Pentagon’s War On Drugs Goes Mercenary
By: Spencer Ackerman
An obscure Pentagon office designed to curb the flow of illegal drugs has quietly evolved into a one-stop shop for private security contractors around the world, soliciting deals worth over $3 billion.
The sprawling contract, ostensibly designed to stop drug-funded terrorism, seeks security firms for missions like “train[ing] Azerbaijan Naval Commandos.” Other tasks include providing Black Hawk and Kiowa helicopter training “for crew members of the Mexican Secretariat [Ministry] of Public Security.” Still others involve building “anti-terrorism/force protection enhancements” for the Pakistani border force in the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan.
The Defense Department’s Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office has packed all these tasks and more inside a mega-contract for security firms. The office, known as CNTPO, is all but unknown, even to professional Pentagon watchers. It interprets its counter-narcotics mandate very, very broadly, leaning heavily on its implied counterterrorism portfolio. And it’s responsible for one of the largest chunks of money provided to mercenaries in the entire federal government.
CNTPO quietly solicited an umbrella contract for all the security services listed above — and many, many more — on Nov. 9. It will begin handing out the contract’s cash by August. And there is a lot of cash to disburse.
The ceiling for the “operations, logistics and minor construction” tasks within CNTPO’s contract is $950 million. Training foreign forces tops out at $975 million. “Information” tasks yield $875 million. The vague “program and program support” brings another $240 million.
That puts CNTPO in a rare category. By disbursing at least $3 billion — likely more, since the contract awards come with up to three yearlong re-ups — the office is among the most lucrative sources of cash for private security contractors. The largest, from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, doles out a $10 billion, five-year deal known as the Worldwide Protective Services contract.
CNTPO is “essentially planning on outsourcing a global counternarcotics and counterterrorism program over the next several years,” says Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations for the Project on Government Oversight, “and it’s willing to spend billions to do so.”
For the vast majority of people who’ve never heard of CNTPO, the organization answers to the Pentagon’s Special Operations Low-Intensity Conflict Directorate, within the Counter-narcotics and Global Threats portfolio. It’s tucked away so deep, bureaucratically speaking, that it doesn’t actually have an office at the Pentagon.
The organization, run by a civilian named Mike Strand, has been around since 1995. In 2007, it made a big push into contracting, hiring the Blackwater subsidiary U.S. Training Center as well as defense giants Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and ARINC for “a wide range of Defense counter-narcotics activities,” according to a statement provided to Danger Room by the agency. That award, which has doled out $4.3 billion so far, is the precursor to the current bid.
Maybe that’s why an “Industry Day” last week at a Fredericksburg, Virginia hotel to introduce CNTPO to would-be contractors attracted “approximately 180 companies,” CNTPO boasts.
CNTPO might not be well-known. But in some circles, it’s infamous.
In 2009, a bureaucratic shift plucked the responsibility for training Afghanistan’s police out of the State Department’s hands. Suddenly, the contract — worth about $1 billion — landed with CNTPO. CNTPO quietly chose Blackwater for the contract, even though Blackwater guards in Afghanistan on a different contract stole hundreds of guns intended for those very Afghan cops.
The incumbent holder of the contract, Blackwater competitor DynCorp, protested. It didn’t help that a powerful Senate committee discovered Blackwater’s gun-stealing antics. In December, DynCorp finally received the contract — administered by an Army office, not CNTPO.
But that hasn’t stopped CNTPO’s expansion. In its new contract, the office explicitly stakes out a broad definition of its mandate: “to disrupt, deter, and defeat the threat to national security posed by illicit trafficking in all its manifestations: drugs, small arms and explosives, precursor chemicals, people, and illicitly-gained and laundered money.” It declares its practices “beyond traditional DoD acquisition and contracting scopes.”
How broad is that in practice? Tasks contained in the CNTPO contract range from “airlift services in the trans-Sahara region of Africa” to “media analysis and web-site development consultation to officials of the Government of Pakistan.”
The small agency is “worldwide,” the contract says, as “the primary regional areas of interest include Central and Western Asia, Sub-Sahara Africa, and Central and South America.” But its contracting oversight efforts are comparatively local.
According to CNTPO, oversight for its contracts are themselves outsourced to an Army Contracting Command outfit in Hunstville, Alabama. CNTPO “provides all contracting support for this effort, with 10 contracting officers/contracting specialists and legal/policy review of all contracts and task orders,” CNTPO’s statement reads, with “program management and customer support requirements” provided by CNTPO itself. That’s 10 bureaucrats to review billions of dollars in private security contracts, spent all over the world.
A member of the Wartime Contracting Commission, created by Congress to stop war profiteering, came away from an interaction with CNTPO concerned about that level of oversight.
“The overriding consideration tends to be helping the military with their mission,” says commissioner Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who interviewed CNTPO officials about the Afghanistan police contract. “Economies for tight supervision of private security activities take a back seat.”
CNTPO’s rise underscores an emerging trend in private security contracting: a move into some of the most sensitive missions the military performs. Mercs protect the bases in Afghanistan where U.S. Special Operations Forces live and work. When soldiers are taken prisoner, hired guns are entrusted to rescue them. Their tracking technology finds terrorists for U.S. commandos to kill. Now they’re training foreign commando forces.
“These are special-forces operations, and they’re best left in hands of our SF folks,” Schwellenbach says. “This stuff isn’t delivering paper clips or even fuel or bullets. It’s complex, sophisticated services, and there’s a reason we have Special Forces do this kind of training, not the regular Army. This is something you really want to keep a tight lid on.”
Spencer Ackerman is Danger Room’s senior reporter, based out of Washington, D.C., covering weapons of doom and the strategies they’re used to implement.