In the line of duty

MIRIYANA ALEXANDER THE SUNDAY PROFILE
Last updated 05:00 27/03/2011
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Photo: Lawrence Smith
Outstanding in his field: Mark Mitchell at his grandfather Frank Gill's property. Gill was in Muldoon's cabinet.
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Bourne identity: Mark Mitchell with Peggy Bourne, widow of Possum Bourne.

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Former cop Mark Mitchell's exploits in the Middle East sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster – but has he got what it takes to make it as a politician? 

HE'S HAD violent confrontations with gangs and criminals during 14 years in the New Zealand police force. He's spent eight years as a top international hostage negotiator, at one point fighting for his life in a five-day siege in Iraq, a story which is set to feature in a movie made by Brad Pitt. He's built a multimillion-dollar business from scratch.

He's engaged to Peggy Bourne, the widow of Kiwi rally ace Possum Bourne.

Now Mark Mitchell is chasing a political career, and hopes to succeed Lockwood Smith in the safe National seat of Rodney.

Wouldn't the 42-year-old find parliament a bit, um, dull?

MAYBE NOT, if things continue as they've started. Mitchell was one of five people contesting the National Party candidacy for Rodney when the selection process was abruptly postponed earlier this month amid allegations of delegate stacking.

That dirty laundry was aired, but there's been little publicity about a smear campaign against Mitchell. Documents were circulated questioning his work in the Middle East, appearing to suggest he was involved in a Muslim-funded Somalian private army. Things were getting nasty: cue the false start.

What the hell was going on in Rodney? The would-be-politician is already practised in the art of diplomacy.

"I'm not going to comment on that. All I'll say is that any behaviour that can be seen to try to control an outcome, well, we shouldn't accept that."

It hasn't deterred him. When nominations close for the second time tomorrow, Mitchell will be back on the candidate list. He knows what he's up for: his grandfather was Frank Gill, a cabinet minister in Rob Muldoon's government.

He was close to Gill, and spent weekends working on his farm.

"Spending time with him meant getting involved on the political side. I'd hand out the nibbles at National Party functions and we'd go to Wellington to see him, and eat at Bellamy's. It was pretty exciting."

And once, when he and his cousin were fooling around at Pop's house, coffee was spilt on a visiting Muldoon's lap. There was no evidence of the famous temper. "He took it in his stride. He was a tough bugger."

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Later, Mitchell would wash abusive slogans off his grandfather's property.

"My mum would say that's when I decided to join the police, that it was time to catch who was doing this." He was 10.

Gill's death from cancer while he was the New Zealand ambassador to Washington deeply affected his 15-year-old grandson. He left school to work on the land.

"I was lost for a bit. I enjoyed the physical work, but my grandfather and family had instilled in me a strong sense of duty and I decided to join the police."

Mitchell's 14-year career was served in Auckland, Rotorua, Gisborne and Taupo, and he quickly became used to the physical danger. He and his police dog Czar were stabbed by a samurai sword-wielding criminal in Rotorua; both recovered to be awarded a police bravery commendation.

In Gisborne, there were many violent confrontations with Mongrel Mobsters. In one incident, he and another officer were surrounded by 30 gang members. They talked themselves out of certain trouble, an early sign of Mitchell's negotiation skills.

Mitchell left the force in 2003. He was carrying several injuries and decided to pursue new interests. He intended training polo ponies; he ended up an international security contractor.

British kidnap and ransom risk-management firm Control Risks had been contracted by the British government to set up the security programme for the interim coalition government in Iraq. Someone he knew worked there and wanted Mitchell on board. His job would be to protect the diplomats and officials working for the interim government.

"It seemed like an interesting opportunity, and there was this sense of history in the making. What was happening in the Middle East was having a pretty profound effect on the rest of the world."

Mitchell faced daily threats at the Coalition Provisional Authority Government base in An Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

The work involved transporting government officials to meetings around the country and protecting the sites where they lived. He was shot at, and his vehicles were blown up in roadside bomb attacks, but he was proud that no-one was hurt or killed on his watch.

In 2004 he did a stint training Iraqi security forces, including the National Guard and police, in crisis management, before deciding to go home for good.

BUT THE draw of the Middle East and the work pulled him back. The next call was from the Kuwait global logistics firm supplying food to the military forces in Iraq.

Agility Logistics was being targeted by Al Qaeda and the militia, and many staff were killed. They wanted Mitchell to improve security.

"Security was being subcontracted and I discovered fairly early on that when the heat was on, our people weren't a priority. One week, we lost 32 staff."

So the company set up subsidiary Threat Management Group to take security in-house. As CEO and shareholder, Mitchell grew the company from eight staff to about 500 in the first year.

The quality of their work soon won them top-level contracts, including protecting crucial infrastructures like ports, and keeping supply chains open.

Mitchell also became adept at kidnap and ransom negotiations, dealing with more than 100 hostage negotiations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Darfur.

One of the more haunting jobs was working alongside The Hague scientists charged with gathering evidence for Saddam Hussein's war crimes trial.

Mitchell's job was to protect the scientists, setting up a safe camp "in the middle of nowhere" next to mass graves, open them to allow the scientists access to evidence, and close them again.

"That was a very emotional job. We were confronted with the badly decomposed bodies of children clinging to their mothers. They'd just been bulldozed into the graves. Awful."

MITCHELL DOESN'T appear to be bullshitting when he says danger doesn't alarm him.

"When I chose to be a policeman, I took a conscious decision to put myself in a position of risk. When I got stabbed I couldn't really be surprised about it.

"Iraq's the same. I put myself in that position and accepted the risk."

He knows there is an element of luck in not being seriously hurt, or killed. "But you make sure everything is in your favour by preparing properly and having a professional team." Was it exciting work? "Yes. But challenging, and bloody scary at times."

That seems an understatement. The closest Mitchell and his men came to being killed was in 2004, during a five-day siege of the An Nasiriyah compound, home to diplomats, officials, coalition forces and security staff.

The uprising Shi'a militia, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, was putting coalition forces under pressure across the country. The Italian-controlled compound was surrounded and under sustained attack. Mitchell was charged with defending it.

"They'd hit us during the day with mortar fire, and at night mount a physical attack. My team's responsibility was the roof. We were very exposed. It was hot, dusty. We didn't get much sleep and we had to ration our food. I saw every human emotion over those days."

Armed with AK47s and two 50-calibre machine guns, they kept the militia at bay until coalition forces regained control. Their efforts would later be rewarded with a commendation from the Italian government.

The compound was evacuated and within 48 hours, Mitchell was having a barbecue and talking to his neighbours in Taupo. "That was surreal. I couldn't really talk to people about it, as it was hard to comprehend."

Did he kill anyone? "We were fighting for our lives, and the lives of the diplomats. There were casualties on both sides." That's all he'll say on the matter.

During the siege, Mitchell worked closely with British Governor Rory Stewart, who headed the compound's diplomat contingent. Stewart has made the leap into politics, and is a Conservative MP for Penrith, England. Stewart wrote a book on his time in Iraq, and Brad Pitt's production company has bought the rights to his story.

So who'll play Mitchell in the movie? "I'm hoping George Clooney, rather than Danny de Vito.'

SO IS Mark Mitchell running a Muslim-funded private army in Somalia? "Of course not."

He has done a security review for the Puntland administration, and has been approached by an international anti-piracy taskforce to establish a Somalian coast guard to take on the pirates and police the country's fisheries.

Should he win Rodney, he intends front-footing any misinformation, or the perception he's a gun-for-hire.

"The mercenary term gets me every time. Yes, these guys have a certain skill-set. They know how to handle a gun, but most of them will never discharge one.

"The term is used completely out of context, especially by the Labour government, who were very tough on guys who served their country for years and were presented with an opportunity to use their skills to provide financial security for their families, as politicians do once their political careers are over.

"And let's not forget, these guys are working with legitimate governments who are our partners and friends.

"I'm not a mercenary. I'm a businessman. I was the CEO of a highly successful international business. When we sold Threat Management Group last year it had a staff of 3000 and an annual turnover of $130 million."

Mitchell's career has made him wealthy, but he says money does not drive him. He does, however, believe it frees him to be a good politician.

"John Key highlighted something about wealth. Money allows you the freedom to focus on what's best for your constituents because you're not trying to protect a position."

Mitchell says he would never have put himself forward for a political role if he had any skeletons in his closet.

"I've never been concerned about anything I have done in my past. I've been lucky enough to have been given a very strong set of ethical and moral values from my family."

Mitchell has been based in Kuwait for the past six years, and recently he and Bourne began thinking about returning to New Zealand. But why politics? Won't it bore the pants off him?

"I'm surprised how often I'm asked that, but I'm really excited about the prospect of getting in and actively doing something back in New Zealand.

"I love my country. I've put myself on the line for it and wish to continue to do so."

He is proud of his achievements, and believes he has the skills to help New Zealand prosper. "I've run a successful international business, and have worked closely with foreign governments and officials. I have a strong global network and have built up excellent working knowledge of how different emerging markets work.

"I'm aware of the trade channels and where the opportunities are. A big part of our continued growth and prosperity relies on exports, and opening up those trade channels."Some of those global contacts come from his volunteer work as security adviser to a World Economic Forum initiative which sees emergency logistics teams deployed into humanitarian disaster areas to ensure critical supplies get through.

Last year he oversaw missions to Haiti after the earthquake and Pakistan after the floods, and helped evacuate refugees from Lebanon. He's met Prime Minister John Key twice, briefly, at official functions. That leads to the inevitable question: does Mark Mitchell want to be prime minister?

He pauses. The diplomat returns.

"I'm just focused on winning the nomination for Rodney," he says.

MARK MITCHELL

Born: Auckland, raised on the North Shore. Age: 42 Education: Rosmini College; executive education programme at Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania.

Career: Farmer, decorated police officer, private security contractor, CEO. Currently chief security officer for Kuwait-based Agility Logistics, a role he will resign if he wins the Rodney nomination.

Family: Engaged to Peggy Bourne, widow of rally ace Possum Bourne. Five children between them. Two previous marriages.

Political ambition: Wants to be the National candidate for Rodney. Nominations close tomorrow and the candidate is selected on April 26.

Political goals: Growing the economy through increased exports; supporting critical infrastructure projects; strong support for police to allow them to fight gangs and organised crime. Believes his negotiation skills would be useful in areas like negotiating with unions, and his outsourcing experience would help in areas like privatising prisons.

- Sunday Star Times

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