more on Blackwater. if it doesn’t ring a bell read this stuff.

Fresh Air — 3/19/07 — Interview with Jeremy Scahill about his book: “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army”

NPR:  The war in Iraq has been partly outsourced to private military contractors which are performing many of the services that used to be done by the military.  My guest, Jeremy Scahill, has written a book about one of those companies, Blackwater, which he describes as “the world’s most mercenary army and the embodiment of the Bush administration policy of privatizing military functions.”   The company, which was founded in 1996, made headlines in  2004 when four of its men were ambushed and set on fire by Sunni gunmen in Fallujah.  The charred remains of two of the men were hung on a bridge for public display.  The families of the four men are suing Blackwater for wrongful death, raising a lot of questions about accountability and oversight when private contractors play a major role in war.  Jeremy Scahill is a Polk Award-winning journalist who is a frequent contributor to The Nation and a correspondent for the radio and TV show, “Democracy Now.”  Jeremy Scahill — if you wanted to write about a private military contractor, why did you focus on Blackwater?

Blackwater USA in Fallujah

Jeremy Scahill:  Well, as a reporter I began going to Iraq in 1998 and the lead-up to the Clinton administration’s bombing there in late December of 1998.  It was the first of many trips that I would take to Iraq between ’98 and 2003 when the US occupation began.  I had spent time in the city of Fallujah.  In fact, in the summer of 2002 I had camped out there.  Having spent so much time there I paid particular attention to an event which happened on March 31st of 2004 when four American contractors were ambushed and killed, their bodies burned and dragged through the streets of Fallujah in a very gruesome and macabre display.  The people of Fallujah literally ripped these four men apart and hung their bodies from a bridge going over the Euphrates River.  I was paying very close attention to the events and very worried that the US was going to crush Fallujah because there had already been a tremendous level of violence in the city.  And indeed, the Bush administration laid siege to Fallujah a few days after that ambush happened and absolutely destroyed the city, killing hundreds of people, forcing thousands from their  homes.  As it emerged that the four men who were killed were from a private military company called Blackwater USA, and I’d never heard of them before, I said to myself, “I want to investigate this company!”

NPR:  Private contractors like KBR which is a former subsidiary of Halliburton provide services like getting food and other supplies to troops.  Private contractors build things, they bring supplies, they protect people.  Would you consider Blackwater like a company of mercenaries or the kind of contractors who get food and other supplies and offer protection?

JS:  The very essence of a mercenary is a soldier of fortune.  One of the primary motives for becoming a mercenary is monetary gain.  Blackwater’s heavily-armed forces are paid several times the wages of an average soldier.  They serve in Iraq as a sort of vanguard of the Bush administration’s occupation.  The Bush administration has outsourced one of the most mission-critical tasks of Iraq to Blackwater.  Blackwater guards the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad.  They guard several regional occupation offices in the country.  But then another fact which goes largely unreported is that while Blackwater portrays itself as a sort of “American pie” business, an all-American company, it has actually recruited mercenaries from some serious human-rights-violating countries:  Chile, Colombia, and elsewhere.  They’ve deployed them as part of their force in Iraq. 

NPR:  Have they been involved in combat operations at all? 

JS:  Oh, absolutely!  There was one incident in April, 2004, in Iraq where Blackwater was guarding a regional HQ of the occupation and Moqtada al Sadr’s forces were engaged in an uprising after the US arrested one of al Sadr — the fiery Shia cleric — one of his top aides.  This massive demonstration hit Najaf where a handful of Blackwater guards were guarding the building.  That day, April 4, 2004, Blackwater mercenaries engaged in a day-long firefight with the Mahdi Army.  In fact, during that battle there happened to be some US marines in the area and a young marine, Lance Corporal Lonny Young, was aiming his weapon down at the crowd below.  There was no commanding officer on the scene.  He asked the Blackwater guys for permission to open fire.  He said “Sir, I’ve acquired a target.  Should I open fire?” and the Blackwater guys gave him permission to open fire.  He described the conflicting emotions of killing people that day.  The fact was that Blackwater mercenaries were in overt command of an active duty US soldier.  That’s one of many incidents where Blackwater has been engaged in firefights with Iraqis.  They’ve been ambushed by Iraqis.  Their helicopters have been brought down.  So Blackwater has been very much in the thick of things in Iraq.

Bush’s “praetorian guard”

NPR:  Can you continue to give us an overview of the role Blackwater employees are playing in the Bush administration-run war on terror?

JS:  I call Blackwater “the praetorian guard” of the war on terror, the praetorian guard of course being the famed Roman mercenaries.  Because what you find with Blackwater is that they’re deployed in the key areas of the war on terror.  Their men were among the first deployed into Afghanistan after 9/11 on a covert CIA contract.  They’re training forces in Afghanistan.  Blackwater has a massive contract with the US State Department to provide what’s called “diplomatic security.”  I recently filed a FOIA request and determined that Blackwater has been paid $750M by the State Department alone since the summer of 2004 to guard senior US officials in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Blackwater has also been deployed in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Several hundred Blackwater contractors were deployed in the hurricane zone.  And what’s interesting is that Blackwater billed the federal government $950 per day per man in New Orleans.  Their men on the ground that I interviewed in New Orleans told me that they were being paid $350 a day.  So there’s a serious question about where that $600 went!  What we find is that Blackwater, both at home and abroad, is serving the radical privatization agenda of the Bush administration.  It’s rapidly expanding its operations in the US, opening a new facility in Illinois called “Blackwater North,” and in California they’re calling it “Blackwater West.”  And then they have a 7,000-acre private military facility in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina.  So this company really embodies so much of what’s happening in this country and around the world in the wake of 9/11.

NPR:  What do they do at the private military facility?

JS:  They train federal troops.  They train troops from various branches of the US military.  They train local and federal law enforcement.  They provide a shooting range for gun enthusiasts.  They also train in amphibious landings.  They have a man-made lake on the property that they use to train amphibious landings.  They train in defensive driving.  Blackwater’s manufacturing surveillance blimps that they’re marketing to the Department of Homeland Security for use in monitoring the US/Mexico border.  This really is a company that’s been at the cutting edge of fourth-generation warfare and has become one of the primary players and perhaps the most significant private actors in the war on terror.

Confrontation with Iran

NPR:  Blackwater got a contract in July of 2004 in the oil-rich area of the Caspian Sea.  How are they being used there?

JS: Blackwater was sent by the Bush administration into Azerbaijan to set up a Special Forces unit of the Azerbaijani military.  It’s a 90-man unit modelled on the US Navy Seals.  At the same time, Blackwater built in the port city of Baku a command-and-control center that had been a Special Forces base of the Soviet Union.  And so Blackwater sets up this command-and-control center and builds up this 90-man Azeri unit based on US Navy Seals right at Iran’s back door.  The point of that  contract was for Blackwater to set up a military presence — a heavy military presence — in a strategically important area.  The Caspian Sea, of course, is wealthy with oil and natural gas.  But also it’s a strategic area and some analysts have said that it could be used as a forward operating base in an attack against Iran.  The Iranians took this as a very hostile act and, in fact, deployed a special unit of the Iranian navy in the Caspian Sea as a direct response to Blackwater’s presence there. 

NPR:  You’re talking about ways that they might possibly be used.  But what exactly are they doing now?

JS:  Well, it’s unclear.  I’ve tried repeatedly to get updates on the original contract that I obtained, and I’ve been stonewalled in my efforts to get those contracts. So we literally don’t know what Blackwater is doing right now in Azerbaijan.

NPR:  Is that one of your criticisms of the use of private military contractors — that there’s no way for citizens to find out exactly how they’re being used and why they’re being used there?  Can Congress find that out?

A mercenary army operating in secrecy and without controls

JS:  I’ve interviewed several Congresspeople who’ve said they’ve tried for years to get detailed information on Blackwater’s contracts and other war contractors’ arrangements with the government and they’ve been stonewalled.. The fact of the matter is that Blackwater has repeatedly refused to hand over documents requested by Congress!  What’s ironic is that when Blackwater refuses to hand over these documents, they say that they’re classified!  The irony of telling Henry Waxman, chair of the Government Oversight Committee, that they can’t give him a document because it’s classified is stark.  I’m a journalist and you know that you’re fighting to get documents all the time from the government.  But when Congress can’t get them, that should raise major red flags for people in this country as to what exactly these companies are doing with our money and in our names.

NPR:  How well are those costs masked?  Doesn’t the government have to account for money it’s paying Blackwater?

JS:  Representative Henry Waxman of California since November, 2004, has been trying to get information on one Blackwater contract in Iraq.  It’s taken him nearly three years to get an answer as to who was actually paying Blackwater for security services in Iraq and who they were ultimately working for under these multi-layered tiers of subcontracts.  If you just take that one example of one pretty influential Congressperson’s attempt to find details on one contract, and you replicate that over and over, you find that this is essentially a shadow army that regularly defies Congress.

NPR:  If Congress can’t even find out what they’re being paid and what the contracts are, how are the private military contractors being funded? What does the money come out of?  What budget?

JS:  Well Blackwater for instance… the overwhelming majority of its work in Iraq is actually through the US State Department.  A lot of people erroneously believe that all contractors are working for the US military.  Blackwater has been paid $750M since June 2004 by the US State Department and that represents its single largest contract in Iraq.  But also the Pentagon pays these war contractors.  The US Agency for International Development.  Basically, the federal feeding trough in broken down into various federal agencies, and Blackwater just happens to have attached itself to the State Department portion of that.

NPR:  When we’re told by the Bush administration how much money we’re paying for the war in Iraq, does that include the money we’re paying to private military contractors? 

JS:  Well, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois estimates that 40¢ on every dollar spent on the occupation of Iraq goes to the private sector.  And of that, $4B is being paid out to private military companies, according to Henry Waxman.  So yes, this is a big part of waging war in Iraq. 

NPR:  But it’s part of the official costs, included in the official costs?

JS:  Yes. Originally it was part of the reconstruction budget and it continues to be part of the ongoing budget for the occupation of Iraq.

Lawsuits: who has legal jurisdiction over Blackwater?  Anyone?

NPR:  As you pointed out, one of the turning points of the war in Iraq was in Fallujah when four Blackwater men were killed by insurgents and then the charred remains of two of them were hung from a bridge on display in Fallujah.  The families of the four men have filed wrongful death suits against Blackwater.  On what grounds?

JS:  The families of these four men who were killed in Fallujah all believed that their loved ones were going to be providing security for Ambassador Paul Bremer and they were going to be doing very important work as Special Forces operators.  They didn’t think of their loved ones as being contractors. They thought of them as being soldiers — what they’d been during their entire careers.  These guys were successful, decorated Special Forces operators.  They went over to Iraq.  They were working for Blackwater USA.  They’re sent into Fallujah.  And the problems began with the fact that the contracts that they were working under provided that they would be sent out with three men to a vehicle.  They were sent out with only two men to a vehicle.  That third man in the vehicle would have been a rear gunner armed with a heavy machine gun.  They were also supposed to be, according to the contracts, provided with armored vehicles.  They were sent in Pajero Jeeps which are widely known in Iraq as “bullet magnets.”  They were sent out that day according to the lawsuit of the families without a map and without the opportunity to do a pre-mission intelligence gathering.  And so these families, when their loved ones were killed, began asking Blackwater questions.  How did this happen? What were they doing in Fallujah? What was their mission that day?  And they say they were stonewalled by Blackwater for months.  And then in October of 2004, Blackwater flew the families to its compound in North Carolina for a memorial service for their loved ones.  One of the mothers of one of the Blackwater contractors killed — Donna Zovco — asked a Blackwater representative for the report on the ambush and asked for her son’s belongings.  The Blackwater representative said — she says — that the report was classified and “if you want that information you’ll have to sue.”  And so the families started to get to know each other and talked about it further and in January of 2005 they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater in the state of North Carolina, alleging that the company had defrauded their loved ones, had not provided them with their contractually-obligated safeguards.  This is a case which is being monitored very closely by the whole war-contractor industry because I think there’s a concern that, like tobacco litigation, once the first domino falls, the whole pyramid starts to crumble. 

NPR:  How is Blackwater defending itself?

JS:  Very, very aggressively!  Blackwater has enlisted some of the most powerful Republican lawyers in the country to defend it.  The original lawyer on the case was actually Fred Fielding who is now Bush’s White House Counsel.  He replaced Harriet Myers.  The current counsel of record for Blackwater is none other than Kenneth Starr, the man who led the impeachment charge against President Clinton.  At one point they retained Greenberg Traurig, the powerhouse law firm.  And so Blackwater has never disputed the particulars of the lawsuit.  What they’ve done, they’ve tried to argue that they should be immune from civilian litigation in the US because Donald Rumsfeld classified Blackwater and other contractors as part of the US total force, an official part of the US war machine.  Blackwater has filed a series of briefs saying, Look, if you allow us to be sued, it’s like allowing the military to be sued and it invades the rights of President Bush to wage war as he sees fit.  The courts don’t belong in that process.  That’s what Blackwater has argued in its legal briefings and its legal papers filed with various courts.  The fact is that twice the US Supreme Court which, we should point out, is dominated by Republican appointees, rejected Blackwater’s appeals.  And so sit seems now that this case is going to go ahead in a state court in North Carolina where there would be no cap on damages a jury can award.

NPR:  Well, Blackwater is arguing that it shouldn’t be subjected to civil trials, but at the same time it doesn’t come under the jurisdiction of the military.  It’s not held accountable by the Military Code of Justice.

JS:  Right.  Blackwater has essentially declared its forces above any effective law while resisting attempts to have its private forces subjected to the Pentagon’s court martial system.  Blackwater also claims this immunity from civilian litigation.  In fact the only law Blackwater wants applied to its forces is one that has no teeth and has not been enforced in Iraq or elsewhere.  The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which is a law that says contractors operating in the war zone should be subjected to the US criminal court system.  The fact is that there are 100,000 contractors in Iraq and only one has been indicted on any kind of charges.

NPR:  So in this Fallujah suit, Blackwater filed a countersuit against the families that are suing.  What does the countersuit say?

JS:  Blackwater would say that they’re not suing the families, they’re suing the estates of the four men killed at Fallujah, saying that they violated the terms of the contract which said they wouldn’t sue in the event of their death in Iraq or in the war zone.  So this is a $10M claim that was filed in an attempt to force the lawsuit out of the court system and into arbitration proceedings.  It’s part of Blackwater’s multi-pronged approach to fighting this lawsuit.  They’re trying desperately to get this case out of state court in North Carolina, and this is one of the great moves in that game!

NPR:  So do all employees of Blackwater have to sign a pledge that they will never sue?

JS:  You should read the contract that these guys sign when they go in to Iraq.  It basically lists every possible way a human being could be killed, including debris falling from the sky!  It says that you won’t hold Blackwater accountable for your death.  But what the families of the four men killed would allege is that that’s all well and good except you were also operating under a contract, Blackwater, that said these men would be provided with armored vehicles, heavy weapons, three men to a vehicle.  The families say, You defrauded our men and that nullifies the contract!

NPR:  There’s another suit against Blackwater that might be precedent setting.  Would you describe that?

JS:  Yes, the other lawsuit stems from an incident that happened in Afghanistan in November of 2004.  Blackwater was under contract with the government to operate airplanes inside the country, a sort of ferry service, for the US military.  They would take personnel and equipment and other supplies from Point A to Point B inside Afghanistan.  In November 2004 they were operating a flight that had on board not just Blackwater contractors but also active duty US soldiers.  The plane crashed into the side of a mountain killing all of those on board.  One of the soldiers actually survived for a brief period of time before dying.  The difference between this and the Fallujah lawsuit is that in this case you had active-duty US soldiers killed.  As a result, the National Transportation Safety Board did an investigation; the US military did an investigation.  What emerged from that is the military finding that Blackwater was at fault for the flight.  They released the transcripts of the cockpit data recorder and it showed that the pilots were messing around, X-wing figher, Star Wars men!  There were questions about whether all the safety precautions were taken that day.  So the families of the active duty soldiers have filed a lawsuit againsti Blackwater’s Aviation Division alleging that the company is responsible for their deaths as well.  And the judge that’s been hearing this case in federal court has been very aggressive in rejecting Blackwater’s arguments that it should be immune from this litigation.  So whichever one of these comes to fruition first, Fallujah or Afghanistan, could very well be a precedent-setting case.

Congress attempts to investigate Blackwater

NPR: There have been several attempts in Congress to bring more scrutiny to private military contractors.  What’s the latest?

JS:  The latest is that there’s a real war going on on Capitol Hill right now.  There are a number of pieces of legislation making the rounds and the real debate boils down to whether or not private military contractors should be subjected to the court martial system or whether they should be subjected to the jurisdiction of US prosecutors.  Lindsay Graham, a conservative South Carolina Republican who has been a military lawyer for the Air Force, slipped in language late last year into the Defense Authorization Bill which President Bush signed into law that essentially said contractors are now subject to the Uniform Military Code of Justice, the court martial system.  The mercentary industry went bonkers and said it’s unconstitutional, we’re civilians, you can’t put us under the court martial system.  That might be one area where civil libertarians and the mercenaries actually agree!  On the other side of that you have Barack Obama, Jan Schakowsky, and David Price — Democrat from North Carolina — pushing forward with an attempt to place contractors under the US court system.  Those are the two approaches that are being taken now.  But in addition to the legislation, Representative Henry Waxman of California has been on the warpath against Blackwater and I understand that he intends to continue holding hearings on the company.  He finds it outrageous that their operations are so cloaked in secrecy.  So Blackwater is going to find itself increasingly in the crosshairs.  Some people are calling it the new Halliburton.

NPR:  On the subject of accountability, Paul Bremer, just as he was leaving his position as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, issued a decree called “Order 17.”  What did this decree do?

JS:  It effectively immunized private contractors from any kind of prosecution in Iraq.  It said that Iraqis can’t seek justice for any crimes committed by private contractors in Iraq and it’s the responsibility of the government to prosecute these guys.  What’s interesting about Paul Bremer is his use of Blackwater Security in Iraq.  As one colonel says in my book, If the US military were guarding Bremer and he got killed, there would be an internal investigation.  Maybe there would be a court martial if they found soldiers at fault for his death.  If Blackwater lost Paul Bremer, it would crush their business. Their whole point of operating in Iraq at that time was to keep Bremer alive.  It was the most dedicated, determined adherence to the free market doctrine that Paul Bremer could have displayed.  He put his life literally in the hands of the private sector at a time when he was the most hated man in Iraq.

NPR:  So you’re suggesting that they would go to any means necessary to protect him even if that meant killing people who might be innocent and then there’d be no way of prosecuting them for it?

JS:  There are so many reports of Blackwater contractors just preemptively shooting at Iraqi vehicles as its convoys make their way through the country.  Some of these reports come from senior military officials who were tasked with looking at security in Iraq. They said they would ride around with their Iraqi counterparts and Blackwater guys would run them off the road.  These guys are known for being very, very aggressive. The whole point of their operation is to keep their “noun” alive.  Their “noun” was Paul Bremer and now Zalmay Khalilzad.  So they’re going to do everything they can to not lose the noun. 

Blackwater in New Orleans, in California, and througout the US

NPR:  As you’ve pointed out, Blackwater is trying to get more and more work within the US.  It was hired, for instance, as a private contractor after Hurricane Katrina.  What kind of services did it perform?

JS:  It’s interesting because Blackwater beat most agencies of the federal government to the hurricane zone. It initially deployed about 180 men. It didn’t have any government contracts, according to company officials.  They say they just went down there to help out in the relief effort.  I was in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was actually talking to two New York City police officers on Bourbon Street when all of a sudden a compact car with no license plates pulls up and these big burly guys with flak jackets, machine guns, and wraparound sunglasses and shaved heads get out of the car and say to the New York police officers, “Do you know where the rest of the Blackwater guys are?”  And the police officers said, “Yeah, there’s a bunch of them down the road.”  I turned to the police officer and said, “Blackwater?  You mean like the guys in Iraq?”  And he said, “Yeah, they’re all over the place.”  So I walked around and found some Blackwater guys and I talked to them about what they were doing there.  They told me very clearly that they were on contract with the Department of Homeland Security and that they were staying in a Homeland Security camp outside New Orleans.  One of them showed me a gold law enforcement badge and said he’d been deputized by the governor of Louisiana.  When I asked them what their mission was in New Orleans, they said they were there to confront criminals and stop looters.  The fact of the matter is that these Blackwater guys were riding around in unmarked vehicles, heavily armed.  Several of them had just been in Iraq or Afghanistan a couple of weeks earlier.  So it was very disturbing to see these private forces on the streets.  What are they going to do if they see a woman coming out of a department store carrying diapers that she didn’t buy, that she took out of the department store?  What are these private soldiers supposed to do?  After I reported that they said they were on contract with the Department of Homeland Security, the federal government was forced to admit it and it turns out they were paying these guys $350 a day and Blackwater was billing the government for $950 a day for their services. At one point Blackwater had 600 men deployed from Texas to Mississippi and they were raking in more that $240,000 a day. 

NPR:  Is Blackwater trying to get more work in the US in the aftermath of natural disasters?

JS: Oh, absolutely!  Blackwater representatives recently met with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to talk with him about doing disaster response in the event of a California earthquake.  The company has applied for operating licenses in all of the coastal states of the US.  As I said, they’re opening military and law enforcement training facilities in Illinois and in California.  They’re building sort of a triangle around the country.  Its home base in North Carolina is an impressive facility.  It’s 7,000 acres.  It has a state-of-the-art 60,000 sq.ft. corporate headquarters that welcomes visitors with door handles made from muzzles of automatic weapons.  Blackwater was founded with the idea of anticipating increased government outsourcing of military training.  So Blackwater is positioning itself to cash in for many,many years to come.

Rumsfeld, Cheney, and their private armies

NPR:  Is it fair to say that the role of private military contractors started really expanding under the leadership of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld?

JS:  This is the life’s work of those two. Dick Cheney, when he was Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush, one of the last things he did was to commission a study from a division of Halliburton, a company he would go on to head, looking at how to private the military bureaucracy.  That was laying the groundwork for this war contractor bonanza we’ve seen unfold since 2001.  Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others came to power in this country with a radical privatization agenda.  But the fact of the matter was, 9/11 provided Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neo-conservatives clique that operated in the White House in those days, with this blank slate on which to paint their privatization picture. Iraq was considered a slate to be wiped clean!  And built up from the ground!

NPR:  We were talking about new roles for private military contractors.  Blackwater wants to be able to use its people as part of the peacekeeping forces in Darfur. What exactly are they trying to do?

JS:  This was an initiative that became public in March of 2006. Cofer Black was at a military conference in the nation of Jordan and announced that Blackwater would be willing to go into Darfur as a privatized peacekeeping force.  And Blackwater has been in this intensive lobbying campaign to get permission from someone — whether it’s the UN or the US government ot NATO — to deploy in Darfur.  One of the great concerns, I think, about this scenario, is that so much of the violence in Sudan is attributable to militia violence.  If you add yet another private armed force to this situation, it’s a cause for real serious concern. Blackwater always says it would only act in the interests of the US, but Congress is find it almost impossible to shed light on its operations.  It all sounds good on paper: Let’s send in this effective fighting force!  It talks about “Janjeweed be gone” and being an anti-genocide force.  But what happens if things go wrong? Well, when things go wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress finds it almost impossible to get information from Blackwater.  They’ve refused repeatedly to turn over documents. So what happens when you send these guys into Darfur?  You add yet another private military operation to the mix and you create a situation in which nation states and international bodies are privatizing out these operations to private military companies, private mercenary companies.  In the process you subvert international order.  Yes — maybe Blackwater could go in in there and wipe out the Janjeweed militia.  But what happens the day after that? Where’s the political process in this? More violence is not what’s needed in Darfur right now!  The fact is that Eric Prince and others from Blackwater have been part of Christian organizations that have targetted Sudan for years.  A very disturbing thing happened last October. President Bush lifted partial sanctions on the south of Sudan, the Christian region of the country and the south Sudanese representative in Washington said he expected Blackwater to start training forces in the south of Sudan sometime soon.  He said this in January.  It’s really a disturbing development and I think a disturbing proposal by Blackwater.

Blackwater, the Pentagon, the CIA and the Christian Right

NPR:  The founder of Blackwater, Eric Prince, is very connected.  Let’s talk about him starting with the fact that he’s from a very wealthy family. How did his family make their fortune?

JS:  Eric Prince grew up in Michigan, in Holland.  His dad, Edgar Prince, was very much the king of Holland, pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of guy, who built up an empire, a company called Prince Manufacturing Corp.  Prince Manufacturing was best known for creating the now-ubiquitous sunvisor in the car… that’s from the Prince family. What Eric Prince’s father taught him was to mix a strict adherence to a Calvinist religious doctrine with a strong embrace of the free market gospel. Eric Prince, as a young man, watched as his father used the family business as a cash-generating engine to fuel the rise of the religious right as well as the Republican revolution of 1994 that brought Newt Gingrich to power. So his father was a major contributor to many Republican campaigns, but also to Gary Bauer, for instance, the founder of the Family Research Council.  He gave Gary Bauer the seed money to start the organization. Young Eric Prince was among the first interns there.  The Prince family also contributed heavily to James Dobson and Focus on the Family.  Eric Prince, interestingly, is very close to Chuck Colson, the former Watergate conspirator and one of Bush’s spiritual advisors.  This was the guy who was Nixon’s hatchet man and he’s now running faith-based prisons.  So Eric Prince grew up in this atmosphere.  His family was very close to the religious right, very close to conservative politics.  Prince himself interned in George H. W. Bush’s White House. But he complained that it wasn’t conservative enough on gay issues, the budget, the environment.  He also worked on Pat Buchanan’s insurgent campaign for president in 1992 when he ran on a very xenophobic, anti-immigrant line.  Eric Prince himself has contributed upward of a quarter of a million dollars in traceable money to federal Republican campaigns. Interestingly, he’s never given a penny to a Democrat — which is certainly his right — but he has given money to Green Party candidates to defeat Democrats.  This is a very unusual pattern for the head of a powerful corporation, to put all of his eggs in one basket.  But this guy is a committed ideologue.

NPR: Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, is a former Navy Seal.

JS:  In fact, he’s believed to be the wealthiest person ever to serve in the Navy Seals!  He was deployed in Haiti, Bosnia, in the Mediterranean.  I don’t think he actually wanted to leave the Navy Seals.  But in 1995 his father died of a heart attack and his wife had been diagnosed with cancer.  I think being in the Seals was no longer a reality for him.  I think that’s why he turned his sights on setting up a military company that would effectively operate like a privatized Special Forces unit.

NPR:  Joseph Schmidtz is the vice chairman of Blackwater and he had been the Pentagon’s Inspector General.  So he’s kind of connected to both the private and government worlds. Is he very politically connected?

JS:  Joseph Schmidtz was Pentagon Inspector General at a time when the war contractor bonanza was just exploding.  His job, effectively, was to police the largest war contractor bonanza in history.  He was forced to resign under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike, accusing him of not doing his job.  And then he turns around and takes a job with one of the most successful of those war contractors, Blackwater USA. Joseph Schmidtz is a committed Christian activist.  He himself is the one who brags of his membership in the military Order of Malta, the Christian militia dating back to the first Crusade.  And if you read through his speeches from when he was Inspector General, he absolutely adored Donald Rumsfeld.  He gave a speech one time in which he went on and on about Rumsfeld’s career as a wrestler!  So this was a guy who was very close.  He was a devoted Republican disciple.  He was very close to the Bush administration.  And now he’s in a leadership position at Blackwater USA. 

NPR:  Another highly-placed person in Blackwater is Cofer Black.  What’s his position in Blackwater and where was he before that?

JS:  Cofer Black is a vice chairman and he’s perhaps one of the most famous spies in US history.  Cofer Black was a thirty year veteran of the CIA when he came to Blackwater in February of 2005.  This was a man whom Osama bin Laden had marked for death in the Sudan in the 1990’s when Black was a CIA operative there. Cofer Black was also the man who caught Carlos the Jackal, at the time the most famed international terrorist.  He caught him in Sudan.  Black went on for decades to serve in the CIA.  When 9/11 happened, he was the coordinator of the CIA’s counterterrorism center and the man tasked with beginning the hunt for bin Laden.  On September 13, 2001, he’s in the White House situation room throwing papers on the ground, explaining to President Bush how he’s going to drop in Special Forces units throughout Afghanistan. He would talk in these terms:  “We’re going to put their heads on spikes.  We’re gonna have flies crawling across their eyeballs.”  He talked about chopping bin Laden’s head off with a machete so they’d have the DNA and know it was him.  He actually promised President Bush that he’d bring Osama bin Laden’s head back from Afghanistan in a box on dry ice!  Of course that didn’t happen.  So Cofer Black was one of the key players in the war on terror, one of the key players in the escalated use of the extraordinary rendition program.  And now he’s one of the key players at Blackwater USA and recently announced that he had formed his own private intelligence company.  These guys are really on the cutting edge of private military, private security, private intelligence.  And so Blackwater has really stacked its deck with veteran spies, veteran government officials and very influential officials.

Concerns in the American military about private contractors

NPR:  Would you summarize for us what you think the major concerns are about the expanding role of private military contractors?

JS:  I think the Bush administration has stretched our domestic armed forces to the limit.  The draft is off the table, for political reasons. And so the US government is left to struggle to find allies to staff its unpopular wars.  Private military companies have come in and filled that vacuum for the Bush administration.  No longer do we have a real democratic process when it comes to the decision to go to war.  No longer do we have that push and pull that would come from how many people you have in your military, how many are willing to serve in the military.  Mercenaries have provided the Bush administration with the opportunities to wage almost endless war.  It’s only how much you’re willing to pay these private forces.  If you can’t recruit the government of Chile to support your operation in Iraq, you can still hire their soldiers. So what this really does is subvert democratic processes and it subverts the natural resistence people have to aggressive or offensive wars.  The other layer of this is that the operations of these companies are absolutely shrouded in secrecy.  Not even senior officials within Congress — senior members of Congress! — can get detailed information on their contracts.  So what we’re doing is we’re taking ourselves further and further away from oversight and transparency and accountability.  We already have enough problems in this country trying to oversee official US forces!  Now you add 100,000 contractors to the mix?  This is a very frightening and disturbing development in the history of warfare.

NPR:  Have you spoken to a lot of military leaders about what they consider to be the pros and cons of the Bush administration’s reliance on private military contractors?

JS:  Well, what senior military officials have been saying publicly lately is that they think we have to watch the use of these armed contractors very, very closely.  Most recently, General John Abizaid said it on Ted Koppel’s documentary, that we really have to be careful about the use of these heavily armed contractors.  I think also there’s a real concern in the military community that the numbers are dropping in the Special Operations forces. In fact in Iraq right now there’s a slang term for a soldier who goes to work for any private military contractor — they call it “going Blackwater.”  And so if you think about it, if you’re a grunt in Iraq, and you’re out there risking your life, and you don’t even have adequate body armor, and you see these Blackwater guys making $600 or $800 a day for doing the same kinds of things that you’re doing, there’s a lot of resentment.  So it’s impacting morale in the military as well when you have these highly paid mercenaries running around in Iraq and the soldiers are looking at them and saying, “How come they’re getting a six-figure salary and I’m getting $35,000 a year and I’ve got a pregnant wife at home.”  So it really has impacted morale in the military as well.

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2 Comments

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  2. red sea media, that is some serious stuff. good site.


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