The Washington Post published an excellent article yesterday highlighting the creeping expansion of the CIA’s paramilitary force, better known as Global Response Staff (GRS).  The Post describes the GRS as “an innocuously named organization that has recruited hundreds of former U.S. Special Forces operatives to serve as armed guards for the agency’s spies.” It’s “designed to stay in the shadows, training teams to work undercover and provide an unobtrusive layer of security for CIA officers in high-risk outposts.

Armed security for spies seems simple enough, until you consider who these guards are and what they’re actually up to. The Post explains:

The increasingly conspicuous role of the GRS is part of a broader expansion of the CIA’s paramilitary capabilities over the past 10 years. Beyond hiring former U.S. military commandos, the agency has collaborated with U.S. Special Operations teams on missions including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and has killed thousands of Islamist militants and civilians with its fleet of armed drones.

Spywork used to require slipping solo through cities in Eastern Europe. Now, “clandestine human intelligence involves showing up in a Land Cruiser with some [former] Deltas or SEALs, picking up an asset and then dumping him back there when you are through,” said a former CIA officer who worked closely with the security group overseas.

The security apparatus relies heavily on contractors who are drawn by relatively high pay and flexible schedules that give them several months off each year. In turn, they agree to high-risk assignments in places such as Benghazi and are largely left on their own to take basic precautions, such as finding health and life insurance.

One such contractor was Raymond Davis, a former Blackwater operative hired by the CIA to gather intelligence on militant groups in Pakistan. Early this year, Davis was arrested by Pakistani authorities for murdering two men in Lahore, who he claimed were trying to rob him, a story that soon fell apart. The Obama administration initially claimed that Davis was a diplomat and was therefore entitled to immunity, a line unquestioningly endorsed US mainstream press, which later admitted to withholding information about Davis’s involvement in the CIA at the behest of the Obama administration.

Thanks to the investigative diligence of foreign media outlets, it was discovered that Davis was indeed part of a covert CIA team, shedding light on the CIA’s secret military operations, including drone assassinations. Davis was ultimately released to the United States after paying a couple million dollars to the families of his victims.

At least half of the CIA’s 125 employees abroad are contractors like Davis, “often earn[ing]  $140,000 or more a year and typically serv[ing] 90- or 120-day assignments abroad.” Though those  employed full-time don’t make as much, their assignments are more supervisory than dangerous and they receive benefits. What’s most concerning is their increasingly soldier-like role:

Although the agency created the GRS to protect officers in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been expanded to protect secret drone bases as well as CIA facilities and officers in locations including Yemen, Lebanon and Djibouti.

“They don’t learn languages, they’re not meeting foreign nationals and they’re not writing up intelligence reports,” a former U.S. intelligence official said. Their main tasks are to map escape routes from meeting places, pat down informants and provide an “envelope” of security, the former official said, all while knowing that “if push comes to shove, you’re going to have to shoot.”

This is no surprise given that candidates are typically U.S. Special Forces or police department SWAT team veterans. The fact that the CIA is recruiting soldiers to perform military tasks leads one to conclude that the CIA is now it’s own private army and has been for quite some time.

The Post article ends with the story of one operative who was killed in Benghazi in the rescue operation at the State Department compound. According to his sister, he took the job because it payed well and he needed the money and now all he has to show for it is a lot of debt because the CIA didn’t offer life insurance to contractors.

While it’s awful that the CIA is exploiting these men, I wish the Post had included more details about the civilians who suffer at the hands of the CIA’s covert operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and who knows where else, where the CIA routinely targets first responders and funerals. Thousands have died including nearly 200 children and hundreds more civilians, leaving their families devastated and, I would imagine, vengeful. This doesn’t include the thousands of innocent men, women and, worst of all, children, whose bodies are forever maimed, adding more suffering to the overwhelming poverty that typically plagues the areas in the crosshair of US aggression.

As long as the CIA has it’s own private army, this covert war will continue without an ounce of transparency or accountability, forcing us to rely on the screw ups of people like Raymond Davis to get a small peek. What could possibly go wrong?