Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror

Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror

by Robert Young Pelton


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Robert Young Pelton first became aware of the phenomenon of hired guns in the War on Terror when he met a covert team of contractors on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in the fall of 2003. Pelton soon embarked on a globe-spanning odyssey to penetrate and understand this shadowy world, ultimately delivering stunning insights into the way private soldiers are used.

Enter a blood-soaked world of South African mercenaries and tribal fighters backed by ruthless financiers. Drop into Baghdad’s Green Zone, strap on body armor, and take a daily high-speed ride with a doomed crew of security contractors who dodge car bombs and snipers just to get their charges to the airport. Share a drink in a chic hotel bar with wealthy owners of private armies who debate the best way to stay alive in war zones.

Licensed to Kill spans four continents and three years, taking us inside the CIA’s dirty wars; the brutal contractor murders in Fallujah and the Alamo-like sieges in Najaf and Al Kut; the Deep South contractor training camps where ex–Special Operations soldiers and even small town cops learn the ropes; the contractor conventions where macho attendees swap bullet-punctuated tales and discuss upcoming gigs; and the grim Central African prison where contractors turned failed mercenaries pay a steep price.

The United States has encouraged the use of the private sector in all facets of the War on Terror, placing contractors outside the bounds of functional legal constraints. With the shocking clarity that can come only from firsthand observation, Licensed to Kill painstakingly deconstructs the most controversial events and introduces the pivotal players. Most disturbingly, it shows that there are indeed thousands of contractors—with hundreds more being produced every month—who’ve been given a license to kill, their services available to the highest bidder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400097821
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/28/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 284,404
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.14(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Robert Young Pelton is a journalist, filmmaker, and explorer. He is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places, Come Back Alive, The Adventurist, and Three Worlds Gone Mad. Pelton has worked for National Geographic, Discovery, 60 Minutes, the ABC Investigative Division, and CNN. He is also a contributing editor and columnist for National Geographic Adventure.

Read an Excerpt


Kill Them All

"I am here for the money." —Afghan Gen. Zia Lodin to the CIA

"The solution is to let them kill each other," the small, energetic senior citizen in the Windbreaker tells me over a fiesta omelet with extra jalapenos at a Florida Waffle House. He points upward. "Send up a satellite and take pictures. Keep the Special Operations teams in the hills, fifty miles out of the towns. Then go in at night and do your work. Kill them. Kill like we did in Germany. Flatten the place. You have to not mind killing innocents. Even the women and children."

These are the words of seventy-five-year-old Billy Waugh, Special Forces legend, seasoned CIA paramilitary, renowned assassin, covert operator, and the world's longest operating "Green Badger"—or CIA contractor. Over breakfast we discuss my most recent trip to Iraq with contractors and the deadly and confused situation there. Billy is giving me his frank opinions on what needs to be done in Iraq to stop the ever-mounting toll of dead Americans. His reference to tactics in Germany and other wars is not based on a book but on events in his lifetime.

The best clue to Billy's age comes from the vast historical and geographical area over which he can roam in the first person. Billy Waugh tried to sign up to fight during the closing year of World War II but was sent back to his home in Bastrop, Texas, because he was only fifteen at the time. He finally became an army paratrooper in 1947 at age seventeen; joined the barely two-year-old Special Forces (SF) in 1954; worked off and on with the CIA starting in 1961, fully enjoying his long career in the business of killing and espionage. Waugh is a decorated veteran of Korea, a twenty-seven-month decorated veteran of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era, an eleven-year Special Forces veteran, and a veteran of a yet-to-be-determined number of CIA operations as either an employee (Blue Badger) or as a contractor (Green Badger). He knows many people and has been to many places—Vietnam, Bosnia, Sudan, Kosovo, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries. Just as an employee and contractor for the CIA, Billy has worked and traveled in sixty-four countries since 1989.

Billy exudes obvious pride regarding his work for the Agency and has not only written a book about some of his adventures, called Hunting the Jackal, but also travels around speaking to graduation classes, SF associations, and even football teams. His three-month-old metallic-champagne Lincoln Town Car already has twenty-two thousand miles on it, mostly from driving between Florida and Washington. "I can't fly anymore," he admits. It's not that he is afraid of crashing; he just carries too many weapons. When he gives his motivational speech, he says, "It's all about being shot up and how to keep on going. How to be tough." At his age and with his experiences, Billy Waugh should not be alive. His custom front license plate provides clues. While his rear plate advertises WOUNDED WAR VET, the front plate spells it out in simpler terms: 8 HITS, with an illustration of a Purple Heart medal.

Our waitress at the Waffle House probably assumes this short, compact man with thinning hair and thick glasses is an energetic grandfather. His black Members Only jacket, golf shirt, and nondescript pants wouldn't spark her curiosity, unless she noticed the grinning skull patch on his jacket—a Special Operations Association logo. Billy's culture and style is rooted in the U.S. Special Forces. He wears two large army rings, an SF pendant on a gold chain, and a gold Rolex Daymaster with diamonds around the bezel—not in a decorative fashion, but more like tribal badges common among ex-Special Forces soldiers. Billy Waugh is also a Texan, famously outspoken, and doesn't suffer fools. Despite his age and limping gait—the result of old combat injuries—Billy has the mental and physical vigor of a twenty-one-year-old. He speaks in staccato bursts like machine-gun fire, beginning every conversation with a barrage of questions and finishing up with a few bursts of opinions.

I first met Billy over the phone, and he immediately began interspersing his spiel with questions, like an opening mortar bombardment designed to confuse or narrow in on an opponent. Even in person, Billy likes to sort out the person across the table as friend or foe. If enough names and answers click, he becomes your friend. If not, the conversation comes to an end. His only caveat to the curious is, "I ain't gonna tell you any classified stuff" or make the Agency look bad.

Billy talks about killing like civilians might talk about their golf game. It's what he does, what he did, and what he knows—something the U.S. government trained him and paid him to do for many years. Billy's descriptions of death and killing are not intended to impress but to assure the listener of the difference between good and bad people. Billy must be excused for his blunt talk. He normally seeks out the company of soldiers who understand such things. The Special Operations community lauds him as a living legend, and just the way he refers to himself in the third person, speaking his own name in compressed syllables—"billywaugh"—gives him a ring of uniqueness and celebrity.

In his biography, Hunting the Jackal, Waugh describes himself as someone who simply functions in combat, someone who does not spend too much time worrying, complaining, or examining what he does. Billy has killed countless people, has had people try to kill him, been nearly dead, and has lost many friends. He has worn the smell of death, whether by retrieving maggot-infested booby-trapped bodies of comrades killed in battle, or in the private weight of burying dozens of close friends. Despite this, even at his advanced age, he would gladly go anywhere his country would send him under any conditions to kill or help others to kill America's enemies. But his days of killing and hunting America's enemies are over now. Even in America's new "dead or alive" War on Terror, Billy sees a change in how contractors and paramilitaries are allowed to operate.

Billy tells me how Special Forces tactics have changed since his early career. "Closing in and doing hand-to-hand with the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] was not a very bright tactic, but it was the only tactic we knew during the sixties and early seventies. The new tactic is to use Special Forces accompanied by some of the OGA [other governmental agencies] and not allow our friendlies to close with the enemy. The new tactic is to fight a 'standoff' type of war in most cases. Usually a four to five kilometer standoff is the recommended distance to close with the enemy." Today's CIA and Special Forces method of training proxy armies is designed to create a "hands-off" relationship. He explains that the license to kill once accorded special operations has been finessed or outsourced to avoid direct liability. "We don't pull the trigger but we sure as hell give them a gun, bullets, show them the target, and teach them how to pull that trigger. It didn't use to be that way." Given his long career in covert operations, Billy should know how it "used to be."

From its founding in 1952, the mission of Special Forces was to operate behind enemy lines, train insurgent troops, and act as a force multiplier. They were recruited from the more elite airborne units and were usually aggressive, independent-minded men with high IQs and good moral character—men who would follow orders but could think for themselves under great pressure while working in hostile environments. All the early members of the Special Forces had basic foreign language skills, held at least a sergeant's rank, and were willing to work behind enemy lines in civilian clothes. Due to the Special Forces's covert nature and links to the CIA, most people did not know they existed until the early 1960s, when President Kennedy became a major supporter and expanded their role dramatically in the newly emerging Vietnam conflict, first as advisors and later as ground troops. Their close relationship with the CIA was kept in the background.

The CIA also had their own paramilitary teams, some of them contractors, others seconded from the military. I ask Billy what the difference was.

Billy rubs his thumb and finger together. "Money. The CIA had money, lots of it. We [Special Forces] did the legwork."

The concept of Special Forces was not new, but America was confronting an unfamiliar style of warfare in Southeast Asia—a communist insurgency that did not stand and fight in big battalions, but rather sent agents in plainclothes to recruit, train, and equip insurgents. What the CIA and the Special Forces did in Southeast Asia was modeled on what the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) did in occupied France with the Jedburghs, whose mission was to drop in covert operators to coordinate supply efforts and provide communications and intelligence. The training and operational efforts of Special Forces were greatly expanded from the simple tactics taught by the Jedburghs in World War II.

Billy joined the Special Forces in the mid-1950s and began working occasional covert assignments for the CIA starting in 1961. At the time, Billy didn't really think of himself as a covert operator, though in March of 1965, Waugh was asked to form an "A" team and to set up an operational base from which to run the northeast section of the Binh Dinh Province in South Vietnam. Billy's mission was to recruit and train up an army of mercenaries—a Civilian Irregular Defense Group, or CIDG—to disrupt the NVA's movements within enemy-controlled territory. The CIA's Combined Studies Division would supply the funding, and the Special Forces would do the legwork.

Billy and his team built a rudimentary fort along the An Lao River and an airstrip using the labor of about a hundred mercenaries recruited from the lowlands. Once set up, his team was to coordinate efforts to harass the enemy in a twenty-kilometer circle around their base. The North Vietnamese Army had full knowledge of the base but did not try to overrun it. Unlike the Jedburghs, who would work inside cities or out on farms in occupied France, the Americans were running a covert war from fixed military bases.

On June 18, 1965, Billy, a small team of three SF, and eighty-six South Vietnamese mercenaries left their roughly hewn A-team fort and hiked along a trail that followed the An Lao River on a seventeen-kilometer recce to a small NVA camp. They planned a stealthy brutal attack in darkness to convince the Vietcong that the area was too dangerous for a base camp. Billy and his group had killed over one hundred sixty sleeping soldiers when they heard a bugle sound a call to arms for the approximately four thousand NVA troops who had just landed the day prior.

Nearly all of the Vietnamese mercenaries were gunned down as they fled across a rice paddy. As Billy ran, a bullet shattered his right knee and another destroyed his right foot. A third bullet penetrated Billy's left wrist, knocking his watch off. Waugh lay on the ground, soaked in blood, his leg bones glistening white through his ripped uniform, left for dead. It should have been the end of Billy Waugh. He remembers counting how long the green tracers of bullets glowed as he tried to judge the distance of NVA troops, and smelling and feeling the heat of kerosene from napalm dropped by American reinforcements, until a final bullet clipped him in the head and knocked him out cold.

Thirty-five-year-old Master Sergeant Billy Waugh awoke a few hours later to find himself stripped naked by the enemy. The sun burned down on his exposed body, crusting his blood in sticky patches, as the pain from his wounds exploded in his head. Around him the fighting continued. A helicopter arrived under fire to lift him out, but the soldier who tried to carry Billy in was shot twice through the heart and lungs. Waugh crawled the final few feet and was helped onto the helo. As Billy lay there on the floor of the slick, he looked up in time to see a bullet hit the helicopter gunner's arm, almost severing it. Billy made it to a hospital in a heap of the dead. When the battle stopped raging, the enemy had lost six hundred men, and out of Billy's eighty-six mercenaries, only fifteen had escaped. One American from the A-team had been killed, and three, including Billy, had made it out alive.

For the next few months, Waugh lived in a hazy painkiller-numbed world. It would take over a year for his wounds to begin to heal. At the other end of this dark tunnel, he realized his ultimate calling: Waugh wanted to get back into not just what he calls the "vanilla" SF, but the "blackside" SF who worked directly with the CIA. He had already died once and so had no fear of death. His injuries meant he might never again function in normal special operations, but Billy wasn't about to let injury end his lifelong dream of being a soldier. Most soldiers would accept that they had used up their luck, but Billy wanted back in, demonstrating a tenacious pit-bull approach that would be the hallmark of his combat career and scare off others whenever Billy asked for volunteers on missions. It is no surprise that in the future, Billy would take great pride in working alone.

Despite being barely able to walk, he talked his way into being assigned to a CIA-funded group called Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Special Observation Group (MACV-SOG), and by doing so took the journey from the overt "white" side of military operations to the "black" side of warfare—deniable TOP SECRET-level covert and clandestine operations that were never intended to be revealed to the American public. His knowledge of Special Forces and his eagerness to go into combat got him accepted with friends who put him up in an aircraft to do forward air controlling, observation, and rescue. When the pus stopped oozing out of his legs and they began to mend, he started working on the ground.

The MACV-SOG was created in 1964 as a clandestine, unconventional warfare joint-operations group working in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Although essentially a military project, the joint military and intelligence program reunited two halves of what used to be combined under the World War II-era OSS. The MACV-SOG combined CIA, Special Forces, mercenaries, counterinsurgents, independent contractors, and private front and legitimate corporations in the war against the North Vietnamese. The joint operations made use of both CIA officers and active military that both funded and directed the actions of hired indigenous paramilitaries. The use of mercenaries provided an element of deniability not allowed uniformed U.S. troops, particularly in countries not considered part of the hostilities, like Cambodia and Laos.

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