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Privatizing the Apocalypse

As Los Alamos goes up to sale, what does it mean to live in a for-profit nuclear world?

| Thu Mar. 30, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt.

Every now and then, amid all the grim stories in our world, you run across one that rings a special bell for you. Frida Berrigan's today is that for me. In fact, consider this week at Tomdispatch as a discordant hymn to the privatization disasters of the Bush administration. Michael Schwartz began it with his account of how the draconian economic privatization program Bush administration officials enacted on prostrate Iraq in 2003 led directly to the catastrophe of the moment in that country. We know as well that, under this administration, the Pentagon has been on its own privatization binge, turning what were once essential military activities over to Halliburton, its subsidiary KBR, and other private firms in a wholesale fashion.

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In addition, the Pentagon and the Bush administration have been on another kind of binge, privatizing national (and international) security. From New Orleans to Iraq, rent-a-mercenary companies are having a for-profit field day based on the woes of others. According to P.W. Singer, author of Corporate Warriors, for every hundred U.S. soldiers in our first Gulf War, there was one private "security contractor." This time around, it's closer to one in ten. It has been estimated that there are up to 20,000 guns-for-hire, Iraqi and Western, working in that country, the second largest (if also motliest) force in the "coalition of the willing."

Such private companies are above the law in Iraq, and their trigger-happy hirees don't hesitate to create mayhem. In part because their own casualties can largely be kept private, such companies have done much to reduce the political costs of going to war in the United States, while raising the stakes in Baghdad. In a February 2004 New Yorker article, retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner told journalist Jane Mayer, "When you can hire people to go to war there is none of the grumbling and political friction" associated with mustering a larger public fighting force.

Increasingly this sort of questionable "security" is making itself felt at home as well. The premises of the Homeland Security Department are now guarded by the private security firm, Wackenhut Services, Inc. (hired through a contract with the U.S. Navy). Among other goofs, its personnel reportedly mishandled a potential anthrax attack on Homeland Security headquarters. ("An envelope with suspicious powder was opened last fall at the headquarters. Daniels and other current and former guards said they were shocked when superiors carried it past the office of Secretary Michael Chertoff, took it outside and then shook it outside Chertoff's window without evacuating people nearby.") Meanwhile, Wackenhut guards at the Energy Department, according to its inspector general, "had thwarted simulated terrorist attacks at a nuclear lab only after they were tipped off to the test; and... had improperly handled the transport of nuclear and conventional weapons." This is what for-profit national security can mean on a small scale.

Now, transfer that thought to the ultimate weaponry -- our nuclear arsenal. Sounds like the sort of nightmare you'd only find in the Wackenhuttiest of dystopian sci-fi novels, but read on and imagine our nuclear future in those same trustworthy privatized hands.

Privatizing the Apocalypse
By Frida Berrigan

Started as the super-secret "Project Y" in 1943, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has long been the keystone institution of the American nuclear-weapons producing complex. It was the birthplace of Fat Man and Little Boy, the two nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Last year, the University of California, which has managed the lab for the Department of Energy since its inception, decided to put Los Alamos on the auction block. In December 2005, construction giant Bechtel won a $553 million yearly management contract to run the sprawling complex, which employs more than 13,000 people and has an estimated $2.2 billion annual budget.

"Privatization" has been in the news ever since George W. Bush became president. His administration has radically reduced the size of government, turning over to private companies critical governmental functions involving prisons, schools, water, welfare, Medicare, and utilities as well as war-fighting, and is always pushing for more of the same. Outside of Washington, the pitfalls of privatization are on permanent display in Iraq, where companies like Halliburton have reaped billions in contracts. Performing jobs once carried out by members of the military -- from base building and mail delivery to food service -- they have bilked the government while undermining the safety of American forces by providing substandard services and products. Halliburton has been joined by a cottage industry of military-support companies responsible for everything from transportation to interrogation. On the war front, private companies are ubiquitous, increasingly indispensable, and largely unregulated -- a lethal combination.

Now, the long arm of privatization is reaching deep into an almost unimaginable place at the heart of the national security apparatus --- the laboratory where scientists learned to harness the power of the atom more than 60 years ago and created weapons of apocalyptic proportions.

Profane Problem or Prolific Profit?

Nuclear weapons are many things to many people -- the sword of Damocles or the guarantor of American global supremacy, the royal path to the apocalypse or atoms for peace. But in each notion, they are treated as idols -- jealously-guarded, shrouded in code, surrounded by sacred secrecy. That is changing.

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