Spies-for-Hire Now at War in Syria
It’s not just U.S. troops battling ISIS. Now the Army is sinking millions of dollars into private intelligence contractors for the fight.
Every day at 5 p.m., the Pentagon releases a list of that day’s contracts worth more than $7 million. On July 27, buried in the daily email was an eye-catching detail: Military contractors would be working inside Syria alongside the roughly 300 U.S. troops already deployed there.
This appears to be the first time the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged that private contractors are also playing a role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State inside Syria, and it’s one more signal that the U.S. military is deepening its involvement in the fate of the country.
The contract announcement said Six3 Intelligence Solutions—a private intelligence company recently acquired by CACI International—won a $10 million no-bid Army contract to provide “intelligence analysis services.” According to the Pentagon, the work will be completed over the next year in Germany, Italy and, most notably, Syria.
Beyond this, details are scant. For example, it is difficult to say, given how little information is available, how many contractors might have to go into the country under this contract. It could be just a few (presumably well-paid) intelligence analysts augmenting a military unit or it could be many more.
The Pentagon and CACI would not elaborate on the kind of work Six3 would be doing either, other than “intelligence analysis services,” which encompasses a broad spectrum of activities.
But Sean McFate—a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, the author of Shadow War, and a former gun-for-hire himself—told The Daily Beast: “This is no ordinary contractor… Six3 Intelligence Solutions is a private intelligence company, and the fact that we outsource a good portion of our intelligence analysis creates a strategic dependency on the private sector to perform vital wartime operations.”
Six3, which gets the bulk of its work from the intelligence agencies, specializes in biometrics and identity intelligence—figuring out who people really are—as well as cyber and reconnaissance. Its former CEO has said that 95 percent of the company’s staff has the highest level of security clearance.
An archived version of Six3’s website says this about the company’s biometrics division: “Our expertise ranges from finger, palm, face, and iris examinations to exploitation and forensic analysis.”
Fewer of its contracts are with the military, but it has previously provided intelligence services in Afghanistan and Europe, as well as supporting the “Counter-Insurgency Targeting Program,” and related intelligence and operational support for the Army National Ground Intelligence Center and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to a search of the Defense Department’s contracts archive.
Recognizing this is an ever-expanding field, CACI acquired Six3 Intelligence Solutions, which had only been around for four years, for $820 million in 2013, describing it as “the biggest deal” in CACI’s “51-year history.”
At the time of the purchase, CACI CEO Ken Asbury said he thought Six3 would open up an additional $15 billion in contract opportunities. CACI has been providing the U.S. military contractor support for years, including interrogators assigned and working at Abu Ghraib prison at the time of the abuse scandal.
“Contractors do a lot more than drive trucks and cook meals; they do intelligence, pull triggers, and support Special Operations forces,” McFate said.
So far, there has been no mention of private contractors going inside Syria with U.S. troops, but military contracting and special operations experts said it is safe to assume that Six3 isn’t the first.
“I’ve long said, the military looks at professional services contractors like the old American Express commercial, i.e., they dare not leave home without them,” said David Isenberg, author of Shadow Force: Private Security contractors in Iraq.
The intelligence community is particularly reliant on contractors today, he added.
But due to the highly sensitive and dangerous nature of the mission in Syria, little information is unclassified. In Iraq—where there are just over 4,000 U.S. troops on the ground—the Pentagon is more transparent. Since last summer, the number of contractors working for the Defense Department had just about doubled from 1,300 to 2,500.
The number has ticked up as the number of U.S. troops on the ground steadily increases and bases grow to house them. Private companies are providing everything from meals to perimeter security at Iraq’s Besmaya Compound and Camp Taji, both sites where U.S. troops are training Iraqi soldiers to fight ISIS. In 2015, only 98 people were on the ground in Iraq providing base support. Today, that number is 390, and includes American contractors, third country nationals and local Iraqis, according to a July report from U.S. Central Command.
These are just the Pentagon’s numbers. The U.S. government—including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—employ far more contractors. The Central Command report says there are approximately 7,100 contractors supporting U.S. government operations in Iraq. They’re washing laundry, cooking meals, and providing security, to name a few of the jobs the U.S. government outsources.
“Contractors encourage ‘mission creep’ because they allow the Administration to put more people on the ground than they report to the American people,” McFate said.
Last week’s clue that contractor support is growing in Syria suggests something similar might be happening in that country.
The Pentagon first announced in November that 50 U.S. commandos were deploying to northern Syria to advise forces battling the Islamic State there. Before that, the CIA was believed to be operating in the country, arming rebel groups as part of a separate clandestine program. Needless to say, if contractors were supporting the CIA mission, those details were classified.
In April, the U.S. military presence in Syria expanded when President Barack Obama announced that an additional 250 special operations forces would deploy to help local fighters as they battled ISIS. With more troops on the ground, local infrastructure is quietly being built or improved to support them and the local fighters they are there to advise. For example, the length of an airstrip in Hasakah, a town in northern Syria controlled by Kurdish forces, is being doubled to receive larger planes, CNN reported in February.
While the battle against ISIS continues, Iraq and Syria will continue to offer opportunities to defense contractors, but the big money will come when reconstruction begins. The U.S. spent $60 billion in Iraq on reconstruction efforts and so far, over $110 billion in Afghanistan.
Last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signaled that after ISIS is pushed out of towns and cities across Iraq and Syria, there will be an opportunity for private contractors.
“There will be towns to rebuild, services to reestablish and communities to restore,” Carter told troops July 27 in Fort Bragg, N.C.
“That’s not a principally American job. We will play a role in it, but remember the more than $2 billion in pledges that we got last week will mostly be executed through civilian agencies and frequently they’ll use contractors to do that,” he said later that day, speaking to reporters. It’s “going to be a big job.”