By Jeremy ScahillBlackwater Rising: world's most powerful mercenary armySun Apr 8, 2007 01:16
Inside the world's most powerful mercenary army
By Jeremy Scahill
Published: Thursday March 15th, 2007
This article is adapted from Jeremy Scahill’s new book, “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” (Nation Books).
Blackwater was founded in 1996 by conservative Christian multimillionaire and ex-Navy SEAL Erik Prince – the scion of a wealthy Michigan family whose generous political donations helped fuel the rise of the religious right and the Republican revolution of 1994. At its founding, the company largely consisted of Prince’s private fortune and a vast 5,000-acre plot of land located near the Great Dismal Swamp in Moyock, North Carolina. Its vision was “to fulfill the anticipated demand for government outsourcing of firearms and related security training.” In the following years, Prince, his family and his political allies poured money into Republican campaign coffers, supporting the party’s takeover of Congress and the ascension of George W. Bush to the presidency.
While Blackwater won government contracts during the Clinton era, which was friendly to privatization, it was not until the “war on terror” that the company’s glory moment arrived. Almost overnight, following September 11, the company would become a central player in a global war. “I’ve been operating in the training business now for four years and was starting to get a little cynical on how seriously people took security,” Prince told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly shortly after 9/11. “The phone is ringing off the hook now.”
Among those calls was one from the CIA, which contracted Blackwater to work in Afghanistan in the early stages of U.S. operations there. In the ensuing years the company has become one of the greatest beneficiaries of the “war on terror,” winning nearly $1 billion in noncovert government contracts, many of them no-bid arrangements. In just a decade Prince has expanded the Moyock headquarters to 7,000 acres, making it the world’s largest private military base. Blackwater currently has 2,300 personnel deployed in nine countries, with 20,000 other contractors at the ready. It has a fleet of more than twenty aircraft, including helicopter gunships and a private intelligence division, and it is manufacturing surveillance blimps and target systems.
In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina its forces deployed in New Orleans, where it billed the federal government $950 per man, per day—at one point raking in more than $240,000 a day. At its peak the company had about 600 contractors deployed from Texas to Mississippi. Since Katrina, it has aggressively pursued domestic contracting, opening a new domestic operations division. Blackwater is marketing its products and services to the Department of Homeland Security, and its representatives have met with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The company has applied for operating licenses in all US coastal states. Blackwater is also expanding its physical presence inside US borders, opening facilities in Illinois and California.
Its largest obtainable government contract is with the State Department, for providing security to US diplomats and facilities in Iraq. That contract began in 2003 with the company’s $21 million no-bid deal to protect Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer. Blackwater has guarded the two subsequent U.S. ambassadors, John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as other diplomats and occupation offices. Its forces have protected more than ninety Congressional delegations in Iraq, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. According to the latest government contract records, since June 2004 Blackwater has been awarded $750 million in State Department contracts alone. It is currently engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign to be sent into Darfur as a privatized peacekeeping force. Last October President Bush lifted some sanctions on Christian southern Sudan, paving the way for a potential Blackwater training mission there. In January the Washington, DC, representative for southern Sudan’s regional government said he expected Blackwater to begin training the south’s security forces soon.
Since 9/11 Blackwater has hired some well-connected officials close to the Bush Administration as senior executives. Among them are J. Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA and the man who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 9/11, and Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon Inspector General, who was responsible for policing contractors like Blackwater during much of the “war on terror”—something he stood accused of not doing effectively. By the end of Schmitz’s tenure, powerful Republican Senator Charles Grassley launched a Congressional probe into whether Schmitz had “quashed or redirected two ongoing criminal investigations” of senior Bush Administration officials. Under bipartisan fire, Schmitz resigned and signed up with Blackwater.
Despite its central role, Blackwater had largely operated in the shadows until March 31, 2004, when four of its private soldiers in Iraq were ambushed and killed in Falluja. A mob then burned the bodies and dragged them through the streets, stringing up two from a bridge over the Euphrates. In many ways it was the moment the Iraq War turned. U.S. forces laid siege to Falluja days later, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands, inflaming the fierce Iraqi resistance that haunts occupation forces to this day. For most Americans, it was the first they had heard of private soldiers. “People began to figure out this is quite a phenomenon,” says Representative David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, who said he began monitoring the use of private contractors after Falluja. “I’m probably like most Congress members in kind of coming to this awareness and developing an interest in it” after the incident.
What is not so well-known is that in Washington after Falluja, Blackwater executives kicked into high gear, capitalizing on the company’s newfound recognition. The day after the ambush, it hired the Alexander Strategy Group, a K Street lobbying firm run by former senior staffers of then-majority leader Tom DeLay before the firm’s meltdown in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. A week to the day after the ambush, Erik Prince was sitting down with at least four senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including its chair, John Warner. Senator Rick Santorum arranged the meeting, which included Warner and two other key Republican senators—Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens of Alaska and George Allen of Virginia. This meeting followed an earlier series of face-to-faces Prince had had with powerful House Republicans who oversaw military contracts. Among them: DeLay; Porter Goss, chair of the House Intelligence Committee (and future CIA director); Duncan Hunter, chair of the House Armed Services Committee; and Representative Bill Young, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. What was discussed at these meetings remains a secret. But Blackwater was clearly positioning itself to make the most of its new fame. Indeed, two months later, Blackwater was handed one of the government’s most valuable international security contracts, worth more than $300 million.
The firm was also eager to stake out a role in crafting the rules that would govern mercenaries under US contract. “Because of the public events of March 31, [Blackwater’s] visibility and need to communicate a consistent message has elevated here in Washington,” said Blackwater’s new lobbyist Chris Bertelli. “There are now several federal regulations that apply to their activities, but they are generally broad in nature. One thing that’s lacking is an industry standard. That’s something we definitely want to be engaged in.” By May Blackwater was leading a lobbying effort by the private military industry to try to block Congressional or Pentagon efforts to place their forces under the military court martial system.
But while Blackwater enjoyed its new status as a hero in the “war on terror” within the Administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, the families of the four men killed at Falluja say they were being stonewalled by Blackwater as they attempted to understand the circumstances of how their loved ones were killed. After what they allege was months of effort to get straight answers from the company, the families filed a ground-breaking wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater in January 2005, accusing the company of not providing the men with what they say were contractually guaranteed safeguards. Among the allegations: The company sent them on the Falluja mission that day short two men, with less powerful weapons than they should have had and in Pajero jeeps instead of armored vehicles. This case could have far-reaching reverberations and is being monitored closely by the war-contractor industry—former Halliburton subsidiary KBR has even filed an amicus brief supporting Blackwater. If the lawsuit is successful, it could pave the way for a tobacco litigation-type scenario, where war contractors find themselves besieged by legal claims of workers killed or injured in war zones.
As the case has made its way through the court system, Blackwater has enlisted powerhouse Republican lawyers to defend it, among them Fred Fielding, who was recently named by Bush as White House counsel, replacing Harriet Miers; and Kenneth Starr, former Whitewater prosecutor investigating President Clinton, and the company’s current counsel of record. Blackwater has not formally debated the specific allegations in the suit, but what has emerged in its court filings is a series of legal arguments intended to bolster Blackwater’s contention that it is essentially above the law. Blackwater claims that if U.S. courts allow the company to be sued for wrongful death, that could threaten the nation’s war-fighting capacity: “Nothing could be more destructive of the all-volunteer, Total Force concept underlying U.S. military manpower doctrine than to expose the private components to the tort liability systems of fifty states, transported overseas to foreign battlefields,” the company argued in legal papers. In February Blackwater suffered a major defeat when the Supreme Court declined its appeal to hear the Falluja case, paving the way for the state trial – where there would be no cap on damages a jury could award—to proceed.
Congress is beginning to take an interest in this potentially groundbreaking case. On February 7 Representative Henry Waxman chaired hearings of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. While the hearings were billed as looking at U.S. reliance on military contractors, they largely focused on Blackwater and the Falluja incident. For the first time, Blackwater was forced to share a venue with the families of the men killed at Falluja. “Private contractors like Blackwater work outside the scope of the military’s chain of command and can literally do whatever they please without any liability or accountability from the U.S. government,” Katy Helvenston, whose son Scott was one of the Blackwater contractors killed, told the committee. “Therefore, Blackwater can continue accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money from the government without having to answer a single question about its security operators.”
Citing the pending litigation, Blackwater’s general counsel, Andrew Howell, declined to respond to many of the charges levied against his company by the families and asked several times for the committee to go into closed session. “The men who went on the mission on March 31, each had their weapons and they had sufficient ammunition,” Howell told the committee, adding that the men were in “appropriate” vehicles. That was sharply disputed by the men’s families, who allege that in order to save $1.5 million Blackwater did not provide the four with armored vehicles. “Once the men signed on with Blackwater and were flown to the Middle East, Blackwater treated them as fungible commodities,” Helvenston told lawmakers in her emotional testimony, delivered on behalf of all four families.
The issue that put this case on Waxman’s radar was the labyrinth of subcontracts underpinning the Falluja mission. Since November 2004 Waxman has been trying to pin down who the Blackwater men were ultimately working for the day of the ambush. “For over eighteen months, the Defense Department wouldn’t even respond to my inquiry,” says Waxman. “When it finally replied last July, it didn’t even supply the breakdown I requested. In fact, it denied that private security contractors did any work at all under the [Pentagon’s contracting program]. We now know that isn’t true.” Waxman’s struggle to follow the money on this one contract involving powerful war contractors like KBR provides a graphic illustration of the secretive nature of the whole war contracting industry.
What is not in dispute regarding the Falluja incident is that Blackwater was working with a Kuwaiti business called Regency under a contract with the world’s largest food services company, Eurest Support Services. ESS is a subcontractor for KBR and another giant war contractor, Fluor, in Iraq under the Pentagon’s LOGCAP contracting program. One contract covering Blackwater’s Falluja mission indicated the mission was ultimately a subcontract with KBR. Last summer KBR denied this. Then ESS wrote Waxman to say the mission was conducted under Fluor’s contract with ESS. Fluor denied that, and the Pentagon told Waxman it didn’t know which company the mission was ultimately linked to. Waxman alleged that Blackwater and the other subcontractors were “adding significant markups” to their subcontracts for the same security services that Waxman believes were then charged to U.S. taxpayers. “It’s remarkable that the world of contractors and subcontractors is so murky that we can’t even get to the bottom of this, let alone calculate how many millions of dollars taxpayers lose in each step of the subcontracting process,” says Waxman.
While it appeared for much of the February 7 hearing that the contract’s provenance would remain obscure, that changed when, at the end of the hearing, the Pentagon revealed that the original contractor was, in fact, KBR. In violation of military policy against LOGCAP contractors’ using private forces for security instead of U.S. troops, KBR had entered into a subcontract with ESS that was protected by Blackwater; those costs were allegedly passed on to U.S. taxpayers to the tune of $19.6 million. Blackwater said it billed ESS $2.3 million for its services, meaning a markup of more than $17 million was ultimately passed on to the government. Three weeks after the hearing, KBR told shareholders it may be forced to repay up to $400 million to the government as a result of an ongoing Army investigation.
It took more than two years for Waxman to get an answer to a simple question: Whom were U.S. taxpayers paying for services? But, as the Falluja lawsuit shows, it is not just money at issue. It is human life.
A Killing on Christmas Eve
While much of the publicity Blackwater has received stems from Falluja, another, more recent incident is attracting new scrutiny. On Christmas Eve inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, an American Blackwater contractor allegedly shot and killed an Iraqi bodyguard protecting a senior Iraqi official. For weeks after the shooting, unconfirmed reports circulated around the Internet that alcohol may have been involved and that the Iraqi was shot ten times in the chest. The story then went that the contractor was spirited out of Iraq before he could be prosecuted. Media inquiries got nowhere—the US Embassy refused to confirm that it was a Blackwater contractor, and the company refused to comment.
Then the incident came up at the February 7 Congressional hearing. As the session was drawing to a close, Representative Kucinich raced back into the room with what he said was a final question. He entered a news report on the incident into the record and asked Blackwater counsel Howell if Blackwater had flown the contractor out of Iraq after the alleged shooting. “That gentleman, on the day the inciden
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