The US experience in contracting out security – an interview with Thomas Bruneau, by Leonardo Bandarra

The use of private forces by some countries to undergo activities such as securing embassies or promoting national interests abroad is a significant issue in today’s international juncture, although it is not well divulgated by the media. Private forces are a specific brand of military personnel, which is employed by private companies and which is often hired by countries or by other enterprises in order to exert activities such as bodyguarding. Their activities are mainly regulated by the domestic legal framework of countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, notwithstanding some efforts to regulate this issue internationally, through institutions such as the 2001 International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.

In the current international scenario, the country that has assembled most experience on this topic is the United States, especially in what concerns the use of private forces abroad. This is well illustrated by the State Department’s decision to send more than 5,000 private security contractors to Iraq, in 2011, with the aim to protect American diplomatic interests in that state.

In what concerns the use of private forces by national governments, Thomas Bruneau, who is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, USA, wrote a thorough analysis of the American experience, which was published in the most recent edition of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI. He was, therefore, interviewed by Leonardo C. Bandarra, a member of the editorial team of the RBPI, about his personal opinions on the issues he explored on his article, “The US experience in contracting out security and lessons for other countries”.

  1. In your article, you delineated some positive features of the use of private security contractors in areas of conflict, such as lesser bureaucratic restraints. In your opinion, is it desirable to employ private forces in zones of conflict, such as Iraq? Why?

Thomas Bruneau: In the United States today it is impossible for our armed forces to go anywhere or do anything without some reliance on contractors. Currently, almost 50% of the Department of Defense budget, which is more than $600 billion, is contracted out. In theory, it makes sense to contract out certain functions such as logistics, food preparation and service, construction, and the like. And, in the case of armed contractors, as in private security (or military) contractors (PSC or PMC), whose task it is to defend embassies and other official buildings, important personnel, and even US military bases, it can make sense to employ them. However, and this is a big however, the challenge is to have these private contactors, now carrying weapons, under some kind of control.  In the current US system of contracting out, which is defined in excruciating detail in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), similar to your Lei de Licitação, US government employees, including senior military officers, cannot tell contractors what to do and cannot discipline them. Therefore, the contract has to be very carefully written to include all imaginable details on what the private security contractors can, and cannot, do. And, the legal framework to provide for penalties if they do not adhere to these specific terms must be made more robust.  These have been weaknesses in the US system that I hope other countries remedy in advance of relying on contractors.

2. Your research approach was focused on comparing the institutional dimensions of the public security framework with the private one. Both kinds of structure are currently being used by the United States in sundry contexts, particularly overseas. Do you believe that there is any perspective of cooperation between both frameworks – the public and the private ones? If so, would that be desirable?

Thomas Bruneau: The overwhelming emphasis in the US is on private business, capitalism, and the value of private entrepreneurship.  That is fine, and this emphasis has resulted in huge progress in technology, industry, commerce, and the like.  However, this emphasis can become corrupted when the reliance, as in the case of using private contractors, is on utilizing government money, which is basically the peoples’ money generated by taxes directly or indirectly on the population.  Further, traditionally the task of security, both domestically as with police forces and internationally with the emphasis on military forces, has been the monopoly of the state exercised by professionals in the use of force.  The challenge is, then, to combine in the most efficient and effective manner possible these two, I would say, competing ways of doing things. In my view it is possible to combine these two very different approaches, but it requires the creation of institutions, legal frameworks, and most of all competent individuals to both issue contracts and to see to their implementation.

3. Is there a risk of private forces being used by terrorist organizations, such as the so-called Islamic State, in the foreseeable future?

Thomas Bruneau: In a sense, the Islamic State (IS) is already using private forces in that the IS has generated huge sums of money by demanding ransoms for hostages, taxing populations under their control in Iraq and Syria, and selling petroleum products. With these funds they pay for their fighters, and their maintenance, and recruit globally.  This is one of the very big differences between the IS and other terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, in that the IS occupies territory, that they define as the caliphate. However, as suicide bombing is a key tactic of most terrorist organizations, including IS, there is very little attraction to this tactic by those who are willing to work for private forces, for money.  I believe, therefore, that the incentives to join, and to fight, in terrorist organizations are very different from those in private forces.  I can visualize, however, that some other countries, including, perhaps, the People’s Republic  of China, employing private forces and deploying them abroad.

4. Based on the experience of the USA, what lessons might be learned for other countries, particularly in Latin America?

Thomas Bruneau: This question is the main reason why I wrote the paper and am very pleased it will be published in Latin America.  From my research on the use of private contractors, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, it became clear that the US adopted the model of contracting out without thinking through the implications. Robert Gates, who was Secretary of Defense, said this clearly on page 224 of his book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Once an “industry” was established, with employees, funds for lawyers, lobbyists, media campaigns, and the like, it became all but impossible to change the situation, as negative as the experience was and continues to be. It is telling that, as senators, both Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton were critical of the use of private forces. On becoming President and Secretary of State, respectively, they did very little to change the situation.  It is very difficult to change something that is already established, and there are many other competing demands on decision-makers’ time and attention. If a country in Latin America, such as Brazil, intends to engage in contracting out, there is much that will have to be done in advance. This includes creating the legal basis for contracting out, creating the institutions to decide and conduct oversight, and employ government individuals with sufficient education and capabilities to monitor the whole process. This was not done in the US. Indeed, currently, as the US returns to Iraq, this time to fight the Islamic State, there is absolutely no mention of contracting out. The topic is “toxic”.  Yet, the US is advertising for contractors and is sending them to Iraq.  Ignorance of an issue and neglect of a solution is not the way to deal with the problem.


Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, USA (

Read the article: BRUNEAU, Thomas C.. The US experience in contracting out security and lessons for other countries. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 58, n. 1, p. 230-248, June  2015 .   Available from <>. access on  01  Oct.  2015.

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