The Pentagon's $4 Billion Mercenary Unit for Fighting the Drug War

The Defense Department's Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office (CNTPO) just closed its latest request for proposals, and some of the world's top private security contractors are in the running to win a vaguely worded contract for "training services support." 

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The Defense Department's Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office (CNTPO) just closed its latest request for proposals, and some of the world's top private security contractors are in the running to win a vaguely worded contract for "training services support." On Tuesday Wired's Spencer Ackerman reported that the "obscure Pentagon office designed to curb the flow of illegal drugs has quietly evolved into a one-stop shop for private security contractors around the world, soliciting deals worth over $3 billion." While not very well known even within the Defense Department — it doesn't even have an office in the Pentagon — the CNTPO is supposed to be providing support on the front lines of Mexico's drug cartel wars, as well as a number of other objectives around the world. However, some military experts are growing concerned that the mercenaries winning lucrative contracts are overstepping their bounds, especially at a time when budgets are tight.

Ackerman says that the CNTPO's interprets its mandate "very, very broadly." Examples of operations include missions to "airlift services in the trans-Sahara region of Africa" and to perform "media analysis and web-site development consultation to officials of the Government of Pakistan." The office itself say it has "the lead for developing technology for interagency and multinational operations to disrupt, deter, and deny narcoterrorist activities in an effort to reduce trafficking in illegal narcotics and materials that support global terrorist activities." A report from Office of the Inspector General at the Defense Department uses similar wording to describe the CNTPO. However, Wired reported in September on a billion contract awarded by the CNTPO in 2010 that not only fell outside of the office's jurisdiction but also failed to invite military contractors to compete. Sharon Weinberger calls the Pentagon the "U.S. champ of no-bid contracts" in explaining the contract:

The deal, an umbrella-style contract, would come from an unlikely, obscure Army bureau called the Counter Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office, or CNTPO, that brings new tech to foreign allies’ counternarcotics efforts.

One problem: The new task slotted into the CNTPO contract —  known as an "indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity" contract — had nothing to do with counternarcotics or technology. Afghan police needed training in basic skills like shooting straight and controlling riots.

Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations for the Project on Government Oversight has expressed concern over the expansion of the CNTPO's jurisdiction. "These are special-forces operations, and they're best left in hands of our special-forces folks," Schwellenbach told Wired recently. "This stuff isn't delivering paper clips or even fuel or bullets. It's complex, sophisticated services, and there’s a reason we have Special Forces do this kind of training, not the regular Army. This is something you really want to keep a tight lid on."

The list of recipients of CNTPO's contracts reads like the who's-who of top military contractors, including everyone from Blackwater to DynCorp to Lockheed Martin. And as Ackerman points out, the office isn't always too careful in how they dole out these millions of dollars of funds:

In 2009, a bureaucratic shift plucked the responsibility for training Afghanistan’s police out of the State Department’s hands. Suddenly, the contract — worth about $1 billion — landed with CNTPO. CNTPO quietly chose Blackwater for the contract, even though Blackwater guards in Afghanistan on a differentcontract stole hundreds of guns intended for those very Afghan cops.

The incumbent holder of the contract, Blackwater competitor DynCorp, protested. It didn’t help that a powerful Senate committee discovered Blackwater's gun-stealing antics. In December, DynCorp finally received the contract — administered by an Army office, not CNTPO.

DynCorp has thrown its name in the hat for the latest contract, which stopped accepting proposals on Monday.  Now that the supercommittee has failed to come to an agreement,  the Pentagon is facing $500 to $600 billion in budget cuts and already pushing back. But as the drug cartel war rages in Mexico, U.S. officials remain focused on their efforts in Afghanistan. The Washington Examiner reports that U.S. aid to Mexico since 2007 totals $1.6 billion. By contrast, the request for proposals (PDF) explains that the latest CNTPO contract for "training services support" could be worth up to $975 million alone.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.