BOOK SYNOPSIS & REVIEW:
Blackwater Reveals Underpinnings of 'Private Security' IndustryBlackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army
by Jeremy Scahill
NY: Avalon Publishing Group, Inc./Nation Books, 2007. 438 pp. $26.95.
Questions arise for which there are no known answers at this time, such as: Who else besides Erik Prince has a financial stake in Blackwater?Among the many topics covered in his new book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill shows how politically powerful Christian fundamentalists and Neocons are pressing forward with their battle for what they call 'freedom' and 'democracy'—whether the U.S. public, or indeed the rest of the world, wants to fight or not.
Sounds over the top, doesn't it? Yet those who believe "Western civilization" (read "Christendom" or perhaps "Judeo-Christendom") is imperiled by 'infidels' are pushing hard to confront and defeat 'the enemy.'
War that serves the purposes of this 'belief' faction also fuels profits for war-related businesses. Scahill demonstrates the added risks that can occur when these two powerful motivations (one might even substitute the word "addictions") come together.
Blackwater USA is prominent among many companies that provide "contract security" personnel for governments, corporations and wealthy individuals. It began in 1987 by offering advanced military training at its 7,000-acre main training facility in Moyock, North Carolina, near the Great Dismal Swamp, and has rapidly expanded. It is now doing business on a global scale, with its operations horizontally and vertically integrated to cover just about any imaginable security need.
Blackwater merits being singled out for attention because of its leaders' well-placed political, social, and religious connections, and its founder Erik Prince's immense wealth and Catholic extremist connections.In addition to its size, Blackwater merits being singled out for attention because of its leaders' well-placed political, social, and religious connections, and its founder Erik Prince's immense wealth and Catholic extremist connections. Scahill's meticulously researched and thoroughly documented account makes for fascinating—and disturbing—reading.
Scahill reports that Blackwater currently has over $500 million in U.S. government contracts, not including secret "black budget" contracts for U.S. intelligence agencies. And this isn't counting Blackwater's revenues from contracts with other governments, corporations and individuals.
Questions arise for which there are no known answers at this time, such as: How much seed money did Prince put up to start Blackwater? How much profit did he make on his initial investment? Who else besides Erik Prince has a financial stake in Blackwater?
Among the company's first Iraq War assignments was the high-profile job of protecting top U.S. officials stationed there. One wonders why such an important and sensitive assignment wasn't given to top-notch U.S. military personnel; but by the end of this book, one wonders if the U.S. military even has all that much skill and authority left, as so many of its traditional functions have been privatized and outsourced. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld famously included military contractors as part of the Pentagon's "Total Force," which he said included "active and reserve military components, civil servants, and its contractors." Though they are part of the "Total Force," however, mercenary soldiers are not subject to the structure and checks and balances of the U.S. military chain of command.
One of the last acts of Presidential Envoy to Iraq L. Paul Bremer before he left his post in June 2004 was to issue a decree, known as Order 17, that made private contractors in Iraq immune from prosecution. (An attempt has been made to rectify this exemption in the 2007 defense spending bill, which includes a line "that could," according to Scahill [emphasis provided], "subject contractors in war zones to the Pentagon's UCMJ" [Uniform Code of Military Justice].)
Blackwater is expanding rapidly, adding training campuses in California and Illinois and a jungle-training base in the Philippines. It has about 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries, including the U.S., and claims a database of over 20,000 former military personnel who are on-call.
Following the deployment of Blackwater mercenaries to New Orleans post-Katrina, the company saw a growth opportunity, establishing a domestic operations division that is seeking permits to contract for work in all 50 states.
Blackwater's Greystone Ltd. division (registered in Barbados and classified by the U.S. as a "tax-exempt" corporate entity) offers to hire out "Proactive Engagement Teams" to meet client needs overseas (asset protection and recovery, emergency personnel withdrawal, defensive and offensive small group operations), using mercenary recruits from other countries, including some from Chile who served as commandos under Pinochet. Greystone has been seeking applicants qualified in such weapons as AK-47s, Glock 19s, M-16 series rifles, machine guns, and shoulder-fired weapons, and skilled in such specialties as sniper and door gunner. Scahill reports that pay scales for recruits from such countries as El Salvador, Nepal, Honduras and Chile are substantially lower than for Blackwater's U.S. recruits.
Another Blackwater division, Presidential Airways, is known to use the same airports as those used in the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program. The company claims to hold a Secret Facility Clearance with the U.S. Department of Defense.
While Blackwater specializes in training and deploying contract mercenaries, it is simultanously reframing its mission, calling its work "humanitarian" and "peacekeeping." Realizing there will be questions about how their workers conduct themselves, and for whom they work, Blackwater and some other private mercenary companies have established a private military trade group called the International Peace Operations Association, and some are also signatories to The Global Compact espoused by the U.N. (which Blackwater's president, Gary Black, has critiqued as ineffective). Adherence to the standards promulgated by these entities is voluntary, however, with no outside oversight or enforcement mechanisms.
There's nothing wrong, per se, for an employer to engage contract personnel, especially for occasions when work is seasonal or there's temporary work to be done that's beyond the capacity of day-to-day staff. Scahill shows, however, that the use of "temp" armed personnel, when engaged by governments and other entities bent on pursuing military and economic advantage, presents substantial moral and ethical issues, as well as practical ones: Who will police the police? What legal oversight exists for these mercenaries? What's the chain of command, and can the public trust it? How can the public be assured that such mercenaries won't be turned against them? What weapons systems will be entrusted to them, and by whom? What other normal government functions—police, disaster relief, corrections—will be turned over to such entities, and what could be the outcomes? What worker safety protections will be provided for individuals employed by mercenary contractors? What public safety and human rights guarantees will they follow? Are governments irrelevant if wealthy private entities can rent-an-army? Where will the next mercenary hot spots be—Sudan? Iran? Nigeria? Venezuela?
The experience of reading Jeremy Scahill's book about Blackwater USA compares with reading Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: there's just no way around the mountain of information, you have to go through it.Are you suffering from reader fatigue yet? Imagine what it's like to slog through Blackwater's nearly 400 pages of dense facts, figures, references, and interconnections—all important to know and understand. The reader wishes for diagrams and lists of dramatis personae to help keep track of all the characters and subplots. The experience of reading this book compares with reading Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: there's just no way around the essential mountain of information, you have to go through it. Fortunately Scahill, like Branch, is a strong writer and skilled synthesizer. He also had support: it is obvious, from the meticulous attention to detail throughout, that all involved with this book were dedicated to doing it right.
Make the effort to read Blackwater: you'll emerge refreshed and revitalized, for the information it conveys can propel concerned readers to seek to change what needs to be changed. Jeremy Scahill has performed an immense public service by gathering such a huge amount of information—and making sense of it while Blackwater's story is still emerging.
Jeremy Scahill is a producer and correspondent for "Democracy Now!," a daily radio and TV news program, and a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.
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This story was published on March 26, 2007.