The Rise of Blackwater

By Sandip Roy, New America Media
Tuesday April 24, 2007

Four of the employees of Blackwater USA, one of more than three dozen private military companies operating in Iraq, were murdered, burned and left hanging on a bridge in Fallujah in 2004. Jeremy Scahill, a contributor to The Nation magazine and a correspondent for Democracy Now!, has written a book about how a company that is barely 10 years old rose from the swamp of North Carolina to become the world’s most powerful mercenary army, controlled by one man. Scahill recently spoke to Sandip Roy on the program “Your Call on KALW” about his book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. 


Roy: With the many private contractors in Iraq, why is Blackwater special? 


Scahill: Most people believe that Blackwater is on contract with the U.S. military. It is actually on contract with the State Department. Since June 2004, the U.S. State Department has paid Blackwater some $750 million to protect senior U.S. diplomats in Iraq. I call it the Praetorian Guard of the war on terror because it’s literally guarding the senior officials on the frontlines of the occupation of Iraq. Forty percent of every dollar being spent in Iraq is going to contractors. 


Roy: But what’s wrong with a private company performing duties like providing bodyguards or protecting movement of kitchen equipment? 


Scahill: The active duty military, in the words of Colin Powell, is just about broken. The Bush administration relies on these secretive private forces, which no effective laws govern, to engage in these offensive operations. It also really impacts the morale of active duty U.S. forces. I was talking to a young solder in Fort Hood who said he was making $28,000 a year. Now, he is making $40,000 in Iraq. But that’s the monthly take for some of the better-paid mercenaries from Blackwater. This kid looks at the Blackwater guys making six-figure salaries with better weapons and body armor and probably has one of two reactions—I hate them or I want to be like them. In fact, now if you leave the military and go into the private sector in Iraq, the slang is “going Blackwater.” 

Blackwater is now lobbying heavily to be sent to Darfur as an anti-genocide force and are using phrases like “Janjaweed be gone.” 


Roy: If the American military cannot protect the people of Darfur, what’s wrong with Blackwater doing it? 


Scahill: We have enough trouble monitoring official forces in the so-called war on terror. Blackwater has repeatedly refused to turn over documents related to deadly incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was extraordinary to see a private company telling Henry Waxman, chair of the Government Oversight Committee, that they cannot provide him with documents because they are classified. 

One of the great concerns in Darfur is much of the violence in Sudan is attributed to militia violence. So adding another armed private force is a cause for serious concern. 


Roy: Have you found instances that their Christian ideology affects their work? 


Scahill: We have heard Blackwater operators referring to Iraqis as hajis. In April 2004, when they opened fire into a crowd of Moqtada al-Sadr supporters they called them “f---ing niggers.” Some guys sign up because they think they are doing their patriotic duty. But I think there are some frightening guys who just want to go and kill Muslims. 


Roy: How did Blackwater get to be so powerful? 


Scahill: A decade ago Blackwater was no more than a 5,000-acre plot in North Carolina. Its secretive founder, Erik Prince, grew up in Michigan where his father ran a company called Prince Manufacturing, which serviced the auto industry. Erik Prince saw his dad use the business as a cash-generating engine to fuel the rise of the religious right in this country. He gave the seed money to Gary Bauer to found the Family Research Council. Erik Prince was an intern there. They were significant bankrollers of James Dobson and his Focus on the Family. Erik had been one of the wealthiest people ever to join the Navy SEALS. When he opened Blackwater, its stated purpose in 1996-97 was to anticipate government outsourcing of training and firearm-related activity. 


Roy: But, like Halliburton, did they have a champion in White House or Congress? 


Scahill: Interestingly, its rise happened during the Clinton administration. That’s when Blackwater was actually given its contract to become an official vendor to the U.S. government. The Clinton administration was very enthusiastic about privatization but it wasn’t until 9/11 that Blackwater’s moment arrived with the Republicans in total control. 


Roy: Has Blackwater actually gotten away with murder? You say no security contractor has been prosecuted for crimes in Iraq? 


Scahill: Only one contractor has been indicted in Iraq since March of 2003 and he wasn’t a mercenary—he was a regular contractor who stabbed someone in a kitchen. There is almost no transparency to operations of Blackwater. There are scores of reports of Blackwater being engaged in firefights with Iraqis. Blackwater would say they are only engaged in defensive operations. 


Roy: Has it been helpful to be given the name of contractor instead of mercenary? 


Scahill: It’s part of a sophisticated re-branding operation. The mercenary trade association has the very Orwellian name of International Peace Operations Association and its logo is a cartoon lion. When you are talking about Blackwater you are talking about mercenaries. 


Roy: What does it mean that now they are regarded as part of the “U.S. total force”? 


Scahill: In February 2006 Donald Rumsfeld issued the Pentagon’s quadrennial review which lays out the Pentagon’s vision for years to come. There he classified Blackwater and other contractors as a legitimate part of the total force making up the U.S. war machine. This was legitimacy that they could not have dreamed of. Now Blackwater has taken that designation and used it in two wrongful death suits filed against it— one for the incident in Fallujah and one for a plane crash in Afghanistan. They have said they should be immune from civilian legislation inside the United States because they are essentially part of the U.S. national security apparatus. At the same time it lobbies against placing its men under the US court-martial system. 


Roy: What are Blackwater’s activities in the USA? 


Scahill: In New Orleans during Katrina, I encountered Blackwater mercenaries on Bourbon Street—burly guys with flak jackets and M-4 machine guns. They said their mission was to stop the looters. It came out that the Department of Homeland Security had hired Blackwater to the tune of $240,000 dollars a day to provide security. At one point they had 600 men there. The Blackwater men said they were making $350 a day per man. But they were billing the government $950 per day per man. 

Last year Blackwater representatives met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger about doing earthquake disaster response in California. They are planning to open a private military base, they’d call it training facility, near San Diego. It has a new base in Illinois. 


Roy: Are there public hearings being held by people like Speaker Pelosi? 


Scahill: When Nancy Pelosi goes to Iraq she is protected by Blackwater. The Democrats’ plan for withdrawal from Iraq doesn’t mention private contractors. So there could be 40,000 actual soldiers in Iraq in late 2008 per the Democrats plan, and you could just supplement it with 160,000 private contractors. 

The congressional initiatives are all aimed at oversight and transparency. No one with the exception of Congressman Dennis Kucinich is framing this in concept as the radical privatization of war. 

Blackwater represents the life’s work of not just Rumsfeld but also Dick Cheney. One of the last things Cheney did as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense during the first Gulf War was to commission a study from Halliburton as to how to further privatize the military bureaucracy.