Spicer, ‘Scratcher’ and the dogs of war

Posted By: March 29, 2013

By Ray O’Hanlon

Irish Echo

September 8-14, 2004

The backdrop to the row over the “Spicer” contract with the Pentagon for security-related work in Iraq is beginning to resemble the plot of a Frederick Forsythe novel. “The Dogs of War,” to be precise.

The affair is turning up a whole slew of British public-school types who served queen and country before deciding to turn a faster buck in the rapidly expanding international security and private army business.

Characters cropping up in this stranger than fiction saga include former Lt. Col. Tim Spicer, Simon Mann, Anthony Buckingham and, lo and behold, Mark Thatcher, son of Margaret and a man who has cobbled together a healthy income over the years — not to mention a knighthood — without apparently breaking too much sweat.

The specific story surrounding Spicer and the Iraq contract has fanned out on Web sites and newspapers around the globe.

But the fuel behind its initial headline-making in the U.S. was generated by the Pat Finucane Center in Northern Ireland and an e-mail from there to Fr. Sean McManus of the Irish National Caucus in Washington, D.C.

Spicer, the PFC reminded the INC, was the officer in charge of the Scots Guards regiment in Belfast when teenager Peter McBride was fatally shot in the back by Scots Guardsmen in September 1992.

“Tear Up That Contract, Mr. Bush. It has Irish blood on It,” was the heading on a subsequent press release from McManus that played up a letter he had written to President Bush.

The release was followed by stories in newspapers, including the Washington Post and Boston Globe.

The Irish link to the Spicer/Aegis contract was enough on its own to prompt the reports, but interest generated by the Pentagon/Aegis deal has been stirring the pot in places far from the U.S. and indeed the street in Belfast where Peter McBride’s life was so abruptly ended.

Try Botswana, for starters.

A few days after the Spicer story broke, a letter came into the hands of “IF.”

It was from a Dr. Alexander von Paleske, head of the department of oncology at the Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.

In addition to curing ills, von Paleske is also lawyer and freelance journalist who writes for The Standard, a newspaper in Zimbabwe that describes itself as independent. No mean feat these troubled times.

In his letter, von Paleske stated that before founding Aegis, Spicer had worked with Anthony Buckingham, one of Britain’s wealthiest men, in a company called Sandline.

According to von Paleske, Buckingham’s worldwide business dealings included an oil deal with the now unemployed Saddam Hussein.

Buckingham stayed in a Baghdad hotel during a visit to Iraq in 1995. The hotel had a rather unusual front door mat. Imprinted on it was the face of the elder President Bush. Arriving and departing guests had to walk on the former president’s image to gain entry to the lobby.

Sandline was in the business of providing so-called “private military companies,” or PMCs, to its clients, which are often governments in unstable countries. The company, and Spicer along with it, became ensnarled in a coup in Papua New Guinea in 1997. Spicer was arrested there at one point but later released.

The company was also cited for violating a UN arms embargo clamped on Sierre Leone during its bloody civil war. This turned into a matter of some embarrassment for the Tony Blair government after Spicer claimed that the arms shipments had been given the nod of approval by London.

Spicer quit Sandline in 2000, according to the Washington Post, but the company soldiered on.

Meanwhile, one man’s PMC is another man’s mercenary army, and this was certainly the view of von Paleske and co-writer David Masunda, who penned an investigative series “Guns for Hire” in The Standard, which ran in two parts in June.

Sandline was linked in their report to the arrest of a group of men in Zimbabwe in March. The men, accused of being mercenaries by the Zimbabwe government, were apparently en-route to oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in West Africa to support a coup against that country’s government.

The men detained at Harare airport were led by a Briton, Simon Mann. Mann was at one time in the Scots Guards with Spicer. Just over a month after Mann and the others were arrested, Sandline closed down its Web site.

The story of Mann and his comrades continued to rumble on, but took a sensational turn just a few days ago with the arrest of Mark Thatcher in Cape Town.

Thatcher is suspected by South African police as being a moneyman behind the alleged plot to overthrow the Equatorial Guinea regime. That government is now eager to talk with “Scratcher,” as he is known to his old school chums. Extradition proceedings are yet possible, but, in the meantime, Thatcher has to twiddle his thumbs until a court appearance in November.

His nerves have been relieved somewhat by his mum, Dame Maggie, who last week posted a $300,000 bail bond.

A few miles up the Veldt, meanwhile, Simon Mann awaits his fate. He faces a possible 10 years in prison. Newspaper reports have described him as an “acquaintance” of Thatcher. An attorney for Thatcher has downplayed their relationship, describing it as “neither here not there.”

Spicer, meanwhile, is having to twiddle a little bit, too. Because of all the uproar, a hold has been placed on his Iraq contract while a rival Texas-based company, DynCorp, is yet pressing its case for the deal. A decision is expected by the end of September.

It’s all been too much for Peter McBride’s mother, Jean. She has appealed for the contract to be withdrawn from Aegis.

“When soldiers under [Spicer’s] command murdered my son, Lt. Col. Spicer lied through his teeth and dragged Peter’s name through the mud,” she said in a recent statement. “He compared shooting Peter to ‘falling off a horse’ and wanted to send the soldiers straight back out on patrol. God knows what will happen if he is put in charge of private security in Iraq.”

Who knows who next will be linked with whom in all this? One thing is clear, and that is the Pentagon jumped into a deal with the head of a company who has a highly questionable past and who is a good deal less than six degrees separated from some very dodgy characters indeed.