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Privatizing the military has its price

David A. Passaro was a mercenary working for the United States. A former Special Forces soldier, he was on the job for the American government in Afghanistan on June 19, 2003, when he was told to get information from a detainee named Abdul Wali. When Wali insisted that he knew nothing, Passaro allegedly beat him to death with a heavy metal flashlight.

Now on trial for murder, Passaro is described in a recent criminal indictment as "a contractor working on behalf of the United States Central Intelligence Agency . . . engaging in paramilitary activities."

"Contractor" is the term used by the Defense Department to avoid more pejorative terms such as "mercenary" to describe Washington's growing shadow army.

While Passaro awaits trial in North Carolina, another self-described "contractor," Jonathan K. Idema, was convicted Wednesday in Afghanistan and sentenced to 10 years in a case involving charges of torture and other crimes. And in Iraq, 16 of 44 incidents of abuse at Abu Ghraib have been tied to private contractors.

In all, there are about 20,000 military contractors currently working in Iraq for the U.S. government, according to the Washington Post; that's the equivalent of three army divisions of contractors. Soldiers-for-hire such as Passaro often are employed (for as much as $200,000 a year) by former generals, who retired to run clandestine operations for profit and who have, in many cases, become millionaires from the secret budgets of the CIA and Defense Department.

One such company alone, MPRI, has dozens of former generals and 10,000 former soldiers in the field, including many former members of the Special Forces. But privatization of the military comes at a price. In recent years, contractors have been linked to abuses ranging from ethnic-cleansing operations in Croatia to the trafficking of sex slaves in Bosnia. They have been used to circumvent federal restrictions on the military. (For example, when Congress imposed a cap of 20,000 soldiers in Bosnia, the military simply hired 2,000 more private military contractors.)

In Iraq, they're dying just like regular soldiers. To date, roughly 120 contractors have been killed there (although some were not involved in paramilitary activities). They include Vincent Foster, a former Marine sniper who was engaged in "skirmishes" in Iraq, and Scott Helvenston, who died guarding a convoy.

The growing use of contractors and freelancers for paramilitary work has fueled an industry of mercenaries that was long in decline. Consider the strange case of Idema. On July 5, 2004, Afghan police entered the private prison run by him in Kabul. They reportedly found three men hanging from the ceiling while five others were found beaten and tied in a small, dark room. Idema, also a former Special Forces member, claimed to have been working with the CIA and offered to supply proof that high-ranking U.S. officials supported his operation.

Idema's case highlights the increasingly fluid definitions of soldiers, contractors and freelancers. While officials denied any contact with Idema's operation, the Defense Department recently acknowledged it held an Afghan man in custody for two months after Idema delivered him to U.S. forces. Likewise, officials now admit that Idema sent messages and faxes to top Pentagon officials. Idema also reportedly arranged and participated in raids on homes with NATO forces in Kabul.

It is not clear whether Idema was actually employed by the United States, but clearly he is part of a radically expanded market for soldiers of fortune, a market fueled by U.S. dollars. Unlike Passaro, Idema was conveniently left to Afghanistan. Not only was he denied the right to cross-examine witnesses, but the presiding judge, Abdul Baset Bakhtyari, dismissed his efforts to show his connections to "high-ranking military officials."

As for Passaro, the government secured a federal court order in Raleigh, N.C., barring the public disclosure of many of the facts of his case, including details of his work for the CIA.

There has never been a national debate on the use of mercenaries or on the rules governing their conduct. And, if some powerful forces in Washington have their way, there never will be. Washington's clandestine army reportedly receives billions and employs tens of thousands. It is a growing dependence that could come back to haunt us. Like many nations in history, we may find that it is far easier to hire mercenaries than to be rid of them.

Jonathan Turley is a professor at George Washington Law School.

Special to the Los Angeles Times