August 2005, in hurricane ravaged New Orleans, a group of over 600 men dressed in all black, with wrap-around sunglasses and cell phones appeared almost overnight to keep the peace. There, due to the Department of Homeland Security, these men had authority to make arrests and use lethal force if need be. These men were not from FEMA, these men were not the US Marine Corps or any US military group. They were hired mercenaries from a private company called Blackwater USA.
Why this is distressing is not that a private company came out to rally round New Orleans in its time of need, it is that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security is contracting out the job of American soldiers to a private company, who is currently trying at all costs to prove that they are above the law. New Orleans is not the only place these mercenaries were - there are thousands of contractors in Iraq right now. During the first Gulf War, while there were private contractors, the ratio was rather small; for every sixty U.S. soldiers, there was one hired contractor. This time in Iraq the ratio is approaching one to one.
Many see this as the fruition of the Christian right and the Bush Administration’s desire to privatize the military and law enforcement; hinting even that this politicization of the military would ultimately dismantle what is left of our democracy and transform our open society into a theocracy.
Michael Ratner, President of The Center for Constitutional Rights, states that “contracting out security to groups like Blackwater undermines our constitutional democracy. Their actions may not be subject to constitutional limitations that apply to both federal and state officials and employees. …They are not trained in protecting constitutional rights and … they have no system of accountability whether within their organization or outside it. [They] bring to mind Nazi Party brownshirts, functioning as an extrajudicial enforcement mechanism that can and does operate outside the law. The use of these paramilitary groups is an extremely dangerous threat to our rights.”
Erik Prince, owner of Blackwater USA, however, considers his company more as a patriotic extension of the U.S. Military. An ex-navy SEAL and multi-millionaire, Erik Prince is an extremely powerful Christian Michigan right-wing Republican fundamentalist. Cutting his career with the Navy SEALS short due to the untimely death of his father, Prince bought 6000 acres of land in upstate North Carolina and created and military training camp called Blackwater USA. Prince had also been an intern under George Bush Sr, had campaigned for Pat Buchanan and has given significant amounts of money to Christian organizations and Republican campaigns. Prince, who currently runs Prince Group, the parent company to Blackwater, also serves as a board member of Christian Freedom International, a nonprofit group with a mission of helping “Christians who are persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Blackwater, founded in 1996 by Erik Prince and Gary Jackson (also a former Navy SEAL), is the worlds largest private military base. With its fleet of 20 aircraft, its “tactical training,” firing range and target systems, it has 4 subdivisions: Blackwater Training Center, Blackwater Target Systems, Blackwater Security Consulting and Blackwater Canine. Blackwater has an extremely powerful private army, capable of overthrowing governments that the Bush Administration has hailed as a “revolution in military affairs.” Some, however, might consider it a little less a revolutionary than an overall threat to American democracy.
Working for Blackwater is Joseph E Schmitz, former Pentagon Inspector General, as chief operating officer and general counsel, and J. Cofer Black, former Director of CIA Counterterrorist Center, as Vice Chairman. Under Blacks direction as coordinator of counterterrorism policy at the Dept, his office received criticism for not accurately reporting the government’s performance in combating terror.
Blackwater is extremely well connected, with Republican support going both ways, and makes its incredible fortune the same way Halliburton does - through no-bid contracts by the Bush Administration. The company has made 750 million since the summer of 2004 through the State Department alone to guard senior U.S. officials, including L. Paul Bremer and the current ambassador to Iraq. With Bush’s extremely pregnant war budget, 40 cents on every dollar is spent on the private sector.
Perhaps the most media coverage that Blackwater has ever received came after the horrific death of four contractors in Falluja by insurgents who later burned and dismembered the bodies and hung them from a bridge. The parents of those soldiers are now suing Blackwater in a wrongful death suit. Where the problem lies is that the company is stating that “itself and its employees are not subject to the laws of the United States because they are in the employ of the U.S. Government and are in many cases commanding troops.” They are also claiming that “as a private firm, they are not subject to the military code of justice either.”
This makes Blackwater mercenaries some of the most “feared professional killers in the world… [who are] accustomed to operating without worry of legal consequences.” They have the ability to unleash random and appalling violence against unarmed forces and civilians, without accountability and are beyond the reach of justifiable authority.
The company makes its employees sign a contract waiving Blackwater’s responsibility for just about any kind of death imaginable, which the four contractors in Falluja signed. The parent’s are suing based on breach of contract. Blackwater had also contractually promised to have three people per truck, an armored vehicle, and proper ammunition. They failed on all three counts in this particular mission. Blackwater is countersuing the families because the soldiers had signed a waiver saying that their families would not sue. Blackwater’s head lawyer is none other than Kenneth Starr, and former Halliburton subsidiary KBR has filed an amicus brief in support of Blackwater.
Also extremely alarming with this company is the shady contracts and subcontracts that make many people shout out the words “war profiteers,” and the inability of Congress to track what the company is doing. In many ways the company has stonewalled Congress, refusing to give up contracts stating that they are “classified.” Henry Waxman, the Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was repeatedly denied access to contracts for services in Iraq, because they are classified from Congress. It took Waxman almost three years to figure out one single contract from Blackwater. Considering all the multi-levels of subcontractors, it would be almost impossible to dedicate the time and manpower to unravel where all the money is going and why. When Congress is denied access to these contracts serious questions should be waged about what exactly is going on.
“According to former Blackwater officials, Blackwater, Regency Hotel and Hospital Company and ESS (Eurest Support Services) were engaged in a classic war-profiteering scheme. Blackwater was paying its men $600 per day but billing Regency $815. In addition, Blackwater billed Regency separately for its overhead and cost in Iraq. Regency would then bill EES an unknown amount for these services. Regency would quote EES a price, say $1500 per man per day, and then tell Blackwater that it had quoted ESS $1200. ESS then contracted with Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, which in turn billed the government an unknown amount of money for the same security services,” according to Raleigh News and Observer.
How much anyone gets paid along this extremely confusing paper trail is almost impossible to tell, especially when the companies in question either deny contracts at all or consider them confidential, even from Congressional inquiry. Violation of the privacy clause that is tacked on to these confidential contracts is punishable by $250,000 in fines. Henry Waxman stated that “it is impossible to calculate how many millions of dollars taxpayers lose in each step of the subcontracting process.”
There were similar reports in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Though the Department of Homeland Security originally denied any contract with Blackwater, they did eventually concede that they were paying $950 per man per day for Blackwater employees. There were over 600 mercenaries in New Orleans at one point. The mercenaries on the ground in New Orleans however, stated that they were only being paid $350 per day for being there, raising the obvious question of what happened to the other $600? That would be up to $360,000 per day that was left unaccounted for.
Because the company is private, its death toll of over 1,000 in Iraq has not been counted in Bush’s public death toll for American soldiers. Another problem is that they are doing the same job, and sometimes taking over the jobs as U.S. soldiers and yet receiving a substantially higher salary with shorter terms of employment. Our current U.S. soldiers then may feel rightfully confused and angry with such tactics. Not to mention that Blackwater has recruited mercenaries from “some serious human rights violating countries: Chile, Colombia, and elsewhere, and deployed them as a part of their force in Iraq.