Monday, May 07, 2007

Jeremy Scahill Speaks Out Against Blackwater

Comes to San Diego to Help Block Mercenary Firm’s Proposed Camp


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Right now, Potrero is a little-known rural community in southeastern San Diego County, a hidden valley filled with wetlands and various kinds of raptor birds, with a golden eagle habitat 3,500 feet to the north and about 1,000 adult residents, most of whom moved there to get away from the noise of an urban environment and live in harmony with nature. But if Blackwater U.S.A., a politically well-connected company which hires mercenary soldiers and support personnel to aid the U.S. military throughout the world, including Iraq, all that will change. Those 1,000 residents will find themselves living in a virtual war zone; they won’t be running the kinds of risks Iraqis face every day when they leave their homes but they will be experiencing the sights and sounds of Blackwater’s minions training for their parts in future U.S. wars.

That was the fate Potrero residents sought to avoid when they joined forces with anti-war groups like the Peace Resource Center and the Peace and Democracy Action Group of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church to invite Jeremy Scahill to speak in San Diego May 1 and 2. Scahill is an independent journalist who’s been covering the Blackwater story ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks vastly expanded the company’s business opportunities. He’s written an extensive series of articles on Blackwater, most of them for The Nation, and recently he collected his dossier on the company into a book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Scahill spoke at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest on May 1 and the La Mesa Community Center, co-sponsored by the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club, on May 2.

Scahill began his La Mesa appearance by reading one of the most spectacular stories from his book: the death of four Blackwater “contractors” in combat in Falloujah, Iraq in March 2004. The four men, Jerry Zovko, Wes Batalona, Mike Teague and Scott Helvenston, were all veterans of elite units in the U.S. military — the Army Rangers, Air Force 140th Special Operations regiment, the Navy SEAL’s — who had signed on with Blackwater to do the same work they’d done as servicemembers and get paid more for it. They were sent out on a mission in an unarmored Jeep, two men short of the six-member crew they were supposed to have, and were ambushed and captured by Iraqi insurgents. The four men were killed and their bodies were displayed publicly by the insurgent fighters who had killed them.

“The crowd swelled to more than 300 people, as the original attackers faded into the side streets of Falloujah,” Scahill wrote. “The scorched bodies were pulled from the burned-out Jeep, and men and boys literally tore them apart, limb from limb. Men beat the bodies with the soles of their shoes, while others hacked off burned body parts with metal pipes and shovels. A young man methodically kicked one of the heads until it was severed from the body. In front of the cameras, someone held a small sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones that declared [in English], ‘Falloujah is the graveyard of the Americans!’”

America’s response to the killing of Blackwater’s four mercenaries would be just as savage. According to Scahill, the Bush administration overruled its military commanders on the ground and ordered an immediate all-out U.S. attack on Falloujah. “When the Americans came into Falloujah, they would shout insults at the people in Arabic, the people of Falloujah would come out and the Americans would shoot them,” Scahill told his La Mesa audience. “They started the attack by bombing the power plants, and U.S. soldiers were firing on ambulances. The U.S. went in and totally destroyed Falloujah. It was the moment the war turned.”

Blackwater’s own response showed the extent to which the company has become both a staunch supporter and a beneficiary of Republican philosophies and governmental policies. “The day after the massacre, they hired the Alexander Study Group, a lobbying firm with ties to Jack Abramoff and then-House majority leader Tom DeLay,” Scahill said. (Abramoff and DeLay were both later brought down by corruption scandals.) “Within days of the ambush, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and other executives had face-to-face meetings with the people running Congress. By June 2004 Blackwater was given a $320 million contract to provide security services for U.S. diplomats.”

Blackwater Is Born

Blackwater U.S.A. was the brainchild of Erik Prince, son of a Detroit millionaire, Edgar Prince, who made his fortune in the auto-parts business and invented the lighted windshield visor for cars. (He also had some less commercially successful inventions, including a lighted sock drawer and an automatic ham de-boning device.) The Prince family were thoroughgoing political conservativ es who, unlike many of the corporate rich, donated overwhelming sums to Republican candidates and only pittances to Democrats. Erik’s sister Elizabeth, usually called Betsy, married Dick DeVos, son of the founder of Amway, who since 1979 has given $650,000 to Republican candidates, $7 million to finance the school vouchers movement, and another $2 million to Right-wing interest groups.

Erik Prince himself made his first political contribution in 1989, at age 19: $15,000 to the Republican party. He was one of the first interns at the Family Research Council, a major organization in the radical Christian Right, and he also served six months as an intern in the administration of the first President Bush in 1991. The experience left him so disgusted that he broke with Bush and endorsed radical-Right candidate Patrick Buchanan for the Republican nomination in 1992. In a rare interview with the Grand Rapids Press, he said he’d abandoned Bush, Sr. because he “saw a lot of things I didn’t agree with — homosexual groups being invited in [the White House], the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act, those kinds of bills. I think the administration has been indifferent to a lot of conservative concerns.”

In 1992 Erik Prince enlisted in the U.S. Navy and volunteered for the elite SEAL team. But his military career was cut short with the death of his father, Edgar Prince, in 1995. He was allowed to leave the military and help his family wrap up his father’s affairs. The family sold the auto-parts business for $1.4 billion and, with part of his share of the proceeds, Erik started Blackwater in 1996. At first, Scahill noted, the company was called “Blackwater Lodge and Training Center” and operated a facility in Moyock, North Carolina. Two conservative Republican Congressmembers from Orange County, Dana Rohrabacher (for whom Prince had also interned) and John Doolittle, attended the opening ceremonies.

Erik Prince largely built his company from the political opportunities presented by outside events, Scahill explained. “After the Columbine shootings in 1999, Blackwater responded by erecting a mock high school and inviting law enforcement personnel to train there,” he said. “In 2000, when the U.S.S. Cole was bombed [by al-Qaeda terrorists], the Navy awarded Blackwater a $3.2 million training contract. The election of George W. Bush as president and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 vastly expanded the opportunities for Blackwater and other private military contractors.

During the first Bush presidency, then-secretary of defense Dick Cheney had floated the idea of outsourcing many of the military’s functions to private corporations. He hired Halliburton, an international corporation whose Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) subsidiary was a major potential beneficiary of such contracting, for $500 to do a study of military privatization; then, when Cheney left government, he became Halliburton’s CEO. As for Blackwater, Prince boasted in a rare TV appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s program that the CIA had asked him to send a team to Afghanistan. “Prince went with this team himself,” Scahill said, “and as far as we know, that was the moment when Blackwater crossed from being a training force to a mercenary force.”

Thanks to Blackwater and the other “contractors” supplying personnel to the U.S. military, the U.S. has 126,000 private employees in Iraq fulfilling military roles, in addition to the 140,000 actual troops. Not all the “contractors” are mercenaries or combat team members; most have taken over cooking, cleaning, driving and other support services for which the U.S. military used to use its own people. But the Government Accountability Office (GOA), the federal government’s official financial watchdog, estimates that 40,000 of the 126,000 private-sector personnel in the U.S. force in Iraq are mercenaries in combat roles.

Blackwater’s first contract in Iraq was for $21 million, to protect Paul Bremer, the official Bush appointed to run Iraq after the U.S. attack got rid of Saddam Hussein’s government. (According to Scahill, Blackwaqter uses the fact that Bremer got out of Iraq alive as a selling point on their Web site.) Every subsequent U.S. ambassador in Iraq, and every U.S. V.I.P. mission there — including that of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — has been guarded by Blackwater personnel, Scahill said. “This company has had $750 million worth of contracts with the State Department alone,” he explained.

Playing by Their Own Rules

In addition to lobbying the government for more contracts at higher fees, Scahill said, Blackwater has also worked hard to make sure no one can hold them accountable either for the actions of their employees on the ground or the decisions made at corporate headquarters that might endanger them. According to Scahill, the contract under which the four Blackwater victims of the Falloujah massacre worked involved another company, Regency, and had been amended to delete the requirement that Blackwater provide its people with armored vehicles. That negotiation saved Blackwater $1.5 million and may have cost the four men their lives.

Blackwater’s avoidance of accountability got a major boost in June 2004, just before Paul Bremer left Iraq. “He issued General Order 17, which granted sweeping immunity under Iraqi law to all contractors and their personnel,” Scahill said. Because Blackwater employees serve as part of a U.S. military operation, the company claims that they have the same “sovereign immunity” from criminal prosecution or civil suit as actual servicemembers and their commanders, Scahill explained — but because Blackwater’s people aren’t servicemembers, they’re not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) on which the military system of courts-martial is based. (At least they weren’t until Republican Senator Lindsey Graham slipped a requirement into the 2006 Defense Authorization Act that they would be — which, ironically, the American Civil Liberties Union is opposing because they don’t want to see cooks and other civilians working for the U.S. military subject to military justice.) And, thanks to General Order 17, the Iraqi government can’t do anything to Blackwater personnel for any murders or other crimes they commit on Iraqi soil.

But the company’s attempts to insulate themselves from all responsibility hit a roadblock in 2005, when the families of the four contractors killed in Falloujah filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Blackwater. Ironically, at first their survivors hadn’t realized they were working for a private company instead of serving with the U.S. military; they were in a war zone and doing what they’d always done. Scott Helvenston’s mother Katie “remembered seeing the report of her son’s death,” Scahill said, “and it didn’t occur to her that it could be him because she didn’t know he was there as a ‘contractor.’ When she and the other families found out, they started asking questions about why they went out in unarmored vehicles and with a team that was two men short. Blackwater said they would hold a memorial service for them in North Carolina, and executives would be there to answer their questions. Danica Zovko, Jerry’s mother, asked to see an after-incident report. They were hemming and hawing, and at one point a Blackwater executive said, ‘This is a classified document, and you’ll have to sue us to get it.’”

The families took Blackwater’s dare and filed suit in January 2005. According to Scahill, the company didn’t deny the families’ allegations. “Instead, they said that because they were hired by Donald Rumsfeld and the Department of Defense, they should have the same immunity as the U.S. government.” Scahill estimated that about 770 contractors have been killed in Iraq — a figure he based on the number of families that have applied to the U.S. government for death benefits — and added, “What’s more disturbing than the death toll is that no one is supervising their conduct. There have been 64 courts-martial of U.S. servicemembers in Iraq on murder-related charges and only two disciplinary actions against contractors.”

Blackwater in New Orleans

When Scahill describes Blackwater as a bottom-feeding company building its business on human disasters, he’s not talking just about terrorist attacks or wars. According to Scahill, Hurricane Katrina was a godsend for Blackwater’s bottom line — and the huge sums Blackwater got paid in the aftermath of Katrina while people were literally starving in the streets, desperate for emergency assistance, was a good indication of the priorities of the current federal government.

“I got to New Orleans a few days after the hurricane, and there was almost no humanitarian operations or National Guard troops because Bush had sent them all to Iraq,” Scahill recalled. “I was talking to two New York police officers when three people drove up in a car and asked, ‘Where are the rest of the Blackwater guys?’ The Blackwater guys said, ‘We’re here to help confront criminals and stop looters.’ One had just been in Iraq two weeks before, and another said ‘there wasn’t enough action’ in New Orleans. I asked under whose authority were they there, and they said they’d been deputized by the governor of Louisiana. I asked if they were from the Department of Homeland Security, and one of them said, ‘That’s above my pay grade.’”

Eventually, Scahill found out that not only were Blackwater “security” personnel working for the Department of Homeland Security in New Orleans, but that Blackwater was billing the government $950 per man per day while the men were only being paid $350 per day. “Blackwater held a fundraiser for Katrina and began a new branch for domestic security,” Scahill explained. “They opened a private facility in Illinois, and then they thought they could expand their domestic operations still further by opening a training camp in Potrero.”


Before they decided to locate their third U.S. training camp in the small San Diego community of Potrero, Blackwater’s executives did their homework. They knew of San Diego’s reputation as a conservative town in which the U.S. Navy is the biggest industry and whatever the military says goes. They got the support of Congressmember Duncan Hunter, 14-term Republican veteran and (until the November 2006 elections returned control of Congress to the Democrats) head of the House Armed Services Committee. They met secretly with representatives of the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use as early as May 2006 — five months before Potrero residents had any idea that Blackwater would be moving into their community — and one of their attorneys, Lori Spar, later joined the county department as a land use/environmental planner. Blackwater even won unanimous approval from the Potrero community’s planning board after their one opponent, Jan Hedlun, didn’t realize she was eligible to vote.

According to Miriam Raftery and Muriel Kane’s report published April 3, 2007 on the Raw Story Web site,, “The proposed Blackwater West training facility at Potrero would include 15 firing ranges for automatic and semi-automatic weapons and small caliber guns, as well as an emergency vehicle operator’s course the length of ten football fields — 3,280 feet in length and 1,320 feet in width, according to a project description. The facility would also include bunkhouses and commando-type training facilities, ship simulators, and law enforcement and rescue safety training towers with rock-climbing walls and platforms. Multiple San Diego County records indicate that ‘hazards’ — including ‘explosives’ – ‘should’ be stored in an ‘armory’ at the site.”

With all their political ducks lined up at both the federal and county levels, the last thing Blackwater expected or planned for was “indigenous opposition from a community of 1,000 people,” Scahill explained. “Half of all the registered voters in Potrero signed a petition against the facility, and 150 protestors showed up at the April 5 hearing. Though some of their objections are classic NIMBY — “not in my backyard” — others go to the heart of the environmental objections to the project, including the possible disruptive effects on the eagle habitat 3,500 feet away, the combat-style noise to which residents will be subjected continually and the risk that Blackwater’s combat-training operations could start a severe fire in a county already devastated by wildfires four years ago.

Scahill closed his presentation on Blackwater with a critique of the U.S. media, saying that the role of Blackwater as an unaccountable combat force not only abroad but in the U.S. as well is just one of many stories that aren’t being covered properly in the mainstream press. “Over 635,000 Iraqis have died since the war began, but most Americans think it’s less than 10,000,” he said. “This is the direct result of media that participate in the Bush administration’s cover-ups. The media did a great job covering the killings at Virginia Tech, but Virginia Tech is one hour in one day in one Iraqi neighborhood. If the media were doing their job and we heard the stories of some of the 650,000 Iraqis who were killed, this war would end tomorrow. We are a country of good people who don’t believe in killing Iraqi civilians, but the media haven’t shown the consequences of this irrational war based on lies.”