State Outsources Secret War
Best known as a place where the Air Force shoots satellites into orbit, the Eastern Space and Missile Center--just south of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida's Brevard County--would appear to focus solely on the wild blue yonder and beyond. Indeed, the 45th Space Wing's web page is pretty clear about the mission of Patrick Air Force Base and the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station: to enhance "national strength through assured access to space for Department of Defense, civil, and commercial users."
But according to a closely held government document, in the corner of the base that's occupied by the defense contractor Raytheon there's an operation that has absolutely nothing to do with the 45th's role as "premier gateway into space." In fact, the 10,000-square-foot fenced-in yard isn't used by Raytheon at all. Nor is the 62,000 square feet of office, storage and hangar space located at 1038 South Patrick Drive. Officially, it's the province of the State Department, which maintains a dedicated high-speed data line linking its Foggy Bottom headquarters in Washington with Buildings 984-986.
What the State Department is doing here has little to do with the genteel art of diplomacy but everything to do with combat. For all intents and purposes, South Patrick Drive is the gateway to the US government's private war in the South American Andes.
Building 985 at Patrick Air Force Base is occupied by at least two State Department officers and a handful of administrators from DynCorp, a giant contractor which does most of its $1.4 billion in business with the US government--particularly in the realms of defense and intelligence. Since 1991, the company has effectively--and quietly--served as the State Department's private air force in the Andes, providing pilots and mechanics for US-owned aircraft. Both DynCorp and the State Department have been reticent about just what DynCorp does. A handful of media reports and public statements have shown that the company's pilots are flying fumigation and search-and-rescue missions, primarily in Colombia.
There's also been passing mention of DynCorp operating in Peru and Bolivia. But when reporters, activists and even members of Congress have asked for more details on what DynCorp does for the Aviation Division of State's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau, they've received nothing. Sometimes State simply doesn't respond. "We're hitting a stone wall here," sighs Nadeam Elshami, an aide to Representative Jan Schakowsky, who recently introduced a bill banning the use of private military companies like DynCorp in the Andes. "We've asked State for information, and we haven't received any yet."
Other times State says it can't say anything because to do so would compromise information proprietary to DynCorp that's protected by the "trade secrets exemption" in the Freedom of Information Act. If DynCorp ever responds to queries, it says it won't divulge any details because the State Department won't let it. "We haven't gotten any answers from them, either," says Elshami, "though they did contact us after Veronica Bowers's plane was shot down over Peru last month and told us they weren't involved. I think they made sure everyone knew that, but about what they're actually doing, no."
The Nation has obtained a copy of State's contract with DynCorp--a contract that requires all employees to have a "secret"-level clearance and "not communicate to any person any information known to them by reason of their performance of services." Additionally, it instructs DynCorp to "not refer to this award in any public or private advertising" or in the news media.
Looking through it, it's not hard to see why. The contract reveals DynCorp's Andean aerial counternarcotics operations to be far more expansive and far-flung than previously reported. From its "Main Operating Base" at Patrick AFB, DynCorp oversees an aerial fleet of forty-six helicopters and twenty-three fixed-wing aircraft which can operate from twenty-three locations spread out over Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. In some cases, DynCorp's operations are not limited to fumigation and search-and-rescue but, according to the contract, include maintenance and pilot training, aircraft ferrying, matériel transport, reconnaissance and flying local troops in to destroy drug labs and coca or poppy fields.
According to Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood, the State-DynCorp contract is a prime example of how the executive branch is unilaterally projecting power and implementing policy without leaving a trace. "The kind of routine oversight that official military activities would be subjected to are evaded by contractors as a matter of course," he says. "This highlights how the whole phenomenon of privatizing military functions has enabled the government to evade oversight to a shocking degree."
Politically, the contract's specifics only reinforce concerns voiced by Representative Schakowsky and others that US taxpayers have been funding a secret war that has the potential to slowly but surely draw the United States further into a poorly understood counterinsurgency conflict. "What most people either forget or don't know," says Sanho Tree, director of the drug policy project at the Institute for Policy Studies, "is that conflict in Colombia is a civil war, and is not about drugs. But instead of doing things like infrastructure and economic development to connect with people who have been abandoned by their government, the first contact scores of peasants have with their government--and the United States, thanks to Plan Colombia--is with armed soldiers and herbicide-spraying aircraft, which only underscores the rebels' case. If the American people don't know the full extent of what's being done in their name, how can they make informed decisions?"