Nation correspondent and author Jeremy Scahill spoke in Holland on Saturday on the private mercenary corporation Blackwater USA. The talk, delivered to about 60 people as part of a book tour accompanying Scahill’s recent Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, took place in the “backyard” of Blackwater founder Erik Prince who grew up in Holland.
Scahill talked briefly about Erik Prince’s roots in Holland and how his upbringing as the child of Edgar and Elsa Prince shaped his conservative worldview. The Prince family made a considerable fortune with Prince Automotive and used that money to fund both the Republican revolution and the rise of the religious right. Scahill discussed how the Prince family provided the seed money to Gary Bauer to start the Family Research Council. Bauer was one of the original signers of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century document that outlined an imperialist vision of a United States empire. Scahill also told the audience that Erik Prince’s sister, Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos married Dick DeVos in what was essentially a merging of two wealthy, ultra-conservative families.
While not wanting to dwell on the activities of the Prince family, Scahill argues that it is necessary to understand the context from which Blackwater emerged. The Prince family’s influence allowed Erik Prince to gain experience working in the government and in Washington DC, including internships at the Family Research Council, in the White House of President George H.W. Bush, and with the ultra-conservative California Representative Dana Rohrabacher. These connections, coupled with the campaign contributions from the Prince family as well as the $200,000 in identifiable campaign contributions from Erik Prince, in part explain how Blackwater USA was able to grow in ten years from what was essentially a shooting range on private land into the world’s premiere mercenary army.
Scahill began his discussion of Blackwater USA by reading a passage from his book describing the grisly March 30, 2004 killings of four Blackwater employees in Fallujah. That attack was widely reported in the corporate media in the United States, with the Blackwater employees being described as “civilian contractors.” That term gave an impression that the Blackwater soldiers were “civilians” rather than a heavily armed private army.
These terms have masked the role of Blackwater and other private security contractors in Iraq. According to Scahill, few people are aware of the fact that the United States military force in Iraq is supplemented by a force of an estimated 126,000 private contractors working for more than 180 companies who provide services such as feeding the military, doing their laundry, driving trucks, and security operations. There is no Congressional oversight of contractors or their activities, with Scahill explaining that contractors are indeed immune from being held legally accountable for their actions in Iraq under Paul Bremer’s Order 18. Since the war started, there have been 64 courts martial of US soldiers for murder, but only two contractors have been prosecuted. Neither of these prosecutions were for conduct against Iraqis.
Blackwater, described by Scahill as the elite private mercenary force in Iraq, had the high profile job of providing security for former Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer, who was “the most hated man in Iraq” according to Scahill. With their success at that mission, Blackwater has continued to provide security for visiting United States government officials and has received three-quarters of a billion dollars in contracts from the State Department alone. During his book tour, Scahill has had former contractors come up to him to tell him that things in Iraq are far worse than what he describes, with misconduct on the part of contractors being rampant. Scahill further stated that Blackwater soldiers would frequently come in randomly shooting when guarding convoys, effectively undermining efforts by United States soldiers to build relationships with Iraqis. Former soldiers have told Scahill that there is some envy of Blackwater contractors, who are better paid and often better equipped than the US military. It is not uncommon for the Blackwater soldiers to be referred to as “cowboys” and “rock stars” by members of the US military serving in Iraq, according to Scahill.
Scahill responded to an editorial by Erik Prince published in the Grand Rapids Press that attempted to deflect criticism of the company in a series of articles run several weeks ago in the Press. Scahill attacked Prince’s assertion that Blackwater only engages in defensive operations, telling the audience that there is nothing more offensive than the invasion and occupation of another country. He also argued against Prince’s assertion that:
Clearly, the mercenary label is intended to polarize the discussion and craft the most negative image possible of Blackwater. The highest authority on rhetoric, the Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines “mercenary” as: “a professional soldier serving a foreign power.” Blackwater does not now, nor has it ever, provided security services for, or on behalf of, any country other than the United States of America.
Scahill argue that the definition given by Prince accurately describes Blackwater’s activities, with Scahill pointing out that Blackwater has recruited mercenaries to serve in Iraq from countries with horrible records on human rights. He told the audience that Blackwater has hired mercenaries from Chilie, Colombia, Bulgaria, and Poland.
For Scahill, the hiring of soldiers from countries such as Chilie, where 90% of the population opposed the war, highlights one of the ways in which private soldiers undermine the democratic process. Scahill argued that citizens are taken out of the process and countries are no longer limited by the views of their population. Instead of needing to maintain popular support to sustain prolonged military actions, governments are theoretically limited only by how much they are willing to pay for private armies.
Aside from Erik Prince’s connections to the far right, Scahill also shed light on Blackwater employees J. Cofer Black and Joseph Schmitz. The two men previously held prominent roles in government, with Cofer Black serving as President George W. Bush’s top counterterrorism official at the time of 9/11 and Joseph Schmitz serving as Pentagon Inspector General. On September 13, 2001, Black told President Bush that “when we’re through with them [al Qaeda], they will have flies walking across their eyeballs,” comments that were later echoed when he ordered his men to bring him the head of Osama Bin Laden. Black also stated that after 9/11 “the gloves are off” and was instrumental in developing the CIA’s extraordinary rendition plan. For his part, Schmitz is a member of the Military Order of Malta, a militia with its origins in the Crusades. Both the connections to the Crusades and Black’s rhetoric make it difficult to imagine Blackwater relating well to the people of Iraq. Moreover, Prince himself is on the board of Christian Freedom International, a group that believes the Bible is the only infallible word of God.
Scahill told the audience that there is an increasing awareness about Blackwater and the role of private security forces in Iraq, mentioning recent and upcoming hearings in Congress on the subject, as well as opposition to Blackwater’s planned “Blackwater West” affiliate in California. Scahill concluded by advocating that the CEOs of private security contractors be subpoenaed and forced to testify in Congress, arguing that the secrecy on this issue must be stopped, replacing it instead with oversight, transparency, and the rule of law.
Media Mouse also interviewed Jeremy Scahill. The audio interview is available online.