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The Boston Phoenix Warriors, Guns, and Money

When the Berlin Wall came down, Cold Warriors didn't simply become desk jockeys.

By Jason Vest

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  An anti-communist ex-secretary of state who works for his old enemies if the price is right. A liberal senator's warplane-selling wife who gets off firing missiles from the cockpit of an F-16 simulator. The pilot-for-hire who loved the secret world so much that he covered up his Jewish identity to run guns for the Arabs. And the extremely low-profile, amazingly wealthy, utterly charming right-wing German who took part in nearly every major covert operation during the Cold War, and who, in retirement, gives quietly but generously to charity.

The stuff of fiction? Not at all. These are just some of the real-life characters who appear in the pages of Washington-based investigative reporter Ken Silverstein's new book, Private Warriors (Verso, $25, 268 pages). From overseas arms fairs to remote airstrips to the corridors of the Pentagon, Silverstein's narrative is a bizarrely compelling journey to discover where our Cold Warriors have gone.

Some, we learn, are now in the "respectable" end of the arms business. Others ply their trade as spooky "contractors" in the brave new capitalist world, where mercenaries are now mainstream. Most of the policy wonks, meanwhile, can be found racing through the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense-contractor industry. Some, like Andy Marshall and Frank Gaffney (along with a slew of others who currently advise George W. Bush), continue to beat the drum for "Star Wars" missile defense, appropriations cycle after appropriations cycle.

A contributing editor to Harper's and one of the few bona fide investigative reporters left in Washington, Silverstein spent more than two years filing Freedom of Information Act requests, combing through archives, and knocking on doors from Brazil to Belgium to gather research for Private Warriors. He was getting ready to head out on assignment when we caught up with him in Washington.

Q: You're a familiar byline to regular readers of the Nation, Mother Jones, and Harper's, especially for your work on power in Washington -- particularly lobbying. Why a book on the military-industrial-intelligence complex?

A: In 1997 I was working on a piece about the privatization of foreign military training, in which companies like Military Professional Resources Incorporated [MPRI] -- which is a corporate entity headed by a number of top high-ranking former generals -- train foreign armies in Bosnia, Croatia, Africa, and now, apparently, South America. I was examining that phenomenon, and during one of my interviews with Dan Nielsen, a former congressional staffer and professor at the National Defense University -- a guy I'd describe as a liberal defense intellectual -- he said, "You're on to something far bigger."

With the end of the Cold War, he told me, tens of thousands who ran the Cold War as military officers, spooks, gun runners, Pentagon bureaucrats -- they've all been cast adrift. But they have military and paramilitary skills they developed over the course of the Cold War, and now they're trying to carve out a niche in the private sector. And in the course of their activities, he said, not only do they seek continuation of a hard-line defense posture, but they influence the debate and create a continued momentum for ridiculous levels of defense spending -- $300 billion a year, despite the fact that only North Korea and Cuba are primary enemies. Fortunately for me, Dan was too busy to write the book, and he gave me permission to steal his idea.

Q: Of all the characters you came across, does any one stand out?

A: One of the German arms dealers who worked extensively for the US government during an [important] part of the Cold War. The story of Ernst Werner Glatt, a right-wing German who worked for the Pentagon and CIA for 40 years, and who was a key participant in the most amazing covert operations of our time, including an operation in 1977 to arm the Somali government, had never been reported on.

I've been working as a journalist for 15 years, and I felt like [Glatt's story] was the most important I had ever undertaken. Glatt was completely unknown prior to this -- his name appears in the press twice, and both times only in passing. I mean, here's a guy who was probably one of the most significant arms dealers of the 20th century -- a guy who moved guns against the Soviets at the same time as [he was] stealing weapons from them, so the Pentagon could test them against their own -- and he was still cloaked in the shadows.

Q: But Glatt's more or less retired, while people like Al Haig, who was secretary of state in the Reagan administration, and Frank Gaffney, who was Reagan's deputy assistant secretary of defense, are still active players in manipulating defense policy.

A: Don't get me wrong -- I think the [stories about] Al Haig and Frank Gaffney are important. But they're known quantities, and what's there is less surprising.

But Glatt -- first, this guy was truly unwritten history, which was exciting to home in on. Secondly, let's face it -- arms dealing, no matter what you think of it ethically or morally, is exciting. It's a world of phony passports, fake end-user certificates, bribes, and there's something exciting and compelling about it. Because you're not supposed to know about it, let alone discover it, and to actually learn about it -- it was just tremendously exciting.

Thirdly, Glatt's fascinating. Extremely intelligent, extremely articulate, speaks at least six languages, has traveled all over the world -- whatever I think of his political views and actions, it's hard not to be intrigued.

Q: So how did you assemble the biography of one of US intelligence's most guarded human assets?

A: The process was extremely elaborate and drawn out, to say the least. It took a year and a half to research and write the Glatt section of the book. I first contacted him through his attorney in November of 1998 and he called me, agreeing to meet me in January of 1999 in Frankfurt. But he backed out at the last minute. I would fax his various estates around the world trying to find him, hoping he'd come around -- and still he wouldn't give me an on-the-record interview. But I did speak to him off the record, on several occasions. And he did confirm much of what I'd learned from others.

Q: Was there any point, as you discovered new layers of his persona and operational background, at which you were disturbed?

A: Actually, I confess to having a certain admiration for him. No matter what I think of what he did -- and I realize there are those who will consider this an ethically repugnant point of view -- it's hard not to like him. When you talk to people about arms dealers, their first reaction is, they're all whores -- CIA people would tell me you can't trust any of them. In fact, I was surprised. Because about Glatt, frequently people said he had a visceral hatred of communism. US intelligence said they knew they'd never catch him double-dealing.

Q: An arms dealer with a code of honor?

A: Yes, after a fashion. He had beliefs he's been faithful to. Compare him to a guy like Al Haig, who, in my view, will say anything or do anything to make money. [With Haig] you have an ardent anti-communist who's only too happy to do business with the Chinese. Haig will represent any dictator, left or right, if he pays the bills. My sense of Glatt is that he wouldn't do that. Maybe I was fooled, but I don't think so. It's sort of funny that I'm paying tribute to his loyalty to principles I don't subscribe to, but I did find a certain type of honor in him.

Q: When you started on this project, did you have any idea how profoundly weird some of the people and situations you'd be reporting on would be?

A: No. I was very surprised. On some level, I certainly expected it to be a somewhat weird, creepy world, but I never expected to encounter someone like Sheila Petrie, a former stripper who sold whiskey and French locomotives to Idi Amin. Or members of the British royal family involved in the gun trade. Even some of the more "mainstream" characters were fairly flaky. But as this great cast of characters emerged, it did make for fun research.

Q: This isn't a world whose inhabitants take kindly to prying eyes. Were you ever concerned about your safety?

A: I never really felt frightened, exactly. I'd rather not say of whom, but there were a couple of individuals -- none of the main characters in the book, but secondary characters -- who I did worry about, and who I thought might . . . let's just say they're not the sort of people whose bad side you want to be on.

Q: Do they still live by the "ends justify the means" jihad mentality of the Cold War?

A: The Cold War mentality was one of the great dogmas of the 20th century, and those who lived by it and believed in it were equivalent to the Communist Party apparatchiks they were so opposed to. And in some ways, they've had a hard time changing with the times.

That whole dogma was an uncritical acceptance of US military posture, an unwillingness to examine ideology, an uncritical embrace of greater degrees of military expenditure and power. And they've brought that dogma to a world which no longer exists. To suggest we're living in a time as militarily menacing as the Cold War is ludicrous. True, there's a whole lot of scary things out there, but the things that are there -- chemical and biological terrorism -- you're not going to confront with a $300 billion military budget.

Q: Is it fair to say that in order to understand the world of military affairs today, you can't forget the Cold War, because its precepts are still there?

A: Exactly. What I found in reporting was the revelation of a certain fanaticism that I suppose was always visible, but now is more visible. And I think my reporting also shows the Cold War ideologues as players who had a personal stake in their own views. For example, the Pentagon bureaucrat who was constantly harping on the Soviet threat -- which collapsed in one fell swoop and was revealed to be rotting from the inside out -- had a stake in exaggerating and inflaming it. The gun runners had a personal interest in creating and promulgating the view that the world was a terribly dangerous place for the US, that the nation must buy arms, that the CIA must do covert ops. The level of threat we were afraid of turned out to have been wildly overblown.

I'm not saying everyone I interviewed or wrote about is a liar or a crook out to feather their own nest. Some are good people, people worthy of admiration. I don't think everyone did everything [just] to make a buck. But they were always dishonestly promoting programs or ideas.

Q: Which still persists today.

A: Take Gaffney. A hard-liner from the Reagan administration, big Star Wars promoter -- the idea that it would work perfectly was always ludicrous, and if it doesn't, what good is it? So 98 missiles don't make it through, but two do? The idea that you can make it work perfectly is stupid. It was always promoted with a pack of lies. Sixty billion dollars later, what is there to show for it? Gaffney's funded by defense companies that have billions at stake. I consider that corrupt. But I don't want to tar everyone with this brush. When you have a $300 billion defense budget, with a lot of people making good money, it corrupts everything. The intellectual side of these programs, the testing side -- I mean, my God, the tests have been rigged to the point of having to help the defense system find the rocket.

Q: Where's the line between being a true believer and a self-interested money grubber?

A: That's very difficult to answer, because you'd need to put Gaffney and a bunch of these guys through hours of therapy to determine if they actually believe the lies they put out. Some of them certainly do believe it. But it's a tricky question, because even if they do believe it, the evidence is so overwhelming -- how long is it going to be before people realize a ballistic-missile defense is not going to work properly? There's no need to promote it when it's clear it's not going to do what it's supposed to. What Gaffney believes becomes irrelevant, because there's no reason to believe it. But getting to the very roots of all these people -- that would require years of analysis.

Q: What's your take on the Clinton administration and how it's responded to these changes?

A: It's done very little to reverse the policies of the Cold War. Clinton promised the Star Wars project would be killed way back when, but it hasn't. He's . . . stalling to let his successor decide. Certainly if you look at the defense budget, he's done almost nothing after it was time to put the Cold War behind us, he's done very little to do that. This administration gets pretty low grades.

Q: Is fostering the rise of private military companies (PMCs) like MPRI part of that? Isn't there some wisdom or legitimacy to experimenting with this concept?

A: I don't think so. In Rwanda, for example, where the US didn't want to get involved -- people have said, "Why not put in a private mercenary firm, with a few hundred soldiers, a few helicopters, and put an end to it?" That's true, you could have, but why from a private firm? Even a small African contingent backed by more powerful nations could have done it. You don't need PMCs. These companies go where the money goes -- who's going to pay to stop Rwandan genocide?

What strikes me as most naive is that these firms are run, for the most part, by retired hawks and hard-liners who made their names during the Cold War, and the idea . . . that suddenly, in the private sector, they're going to behave responsibly is absolutely stupid. They are going to go where the money is, they are going to go and support the same regimes they supported in the Cold War. I believe it's naive in a crazy way. You expect MPRI is going to come in and be hired to overthrow the Suharto regime? Who's going to hire them? The people who pay lip service to "ethical foreign policy"? I don't think so. And I don't think human-rights [non-governmental organizations] want to start doing that, either. Dictators have authoritarian regimes and are trying to make sure they stay in power. Usually the money is in the wrong hands.

Q: During the Kosovo crisis, progressives were split on intervention. Do you think the intervention advocates appreciated -- or even considered -- the vested interests of defense procurement?

A: Absolutely not, and that was one of the scary things about calls from liberals for intervention in Kosovo. People think this was a humanitarian intervention. This opens up a whole can of worms. The US has always used this claim to justify use of force. And there are certainly cases where use of force is justified.

But just like the Gulf War, the Kosovo intervention allowed the US to roll out its supposedly brilliant high-tech arsenal. In both cases, the effective use of high-tech weapons was inflated. The Serbs shot down a Stealth [aircraft] with a missile that dates back to 1963. Time after time, we found our high-tech weapons not nearly as effective. They couldn't see through clouds. They couldn't pick out enemy targets. The kill figures for the Serbs were highly inflated. An entire army that rolled in rolled back out. Only a handful of tanks were killed.

Yet on the nightly news, it appeared that the stuff was working brilliantly. And this gives aid and comfort to the Pentagon, which can go to the public and say, "See how brilliant our weapons are? We didn't lose any soldiers!" And this creates a momentum for building up new weapons systems and funneling more money to arms contractors. In that sense, Kosovo was a huge PR success for the Pentagon, just like the war in the Gulf. Purely in military terms, they obviously overwhelmed their opponent. But that didn't have a lot to do with high-tech weaponry. All we proved was that we can bomb the shit out of a small country, which was the same thing the Germans did to the Spanish at Guernica.

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