Local security firm joins action in Iraq

Analysis:

This story is based on an investigation by the Grand Rapids Press into a local company that is moving up in the war profiteering business, particularly in Iraq. Corporate Security Solutions (CSS) is a Grand Rapids-based company that according to this article has provided security for local clubs, done security work in New Orleans after Katrina and has been involved in construction work and hiring private mercenaries to protect high ranking officials in Iraq.

The story uses the recent investigation of Blackwater USA as a framework for presenting information about CSS. In the section the story states that “the brothers Frain took Corporate Security Solutions global, and to war, as it earned military contracts in Iraq for everything from shipping to personal protection to the manufacture of cement security barriers. The firm boasts overall domestic and overseas revenues between $50 million and $100 million.” There are a few other details about what this company is doing in Iraq, such as how many people they employ and that they provide “protection for supply convoys that truck everything from military equipment to medical supplies to cement barriers around the country. The firm also escorts business executives.” Despite these disclosures, there is no real transparency to what CSS does in Iraq. The GR Press reporter did not ask for copies of contracts, who exactly they are guarding in Iraq, nor how they procured these contracts.

This story looks at the the issue of war profiteers the same way that much of the media has with Blackwater and the other “contractors.” The only time there is attention given to these companies is when they do something that is considered “wrong,” such as the Blackwater shooting of civilians in September of 2007. This type of reporting doesn’t allow for questions about the role and function of private contractors and whether or not “Business can do it better, faster, cheaper,” as CSS founder Chris Frain said in this article. We know from other investigations that private contractors have not done it cheaper and better as in the case of Halliburton.

The story also states that CSS has hired former Gov. John Engler’s PR man John Truscott. Truscott was also the main spokesperson for the failed gubernatorial campaign of Dick DeVos and is now the head of a PR firm named The John Truscott Group. What was not mentioned in the GR Press article is that Truscott was also the main organizer for the Bush 2004 campaign in Michigan, which would further underscore the importance of hiring a man with significant political connections. According to Truscott’s website, he was also part of the “Bush/Cheney recount team in Florida” in 2000. Readers of the Grand Rapids Press should ask, with all that is at stake with a company like CSS, why did the reporter provide readers with such a superficial story?

Story:

Holland native Erik Prince built security firm Blackwater USA with millions of dollars in inherited wealth and contacts from his days as a Navy SEAL.

Grand Rapids Christian High School graduates Chris and Tim Frain took a different route to landing business in Baghdad.

Go to Calvin College. Drop out.

Start a small security firm from scratch in the early 1990s. Do everything from nightclub work to investigations of fraud and marital infidelity. Expand to other states.

Then make the leap.

Earlier this year, the brothers Frain took Corporate Security Solutions global, and to war, as it earned military contracts in Iraq for everything from shipping to personal protection to the manufacture of cement security barriers. The firm boasts overall domestic and overseas revenues between $50 million and $100 million.

With some 200 employees based in a compound near Baghdad’s Green Zone, they are poised to capture more of the same business Blackwater made famous.

“I have never met Erik Prince,” said Chris Frain, 37, CEO of CSS and the founder of the company.

Frain declined to comment on the Sept. 16 incident in Baghdad in which Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians. The incident prompted Iraqi leaders to call for expulsion of Blackwater — which has since been rebranded as Blackwater Worldwide — from their nation.

“I wasn’t there,” Frain said.

Despite the Blackwater woes, Frain is confident private contractors will have plenty of work to do in an unstable world.

“Business can do it better, faster, cheaper,” he said.

Until recently, the firm was about the best-kept secret in Grand Rapids. The Frains operate out of an inconspicuous building on 28th Street next to a rental house, across from a Lone Star Steakhouse. They expect to complete a move to a new headquarters in Ada Township next month.

But since their decision to go global, the firm has moved swiftly toward a bigger footprint in Iraq. They brought on an expert in military security. They contracted with well-connected Lansing public relations specialist John Truscott. Truscott, the former spokesman for Gov. John Engler and GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos, is looking to open doors that could lead to multi-million-dollar contracts.

“They have no political connections. They haven’t worked the system at all,” Truscott said.

“We think if we can get some exposure, there’s no telling how fast this company can grow.”

‘Coincidental timing’

To be sure, firms such as Blackwater have proven the potential for profit in war. Since 2004, Blackwater reaped more than $800 million in U.S. State Department contracts to escort officials in Iraq and elsewhere.

That may be about to end.

Federal agents probing the September shootings found at least 14 of the 17 deaths were unjustified and violated deadly-force rules. Unnamed U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that Blackwater is not expected to continue its diplomatic security work in Iraq after its contract expires in May.

Truscott said the Blackwater troubles and simultaneous CSS push for a bigger piece of the pie in Iraq are not linked.

“It’s just kind of a coincidental timing,” Truscott said.

But any expansion may fall under new rules, prompted by fallout from the Blackwater controversy.

Open to outside opinions

Congress is pressing for greater accountability for the estimated 100,000 government contractors in Iraq. In October, the House voted 389-30 to approve a bill that makes all private contractors in war zones subject to U.S. law. The U.S. military has asked that private contractors be placed under a single authority.

“We simply cannot tolerate this kind of lawless behavior on the part of Americans,” said U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., sponsor of the House contractor measure.

“We welcome it,” Chris Frain said of the expected scrutiny.

Frain and his brother concede they are no experts when it comes to high-risk overseas security issues.

To burnish that end of the company portfolio, they hired retired Army Lt. Col. Brian Feser. Feser, 45, is an Iraq war veteran and former commander of the Department of Defense Protective Services Unit, which provides worldwide security protection for cabinet and top military officials. He has 27 years of military experience.

It’s Feser’s job to see that its security operations in Iraq go as planned. That includes protection for supply convoys that truck everything from military equipment to medical supplies to cement barriers around the country. The firm also escorts business executives.

“It’s probably not for the faint-of-heart,” Feser said.

Iraqis hold many of the jobs, from driving the convoy trucks to doing production work in the cement plant and housing assembly operation.

Its security operatives are typically British or American, many with military backgrounds. They come equipped with body armor and armed with assault rifles at a wage of $500 a day.

And they hire on with no illusions the job is without risk.

Three of its operatives were killed this year by roadside bombs while escorting convoys, two in an incident near the border with Iran and the other in northern Iraq.

“We understand that it may happen,” Feser said.

“We are trying with training and resources and equipment to ensure that it does not happen to our folks.”

Pre-med dropouts

For the Frains, it is a form of risk management they never imagined at the start.

When he enrolled at Calvin College in 1989, Chris Frain had dreams of going to medical school. While in school, he did management work for D&R Security, in which his father, Robert, had an investment stake.

Courses such as chemistry and advanced biology soon lost their allure. Frain dropped out after a couple of years at Calvin, biding his time with a class or two at Grand Rapids Community College. His hand was forced when his father sold D&R.

Frain took out a loan to buy out a small security firm, F&M Protection, principally to acquire its security license. His wife, Jamie, juggled law school with the demands of her husband’s new business. “There were times when my wife and I returned pop cans for gas money,” Frain said.

Frain scrambled for any business he could get.

The firm provided outside security at nightclubs such as the Orbit Room and the 54th Street Complex. It guarded schools during the 1992 Rockford Public Schools strike. They worked divorce cases and investigated corporate fraud.

Brother Tim came aboard in 1995. He followed form: One year at Calvin. Pre-med major. Drop out. Join the security business.

“I think it was the allure of building something. It’s fun to deal with people, fun to manage people, fun to work with people,” recalled Tim Frain, 34, now chief operating officer of affiliated company CSS Global Inc.

From 1994 to 1996, the firm had expanded to Kalamazoo, Lansing and Detroit. In 2000, it acquired a small business in Cincinnati and went into security work there. It expanded in subsequent years to Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Maryland, incorporating as Corporate Security Solutions in 2002.

Inspired in New Orleans

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the firm contracted with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect commercial buildings and trailer parks. At its peak, it had 600 employees in the New Orleans area.

Some of the contractors there — Blackwater included — had considerable business in Iraq. That gave the Frains an idea: Why not us?

In 2007, the firm won a Department of Defense contract to provide personal security and convoy security, and the firm set up a compound about a mile outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

They later won contracts to build and transport cement barriers and modular housing used by the military. Their corporate advantage: They can both build these products and then provide the security and ability to ship anywhere in the country. It’s otherwise known as vertical integration. Their cement plant and housing assembly operation sit on several acres, next to the compound of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

‘Risky’ business

The manager of operations there is Jay Coussens, 31, a 1995 graduate of Forest Hills High School. Coussens went to work for the firm in 1995 after a semester at Davenport University, helping with the expansion in Michigan and then Ohio, Florida and Texas.

He has been in Baghdad about a year, juggling appointments with Iraqi generals and contractors with meetings with existing and future clients.

The occasional roadside bomb notwithstanding, Coussens hopes to be in Iraq for the long haul.

“It’s not as bad here as people might think,” Coussens said.

“In certain parts of Iraq, it’s risky. But if you go out in certain parts of Michigan, it’s risky, too.”

Chris Frain said their work in Iraq fits the unorthodox profile of this firm. Success never comes without risk.

While politicians argue about the long-term role of U.S. troops in Iraq, Frain is bullish on the future.

“My general sense is that we are there for a very long time. This is not something that is going to happen in a year.”

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org