of 50-100 people working on it.

    Robert Coles acidly pointed out decades ago that the same people who complained constantly that the problems with public schools couldn’t be solved with money and that a pupil ratio of $3000/yr was outrageous, were the very same people willing to pay $40,000/yr to a private school for their own kid. It’s a conservative mindset that has never made any sense and yet is applied to virtually everything govts and public agencies do.

    …the advantage of being legally “authorized” to use torture with impunity…

    Torture doesn’t work. It never has and everybody knows it. Before Tenet surrendered to Bush and Cheney, even the CIA knew it. Torturing people is NOT about information-gathering. It is ALWAYS about intimidation and suppression. Everybody in the business knows that, too.

    The libertarian in me also marvels at the ability of the government to completely and utterly destroy the advantage given to them by the hard work of this privately run organization.

    This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Admin’s reasons for handing an intelligence-gathering contract to a private firm in the first place. They didn’t do it because they thought the NSA couldn’t handle it. They did it to avoid having to explain to anyone what they did with the info gathered, which is what they would have had to do if a govt agency was responsible for it. Private contractors don’t ask questions. That this one is complaining publicly is…unusual, to say the least. “Almost unheard of” might be a better description.

    And good on them. They will be kissing their contract renewal good-bye.

  3. Laura says:

    If you think the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing within a government agency, imagine how blissfully unaware of each other private agencies can be. My complaint with ‘outsourcing’ to private companies where it concerns the common good of a society is this: Once it’s private, it’s for sale. It can then be sold to anybody, including people outside the country. Remember the ports? Do we really want Saudi Arabia handling our intelligence gathering? The US is being sold in chunks. Privatization makes that easier to do.

  4. Mick:
    You seem to have a different reading of the article than me. The original article seems to strongly indicate that this company is NOT a government contractor, but is instead a completely private company. To the extent that it is a government contractor, its work on this particular issue was quite clearly not part of any government contract:
    “Katz said she decided to offer an advance copy of the bin Laden video to the White House without charge so officials there could prepare for its eventual release.”

    If they were not acting under a government contract, your whole analysis needs to be re-worked.

    It’s important to note that the idea of privatization under government contracts is not an ideal for most “real” libertarians, and for anarcho-capitalists, they are anathema: it’s what we like to call “crony capitalism”, which is vastly different from real capitalism. In some instances, it can even be worse than a socialist alternative in my opinion.

    A major reason why private government service contracts are particularly problematic for me is also that the customer is the government, rather than the people themselves. As a result, the contractor’s job is to make the particular government official/officials happy, rather than to provide the best possible service at the best possible price. Making the official(s) happy typically amounts to no more than insulating that official from accountability.

    The Blackwater example actually does a great job of proving this point (as does the use in Iraq of private contractors for interrogation purposes). Blackwater, while technically subject to the UCMJ, is likely to be subject to far less scrutiny than the American military. Additionally, Blackwater is not subject to most official pronouncements of policy other than the UCMJ. As a result, they can get away with doing things that are contrary to what the government says it has authorized/prohibited. This is not an accident- it allows the elected officials to make statements of policy, appear to follow those statements, while still overseeing actions contrary to its public statements. Best of all for the government officials, if Blackwater (or a private interrogation contractor) gets caught doing something bad, the government officials have a ready-made alibi- essentially, “hey, these guys are private contractors, we had no control over their activities- Bad Contractor! Bad Contractor!”

    Along these same lines, if you read the stories about Abu Ghraib, you will notice that the interrogators who the prisoners feared most were the CIA contractors. Point is that government contracting (especially for services that are deemed “sole source” and thus not bid out) isn’t about doing the job the people expect, but about doing the job the awarding official expects- and those two expectations are very different. In the case of Blackwater and CIA interrogation contractors, this meant doing the things government officials couldn’t do without getting themselves in deep doo-doo, along with making sure the government officials didn’t get into deep doo-doo if they got caught. In this respect, Blackwater did and continues to do an excellent job for the Bush Administration.

  5. mick says:

    If they were not acting under a government contract, your whole analysis needs to be re-worked.

    Well, I don’t think the point is entirely lost, given this:

    Her firm provides intelligence about terrorist groups to a wide range of paying clients, including private firms and military and intelligence agencies from the United States and several other countries.

    I’d say that makes them a govt contractor to some degree even if they’re not working for the US exclusively. I’d still be willing to bet that whatever the US agencies are paying them far outstrips what, say, the Army’s G2 CT Section gets for a budget to do the same thing.

    Otherwise, I agree that contracting govt business to private corps has nothing to do with efficiency and everything to do with plausible deniability, the lack of scrutiny, the lack of accountability, and other suchlike evasions of responsibility and pursuances of illegal activities. But to me, that’s not an argument against govt so much as it’s an argument against the deliberate perversion of governmental responsibilities to the people. The libertarian “solution” of no govt simply evades the issue and would create something far worse: a free-for-all in which the Strong victimize everyone else for profit. You wanna know what libertarianism would actually look like, check out Russia after the Soviets fell. It very quickly became a Darwinian oligarchy that nearly destroyed the country completely.

  6. I actually doubt the company was paid overly much- it seems like they did freelance intelligence work: when they had something, they offered it to the government for a price. This is different from being a contractor (where you have an agreement in place to do work at a set price for a set period of time), and more like the obtaining and selling of intelligence as a commodity. It’s an important distinction- in the case of a contractor, they get paid no matter what their success or failure rate, as long as they are doing the government official’s bidding; in the case of this company, though, they only got paid if and when they had something to sell, which is no different from your average small business.

    Additionally, since this company is acting on a freelance basis, they are able to sell their information to anyone they wish- this results in them being able to spread their profits over several customers for the same job, compared to a contractor who only has one potential customer per job (meaning their costs and profits have to be placed entirely on that one customer). Finally, the company has an incentive to only sell good information, since selling bad information will significantly affect their ability to get a good price for information in the future.

    As for your argument against libertarians: Most libertarians are not pure anarcho-capitalists and do not want the complete abolition of government. As a result, we just have a very limited view of what government’s responsibilities should be. Libertarians have widely varying opinions as to what those specific responsibilities are. However, just about any government service could be condoned (IMHO) if the government permitted competition against its services (and did not rely much, if at all, on people not using those services). You could still provide some services to the legitimately needy- provided those services were paid for by appropriate sources (for instance, I have no problem with corporate taxes since corporations by definition exist as a result of a contract with the government).

    That said, there are still a fair number of Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists in the movement who make worthwhile if unpersuasive arguments for the elimination of government. Indeed, they will gladly point out to you the case of Somalia after the UN left, but before the UN decided to install a new government (about a 10 year period). During this period, which was arguably the closest the world has ever come to a purely anarchic state, Somalia’s quality of life improved tremendously. If you wish, check out the wikipedia entry on recent Somalian history. Again, I am not an anarcho-capitalist, and I do think their analyses are flawed, but their arguments are still worth listening to.

    As for your example about the USSR, the anarcho-capitalist would probably tell you that there is a huge difference between a power vacuum where there is still a nominal government and a power vacuum where there isn’t. The regular libertarian will tell you that at no point did post-Soviet Russia even remotely resemble a libertarian society.


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