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Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror
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Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror [Hardcover]

by Robert Young Pelton
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews


“An incredible look into the murky and virtually impenetrable world of private military contractors . . . Pelton may well have seen the future.” —Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont

Licensed to Kill is smart, funny, sometimes scary, and always interesting. Pelton truly captures the cast of characters that make up our new ‘coalition of the billing’ in the War on Terror.” —P. W. Singer, author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry

“A rollicking read that takes the reader inside the murky world of military contractors—from the craggy passes of the Afghan-Pakistan border, to the extreme danger of Baghdad’s airport road, to the diamond fields of Africa. Licensed to Kill is not only a great travelogue, it also has some important things to say about the brave new world of privatized violence that will increasingly be a feature of twenty-first-century wars.” —Peter Bergen, author of The Osama bin Laden I Know and Holy War, Inc.

“Robert Pelton enjoys the credibility not shared by many to comment on the world’s dark corners. Licensed to Kill sheds light on one of the corners—the world of private for-hire guns, mercenaries, and armies. It’s a reality; it’s a business; it’s lucrative . . . Consider Licensed to Kill a ‘safety brief,’ a military term for ‘pay attention.’ Read it . . . pay attention.” —James A. “Spider” Marks, Major General, United States Army (Ret.)

“Pelton reveals how the U.S. military-industrial complex has created its own dark version of the nonstate warrior [and] asks if companies like Blackwater and Executive Outcomes could become the new Hessians for both multinational corporations and overstretched armies.” —Jonathan Taplin, professor, USC Annenberg School for Communication, and producer of Under Fire, The Last Waltz, and Mean Streets

“‘The dark side of the war on terror’ may sound redundant, but how else can you describe the world of contractors, mercs, and wackos who are paid big money to keep the key players alive and the war machinery humming? It’s a cynical, funny, and very scary place, stretching from Arkansas to Fallujah, and no one gets it, or tells it, better than Robert Young Pelton.” —John Rasmus, editor in chief, National Geographic Adventure

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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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. ...
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