Headlines: Blackwater Still Operating in Iraq; Pelosi Briefed on Torture in 2002

Democracy Now Headlines: Blackwater Still Operating in Iraq; Pelosi Briefed on Torture in 2002

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Backtracking on Initial Claims, Pentagon Admits Afghan Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombs

The Pentagon has acknowledged for the first time Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. bombs earlier this week. The toll from Monday’s bombing in Farah province remains unknown, with estimates topping one hundred civilians, including many women and children. On Thursday, a Pentagon official admitted to the New York Times initial U.S. claims of Taliban grenades causing the deaths were “thinly sourced.” Local residents have said the damage was far too extensive for any Taliban weapon to cause. On Thursday, hundreds of Farah residents protested outside the provincial governor’s office demanding the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Three demonstrators were wounded after Afghan police officers opened fire.

Cost of Occupying Afghanistan to Exceed Iraq

The House Appropriations Committee meanwhile has approved a nearly $97 billion spending bill funding the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure was stripped of a more than $80 million dollar Obama administration request to close the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For the first time, the cost of occupying Afghanistan will surpass the total spent on occupying Iraq next year. In addition to more than half a trillion for the Pentagon, the Obama administration is seeking $65 billion for occupying Afghanistan, compared to $61 billion for Iraq.

UN: 500,000 Flee Pakistan Fighting

In Pakistan, the UN is estimating some half a million civilians have now fled clashes between government forces and Taliban fighters in Swat valley. Both sides have declared an end to the three-month truce that allowed the Taliban to impose Islamic law. On Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani announced a major offensive against Taliban fighters.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani: “After due deliberations and consultations with all concerned, the government has decided to take the following actions: In order to restore honour and dignity of our homeland and to protect the people, the armed forces have been called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists.”

Aid officials say the escalated fighting could bring about a major humanitarian crisis in Swat valley.

Ex-Soldier Convicted in Iraq Rape, Murder Case

A former U.S. soldier has been convicted for the 2006 rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager and the killing of her family. On Thursday, a federal jury found Steven Green guilty on all seventeen counts. Prosecutors say Green was the ringleader in raping and killing fourteen-year-old Abeer Kassem Hamza al-Janabi and killing her parents and five-year-old sister. Three soldiers have already been sentenced to life in prison in the case.

Blackwater Remains in Iraq Despite Contract’s Expiration

In Iraq, the Baghdad contract of the private military firm once known as Blackwater has officially expired. The company, now calling itself “Xe”, will continue to work elsewhere in Iraq. The firm Triple Canopy is taking over for Blackwater in Baghdad and is widely expected to rehire many of its guards. The Iraqi government refused to renew Blackwater’s license following the 2007 mass killing of seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. Five Blackwater guards face charges for the attack. In a new development in that case, two government informants are claiming Blackwater operatives gave their weapons to another contractor now charged with smuggling them out of Iraq. The informants say the Blackwater guards wanted to get rid of the weapons before they were investigated for the Nisoor massacre.

Fed: Bank Losses Could Approach $600B

The Federal Reserve has determined the nation’s top banks could lose nearly $600 billion by the end of next year. The warning came out of the government’s stress-test assessing the banks’ viability. The Fed has ordered ten banks to raise a combined $74.6 billion in capital to protect themselves against collapse. Of all the banks, the government says only GMAC–the financial arm of General Motors–is likely to need additional taxpayer aid.

Obama Budget Cuts 121 Programs

President Obama has unveiled a budget plan that would save $17 billion by cutting some 121 programs. Obama called the cuts a necessary step to avoid leaving crippling debt to future generations.

President Obama: “We came here today as part of President Obama’s commitment to use diplomacy, to use dialogue in order to try to see where we can move forward, where our interests overlap and to see where we can try to work together to bridge the differences.”

The Obama budget includes a four percent increase in military spending. The Pentagon would also see more cuts than any other department, totaling $8.8 billion from fourteen programs.

Despite Campaign Pledge, Obama Shuns Needle Exchange

Health advocates are criticizing a budget item that would reverse an Obama campaign pledge to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS by lifting the federal ban on needle exchange programs. The Obama budget includes language that bans any federal spending on needle exchange.

Chair of N.Y. Fed Resigns over Sachs Shares

The chair of the New York Federal Reserve has resigned amidst scrutiny over his financial ties to the bailed-out firm Goldman Sachs. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal revealed Stephen Friedman was given a waiver to hold shares in Goldman Sachs even after it became a regulated bank-holding firm. A former Goldman Sachs executive, Friedman was also found to have bought the shares even before he was granted the legal waiver. The shares are now estimated to be worth more than $2 million.

Documents Show Pelosi Briefed on Torture in 2002

Newly-released documents show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the Bush administration’s torture of foreign prisoners in September 2002. The disclosure apparently contradicts Pelosi’s claim she was never given details on what techniques were used. Intelligence records show Pelosi and then-House Intelligence Committee chair Porter Goss were briefed on the interrogation of suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times. Pelosi says she was never told the waterboarding was used.

Group Calls for Probe of APA’s Role in Torture

The group Physicians for Human Rights is calling for an independent investigation of the role of the American Psychological Association in the U.S. torture of foreign prisoners. The APA has come under wide scrutiny for allowing psychologists to oversee abusive and coercive interrogations of prisoners at Guantánamo and secret CIA black sites. Physician for Human Rights says newly-released documents show the APA’s ethics task force altered its policy to conform with Pentagon guidelines on interrogations.

Burmese Junta Arrests U.S. Citizen for Suu Kyi Visit

In Burma, the military junta has detained a U.S. citizen who apparently swam across a lake to reach the home of the confined pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta says John William Yeattaw spent two days in Suu Kyi’s home before he was captured as he made his way out. Suu Kyi has spent thirteen of the last nineteen years under house arrest.

Jailed Activist Lori Berenson Gives Birth in Peru

In Peru, the jailed American activist Lori Berenson has given birth to a baby boy. Berenson has spent nearly fourteen years in prison after hooded Peruvian military judges convicted her of collaborating with the rebel group MRTA. She’s eligible for conditional in release in November 2010.

U.S., Syrian Officials Hold Talks

Obama administration officials were in Syria Thursday for meetings with Syria’s Foreign Minister. Jeffery Feltman of the State Department said the U.S. is seeking to forge new diplomatic ties with Syria.

bq. Jeffery Feltman: “We came here today as part of President Obama’s commitment to use diplomacy, to use dialogue in order to try to see where we can move forward, where our interests overlap and to see where we can try to work together to bridge the differences.”

Pro-Independence Puerto Rico Activists Arrested for Capitol Protest

In Washington, D.C., six Puerto Rican activists were arrested Wednesday for staging a pro-independence demonstration inside the House. The group held up signs in the visitors area overlooking the House floor.

Study: 17% of U.S. Children Face Hunger Risk

A new report says more than seventeen percent of children younger than five are at risk of hunger in the United States. According to Feeding America, the figure means 3.5 million children could suffer cognitive and developmental damage resulting from not being properly fed.

N.Y. Activists Protest Treatment of Mentally-Ill Prisoners

Here in New York, a group of protesters rallied outside Governor David Patterson’s mid-town office Thursday to protest the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. Last week Rikers Island prisoner Clarence Mobley died after a physical altercation with prison guards. He had been awaiting psychiatric evaluation. The group Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities has likened the treatment of mentally ill prisoners to torture that has driven some to suicide and declining mental health.

Kerrey to End New School Tenure in 2011

And in campus news, the embattled New School president Bob Kerrey has announced he’ll step down when his contract expires in 2011. Kerrey has been the target of a series of student protests on issues ranging from his alleged involvement in war crimes as a soldier in Vietnam, his record as a Democratic Senator, and his running of the New School. Kerrey received a no-confidence vote from the New School faculty last year.

Headlines: Blackwater Sued; House OKs Weaker Exec Pay Cap

Democracy Now Headlines: Blackwater Sued; House OKs Weaker Exec Pay Cap

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Dozens Arrested at G20 Summit

The G20 summit has begun in London following a day of protest from thousands of people. On Wednesday, dozens were arrested at demonstrations throughout London’s financial district. A number of protesters broke into the Royal Bank of Scotland and wrote “thieves” on the bank’s walls. One man involved with the protests died after collapsing in the street.

Obama, Medvedev Launch US-Russia Talks

Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the summit, President Obama joined Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to announce a new round of talks on lowering nuclear arsenals.

President Obama: “I believe [what] we’ve begun today is a very constructive dialog that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest, like the reduction of nuclear weapons and the strengthening of our nonproliferation treaties, our mutual interests in dealing with terrorism and extremism that threatens both countries, our mutual interests in economic stability and restoring growth around the world, our mutual interests in promoting peace and stability in areas like the Middle East.”

Obama is scheduled to visit Moscow for a summit in July.

Pentagon Seeks Additional 10,000 Troops for Afghanistan

US military commanders have asked the Obama administration for an additional 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan next year. The request comes on top of the additional 21,000 troops President Obama has authorized since taking office. General David Petraeus made the disclosure in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gen. David Petraeus: “There will be nothing easy about the way ahead in Afghanistan or Pakistan or in many of the other tasks in the Central Command area. Much hard work lies before us, but it is clear that achieving the objectives of these missions is vital. And it is equally clear that these endeavors will require sustained, substantial commitment and unity of effort among all involved.”

If Obama approves the request this fall, the US occupation of Afghanistan would increase to some 70,000 troops.

Obama to Request $3B in Pakistan Aid

Meanwhile, the Obama administration also said Wednesday it’s preparing to ask Congress for $3 billion in military aid for the Pakistani government over the next five years.

13 Killed in Afghan Attack

In Afghanistan, at least thirteen people were killed and another fourteen wounded in an attack on a government office in Kandahar. A Taliban spokesperson claimed responsibility for the attack.

Pakistani Taliban Leader Threatens to Attack US in Response to Drone Strikes

Meanwhile, the leader of the Taliban’s Pakistan wing is threatening to attack areas in the United States in response to American drone attacks that have killed hundreds of people. Baitullah Mehsud made the threat as he took responsibility for an attack on a police academy in Lahore.

Nevada Activists Stage Vigil to Protest Pakistan Strikes

Meanwhile, here in this country, a group of Nevada peace activists has launched a daily vigil to protest US attacks in Pakistan. The group “Ground the Drones” is gathering daily outside the Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada.

Foreign Minister: Israel Not Bound to Annapolis Agreements

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the new Israeli Foreign Minister says his government is not bound to respect US-brokered agreements reached since the Annapolis summit in late 2007. Avigdor Lieberman made the assertion in his inaugural Foreign Ministry address.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: “Annapolis, the government of Israel has never ratified, not the government of Israel and not the Knesset (parliament) of Israel. Annapolis was never ratified. So, whoever wants to have fun can continue to have fun. I have seen all the generous offers made by Ehud Olmert, but I have not seen any results.”

Lieberman also signaled a readiness to launch new attacks on Palestinian land, saying “those who wish for peace should prepare for war.” In the Occupied Territories, Palestinian cabinet member Samir Abdullah called on the Obama administration to pressure Israel to respect prior agreements.

Samir Abdullah: “We are awaiting difficult times with this government, and we hope that the international community and all parties which invested in the peace process and the United States, that initiated the Annapolis process and hosted it, should deal with Israel as it dealt with other countries which turned its back to the international legitimacy and to the will of the international community.”

The Obama administration has yet to respond publicly to Lieberman’s remarks.

Guatemalan Journalist Slain in Vehicle Shooting

In Guatemala, a television reporter has been killed and a camera operator seriously wounded in an apparent targeted shooting. Rolando Santis of Telecentro 13 was on his way to an interview when a group of assailants fired on his vehicle. The unnamed camera operator is in critical condition.

Blackwater Sued for Iraqi Security Guard Deaths

The private military company Blackwater is being sued for allegedly killing three security guards working for state-owned Iraqi media. A new lawsuit filed on behalf of surviving relatives says the guards were shot on February 7th, 2007 at a traffic circle in Baghdad. Some twenty Blackwater employees who witnessed the shooting allegedly refused to cooperate with Iraqi police and destroyed key evidence. The suit names Blackwater, which recently changed its name to Xe, along with several other companies controlled by Blackwater founder Erik Prince.

House OKs Weaker Exec Pay Caps

On Capitol Hill, the House has approved a weaker version of a bill to cap executive payments at bailed-out firms. The measure follows moves by Senate Democrats to quash last month’s much trumpeted House measure that would have imposed a 90 percent tax on bonuses. The new House measure limits the scope of bonuses that can be considered “excessive” and gives the Treasury greater leeway in oversight.

742,000 Private Sector Job Losses in March

In economic news, a new report says the US private sector lost more jobs last month than previously thought. The survey company ADP Employer Services says private firms cut 742,000 jobs in March, up from the previous estimate of 706,000.

Audit: Workplace Safety Program Failed to Protect Workers

A new internal audit has found a government program to improve worker safety has failed to do its job. Labor Department investigators say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration failed to collect data, carried out incomplete inspections and missed out on identifying hazardous workplaces because it misspelled company names or didn’t realize two subsidiaries had the same owner. The report also criticizes the Bush administration’s move to restrict the number of companies subject to special attention, saying better oversight might have improved workplaces where fifty-eight workers lost their lives.

Justice Dept. to Drop Stevens Charges

And the Obama administration has announced it will drop all charges against former Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. Stevens lost his seat in November just days after being convicted on federal ethics charges. But on Wednesday, Justice Department lawyers said they’ve uncovered new evidence of prosecutorial misconduct that called the case into question. Attorney General Eric Holder says he will not seek a new trial.

Obama Administration Awards Blackwater New Contracts

Blackwater Receives New Iraq Contracts

Blackwater–the notorious mercenary firm formed by West Michigan native Erik Prince–has been awarded a new $22.2 million contract. That contract will keep Blackwater–which the Iraqi government has determined can no longer legally operate in Iraq–until September of this year. According to the contract, Blackwater will provide “security personnel.”

Another contract uncovered by Jeremy Scahill–who wrote a definitive book on Blackwater–indicated that Blackwater recently received $45 million from the U.S. government for “protective services–Iraq.” That contract has an estimated “Ultimate Completion Date” of 05/07/2011.

Clearly, both contracts raise major questions about Iraqi sovereignty and the extent to which the United States takes seriously the Iraqis wishes.

Blackwater recently announced that it is changing its name to “Xe” in an effort to improve its reputation. For several years, the company has been the target of negative publicity for its work in Iraq. This criticism reached its culmination with the September 2007 shooting deaths of 17 civilians at the hands of Blackwater contractors.

Since then, the Iraqi government has greatly restricted Blackwater’s capacity to operate in Iraq. It has denied the company a license to work in the country, which is a result of widespread Iraqi opposition to the contractor’s presence.

Erik Prince Resigns as Blackwater CEO

West Michigan Native Erik Prince has Resigned as Blackwater CEO

Erik Prince–the West Michigan native who founded the private mercenary company Blackwater using money from the Prince family fortune–has resigned as CEO of the infamous company.

Prince announced that he will no longer be CEO of the company, instead he has appointed a new president. Prince will stay on as Chairman but will no longer oversee day-to-day operations.

Blackwater recently rechristened itself “Xe” and is in the midst of a rebranding and restructuring effort following the loss of its coveted State Department contract in Iraq and the continued negative publicity following the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

Local Media Misses the Story on Blackwater (Again)

Once again, the Grand Rapids Press published a front page story on Blackwater, a private mercenary company founded by West Michigan native Erik Prince. However, like other stories published by the Press, it offers only limited criticism of Blackwater and generally functions as a beneficial PR piece for the company.

Last week Monday, The Grand Rapids Press ran an Associated Press (AP) article on the private mercenary firm Blackwater and its efforts to “rebrand” itself in light of criticism over the past year. The Press published the article under the title “Holland native Erik Prince displays Blackwater’s makeover” and ran it on its front page. However, as has been typical of the media’s coverage of Blackwater, the article never really presents any serious criticism of Blackwater’s record. This is typical of the local media’s reporting on Blackwater, with the Grand Rapids Press’ only original reporting on Blackwater offering limited criticism. When Erik Prince–who is a native of Holland, Michigan–spoke in Grand Rapids in May, the local media largely accepted restrictions on their behavior at the talk and never seriously challenged anything Prince said.

In light of such treatment, Mediamouse.org is reprinting an article by Jeremy Scahill titled “Blackwater’s Not Going Anywhere” that addressed the recent “makeover” of Blackwater:

It seems that executives from Blackwater Worldwide, the Bush Administration’s favorite hired guns in Iraq and Afghanistan, are threatening to pack up their M4 assault rifles, CS gas and Little Bird helicopters and go back to the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina whence they came. Or at least that’s how it is being portrayed in the media.

This story broke on July 21, when the Associated Press ran an article based on lengthy interviews with Blackwater’s top guns. Since then, the story has picked up considerable steam and generated a tremendous amount of buzz online and in the press. After all, Blackwater has long been a key part of the US occupation and has been at the center of several high-profile scandals and deadly incidents. Add to that its owner’s ties to the White House and the radical religious right in the United States and it is clear why this is news. On top of that, Barack Obama-a critic of Blackwater-had just completed a tour of Iraq, where he was touting his “withdrawal plan.”

Among the headlines: “Blackwater Plans Exit From Guard Work,” “Blackwater Getting Out Of Security Business,” “Blackwater Sounds Retreat From Private Security Business,” and “Blackwater to Leave Security Business.” One blogger slapped this headline on his post: “Blackwater, Worst Organization Since SS, To End Mercenary Work.”

Frankly, this is a whole lot of hype.

Anyone who thinks Blackwater is in serious trouble is dead wrong. Even if-and this is a big if-the company pulled out of Iraq tomorrow, here is the cold, hard fact: business has never been better for Blackwater, and its future looks bright. More on this in a moment.

Back to the matter at hand:

Complaining that negative media attention and Congressional and criminal investigations are hurting business and that the Blackwater name had become a catch-all target for antiwar protesters, the company’s brass told the AP Blackwater was shifting its focus to its other areas of government contracting, like law enforcement and military training, as well as logistics.

“The experience we’ve had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk,” said Erik Prince, Blackwater’s reclusive, 39-year-old founder and owner. Company president Gary Jackson said Blackwater has become like the “Coca-Cola” of war contractors, a brand representing all private companies servicing the Iraq occupation. Jackson charged the company had been falsely portrayed in the media, saying, “If [the media] could get it right, we might stay in the business.”

All of this sounds a bit like whining on a children’s playground.

Shame on journalists for not recognizing the noble work of the gallant heroes and patriots (who happen to be paid much more than US troops, have not been subjected to any system of law and can leave the war zone any moment they choose) and forcing Blackwater to consider abandoning its (very profitable, billion-dollar) charitable humanitarian campaign in Iraq. Remember, according to Blackwater, it is not a mercenary organization, it is a “Peace and Stability” operation employing “Global Stabilization Professionals.”

While they were at it, Jackson and Prince should have blamed those wretched seventeen Iraqi civilians who had the audacity to step in front of the bullets flying out of Blackwater’s weapons in Baghdad’s Nisour Square last September. After all, following those killings, Erik Prince told the US Congress that the only innocent people his men may have killed or injured in Iraq died as a result of “ricochets” and “traffic accidents.” If that is true, Nisour Square might have been the most lethal jaywalking incident in world history.

As for the current hype, the day after the AP story broke, Blackwater’s longtime spokesperson Anne Tyrrell was quick to clarify the matter. Blackwater, she said, has no immediate plans to exit the security business. “As long as we’re asked, we’ll do it,” she said. Meanwhile, the State Department, which renewed Blackwater’s contract for another year in April, says it has received no communication from the company indicating it is not going to continue on in Iraq. “They have not indicated to us that they are attempting to get out of our current contract,” said Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy.

As of 2005-2006, according to the company, about half of Blackwater’s business was made up of its security work in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and post-Katrina New Orleans. Today, Jackson says it is about 30 percent. “If I could get it down to 2 percent or 1 percent, I would go there,” he said in the interview.

Blackwater, like all companies operating in US war zones, is following political developments very closely. The company may be bracing for a possible shift in policy should Obama win in November. Blackwater could be contemplating resignation before termination. On the other hand, Obama has sent mixed messages on the future of war contractors under his Iraq policy. While he has been very critical of the war industry in general-and Blackwater specifically-he has also indicated he will not “rule out” using private armed contractors at least for a time in Iraq.

Perhaps Blackwater has already gotten what it needed from Iraq: more than a billion dollars in contracts and a bad-ass reputation, which has served it well. In May, Blackwater boasted of “two successive quarters of unprecedented growth.” Among its current initiatives:

Erik Prince’s private spy agency, Total Intelligence Solutions, is now open for business, placing capabilities once the sovereign realm of governments on the open market. Run by three veteran CIA operatives, the company offers “CIA-type services” to Fortune 1000 companies and governments.

Blackwater was asked by the Pentagon to bid for a share of a whopping $15 billion contract to “fight terrorists with drug-trade ties” in a US program that targets countries like Colombia, Bolivia, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The New York Times said it could be the company’s “biggest job” ever.

Blackwater is wrapping up work on its own armored vehicle, the Grizzly, as well as its Polar Airship 400, a surveillance blimp Blackwater wants to market to the Department of Homeland security for use in monitoring the US-Mexico border.

On top of this, Blackwater affiliate Greystone Ltd., registered offshore in Barbados, is an old-fashioned mercenary operation offering “personnel from the best militaries throughout the world” for hire by governments and private organizations. It also boasts of a “multi-national peacekeeping program,” with forces “specializing in crowd control and less than lethal techniques and military personnel for the less stable areas of operation.” Greystone’s name has been conspicuously absent in this current news cycle.

At the end of the day, maybe this is just a story, a whole lot of hype and a dash of misdirection from a pretty savvy company. Safe money would dictate that Blackwater plans on continuing to be, well, Blackwater.

Consider this: the other day Blackwater president Gary Jackson told the AP, “Security was not part of the master plan, ever.”

Interesting claim. It was, in fact, Jackson himself who, back at the beginning of the Iraq occupation, described his goal for Blackwater as such: “I would like to have the largest, most professional private army in the world.”

Blackwater CEO Avoids Having to Deal With the Press

On Monday, Erik Prince–West Michigan native and founder of the mercenary company Blackwater–delivered a highly scripted presentation about his company’s work to members of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids and the general public.

Yesterday, May 19, the Economic Club of Grand Rapids hosted CEO and founder of Blackwater Worldwide, West Michigan native Erik Prince. The event–which was sold out–was open to members of the Economic Club, the media, and members of the general public who paid $35 for tickets. Prince spoke to an audience of 750 people in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and was seated at a table that included David Van Andel, Richard DeVos, and Dick and Betsy DeVos. Erik Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, introduced him and told the audience that Erik’s life work has been to “protect those who are vulnerable.” There was time for a few questions at the end of the talk, but the media was not allowed to ask any questions and Prince declined to answer at least one of the questions posed to him.

Prince used a PowerPoint presentation for his talk. Its cover page had an image of a military base with bold text that read, “In Support of Security and Peace Everywhere.” Prince began his talk about trying to convince the audience that the use of private military contractors is nothing new and has been part of the US military since the Revolutionary War. He cited several examples including Sir Walter Raleigh, but his favorite example was that of Prussian militarist Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben. Prince also mentioned that some of the original firefighters in the US were private contractors, as were some US counterintelligence groups like the Pinkertons. He told the audience that the Pinkertons helped spoil a plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in Baltimore, but failed to mention that the Pinkertons were hired spies for “the Robber Barons” of the 19th and early 20th century and that they were hired to infiltrate and target organized labor.

Next, Prince turned his attention to Blackwater Worldwide and stated that they train 35,000 military/law enforcement personnel annually. He explained that their facility in North Carolina is used by local law enforcement all the time and that consequently it is not “secretive” as Blackwater’s critics charge. Prince then mentioned Blackwater’s involvement with an Afghan counter narcotics program, but fails to mention that since the US invasion of 2001 Afghanistan has become the number one producer of heroin. He also went out of his way to mention that Blackwater flew 11,000 missions in Afghanistan in support of US military last year and that they delivered Christmas packages to the troops. “Some people say they support the troops, well, we really support the troops,” Prince said.

Prince discussed other services that Blackwater provides, including a new vehicle they have developed called the Grizzly Armored Personnel Carrier, which he claims would better protect US troops from roadside bombs. Prince said that he hopes the Department of Defense will invest in their product.

The rest of Prince’s presentation consisted of defending what Blackwater does and how they exist to serve American interests. Prince said that 90% of their employees take an oath to the US and that despite the claims that his private contractors commit abuses, “we go above and beyond what is required” with government accountability. Prince stressed that Blackwater believes in “market efficiencies” and that his organization is best equipped to provide training and logistical support for the “new style of warfare that is being waged around the world.”

Prince ended his presentation by talking about all of Blackwater’s “humanitarian efforts,” from rescuing US troops to providing disaster relief aid. He even told the crowd that just a few days earlier while in Holland, he received a phone call from three missionaries from West Michigan who were in Kenya. They asked Prince if he could assist them in getting out of that country, since tensions had increased in recent months.

The 40-minute presentation by Prince was over and those in attendance filed out of the room. In many ways, this event was a perfect opportunity for Prince to speak to a crowd that was most likely sympathetic to the work of Blackwater, not so much on partisan terms, but because of the company’s “free market” claims. Prince said at one point during his talk that Blackwater was nothing more than a “robust temp agency.”

Unfortunately, for the public, the press was not able to able to engage the founder of Blackwater, instead we were sequestered upstairs where we would not even be within eyesight of the war profiteer. Moreover, the press was not allowed to use cameras or tape the event. Prince was therefore able to avoid having to talk about the shooting of Iraqi civilians last September that led to a Congressional investigation. Prince’s ability to avoid public scrutiny also means he could avoid talking about his support of and ties to far right groups such as the Family Research Council.

Over the past two years, Mediamouse.org has done numerous stories on Blackwater, Erik Prince, and the Prince family including analyses of the media’s coverage of Blackwater and an interview with Jeremy Scahill, the author of the acclaimed book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Click here to read more.

Iraq Blackwater Contract Extended


On Monday, the State Department announced that it is extending its contract with Blackwater for an additional year. Under the contract, the private military company will continue its role protecting State Department delegations in Iraq despite its involvement in several controversial incidents, including the killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad on September 16, 2007. Despite an ongoing investigation by the FBI and the military’s labeling the killing “a criminal event,” there have been no charges against Blackwater and many have argued that contractors–who operate outside of Iraqi law and are not covered by US military tribunals–are largely exempt from any oversight. Still, the Pentagon recently charged one contractor in Iraq under military law–a Canadian-Iraqi citizen who worked as a translator and is accused of stabbing another contractor in Iraq. Two other contractors have been punished under US civilian law, but no contractors have been punished for crimes harming Iraqis.

Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, who is a native of West Michigan, will be speaking in Grand Rapids on May 19 to the Grand Rapids Economic Club. Prince will speak at a luncheon open to members–who pay between $150 and $380 per year–of the Club. The general public, despite paying millions to Blackwater since its founding, is not invited.

Blackwater Founder to Speak in Grand Rapids

According to reports in various local corporate media outlets, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater USA will be speaking in Grand Rapids on May 19. Prince, who is a West Michigan native, will speak at a luncheon organized by the Grand Rapids Economic Club. According to the Grand Rapids Press, the speech was arranged by Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, who is on the board of the Economic Club. The luncheon is open only to members of the economic club. Media reports said that it is unclear if Prince will take questions and none mentioned if media will be allowed to cover the event. Erik Prince generally tries to stay out of the public spotlight and rarely makes public appearances or grants interviews.

For many, Blackwater–like Halliburton–has become one of the most well-known private contractors assisting the US occupation of Iraq. An estimated 150,000 private contractors are currently in Iraq and more than 1,100 have been killed. Blackwater, a private mercenary army, has been involved in a number of controversial incidents involving the killing of Iraqi civilians. Moreover, Blackwater has been awarded several lucrative contracts, including providing security for former head of the occupation L. Paul Bremer.

Last year, Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Blackwater: Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army spoke in Holland, Michigan. Mediamouse.org has a video of his speech as well as an interview for those seeking additional information on Blackwater.

Ehlers Helps Family with his Blackwater Ties


Grand Rapids area Representative Vernon Ehlers has been in the news for his role in a rescue of three Michigan women from an orphanage in Kenya. According to media reports, the father of two of the women contacted Representative Vern Ehlers for help after violence erupted around the orphanage. Ehlers than used his connections to contact Blackwater USA founder and West Michigan native Erik Prince. Prince’s company then provided three helicopters to rescue the women.

The story has resulted in positive press for Blackwater and Prince, a company that has received considerable coverage of its activities in Iraq since it was involved in the killing of innocent Iraqis in September. A story in the Greenville Daily News had the following praise for Blackwater:

“The Greenville couple decided they needed to try to bring in some serious rescue power and knew exactly where to turn next.

They contacted a friend, U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, and explained that they needed to try to contact Blackwater, a private military company founded in 1997 by Al Clark and Erik Prince.

After several telephone calls, last Friday Barb received a call from a relative of Prince’s. The relative said that Blackwater would be happy to take on the task of rescuing the three young missionaries.

“She gave me a phone number to call,” Barb said with a look of grateful remembrance.

It wasn’t long before Erik Prince himself arranged for three gassed up helicopters to swoop down and rescue the young women.

“They wouldn’t let them in there initially,” Barb said, recalling the terrifying situation as Blackwater was refused access to the international airport in Kenya.

But Sunday afternoon the Vander Meys received word that Blackwater had successfully picked up the three, along with some other international workers, and escorted them from the country on a 10-passenger plane – all for free.

“Blackwater has been really wonderful,” said Don, 78. “They’ve been getting a lot of negative publicity lately but they did something that no one else could.”

Aside from downplaying criticism of Blackwater’s role, the reporting is significant in that it acknowledges connections between Ehlers and Erik Prince. Last year, Ehlers dismissed criticism of Blackwater at a town hall meeting in Grand Rapids, stating that “they are not a cutthroat organization that goes around killing willy-nilly.” Prince’s family has also made modest financial contributions to Ehlers’ campaigns over the years.

Also absent from the story was any mention of Prince’s support and involvement in the religious right, and the role that may have played in helping convince him to rescue the women, who were working for the Grand Rapids-based Set Free Ministries.

Is Blackwater really in the crosshairs of the media?

Since early October there has been a significant amount of news coverage surrounding what the media calls the “private security company Blackwater” for allegations that they killed Iraqi civilians. The local and national news media were running stories on a daily basis in mid October about Blackwater, but despite all the attention there have been several issues that the mainstream media haven’t touched on or have only glossed that are central to understanding why function Blackwater plays in the foreign policy matters.

First, why is the world do we have private mercenaries doing the work that traditional US soldiers used to do? Blackwater and some 100 other companies are being contracted to make food for US troops, to build military bases, to wash the troops clothing, and to guard diplomats and other high profile people involved in the US occupation of Iraq. Why? Using Blackwater to “protect” US diplomats is just one example of the push to privatize anything and everything. Think of what Nestle and its subsidiary Ice Mountain have done by convincing communities in Michigan to let their company take water, put it in little bottles, and then sell it to the public to make a huge profit. That is privatization. Along comes a company like Blackwater and they convince the government that they can do a better job of killing people and then turn around and charge US taxpayers even more money than what is paid to US troops. In fact, Blackwater charges sometimes 5 or 10 times more than the cost would be if US troops were doing the same work. Well that makes about as much sense as paying $1.29 for a 10 oz. bottle of water don’t ya think?

It should be noted that this privatization of US military work did not begin with the current Bush administration. Some of these privatized services were done in the first Gulf War in 1990-91 under the Bush Sr. administration and the Clinton administration made an even larger component during operations in the former Yugoslavia and the Kosovo wars. At that time Halliburton was the biggest winner of private military contracts. The CEO of Halliburton during the Clinton years was Dick Cheney. The evolution of the privatization of the military is well documented in a book by P.W. Singer entitled Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. I mention this evolution because it is not a new phenomenon, but the does reflect the direction of more and more government policy.

The Grand Rapids Press in their October 15 editorial column said this about private mercenaries in Iraq, “Their presence allows the official military forces to make better use of their fighting resources. Troops who aren’t guarding a convoy or protecting a government official can be diverted to more urgent tasks, like fighting insurgents. Indeed, contractors have become an integral part of the armed American presence in Iraq.” While it is true that private mercenaries have become an “integral part of the armed American presence in Iraq” the Press editorialist doesn’t address why there is an armed US presence in Iraq in the first place.

So, only the most rabid ideologues believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Since most people would laugh at WMDs as the reason for the US invasion of Iraq, it does beg the question as to why we are actually there? If you are going read a book anytime in the near future or buy one for a friend as a gift, I suggest you read Naomi Klein’s newest book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein’s book is not just about why the US is in Iraq, but demonstrates that the fundamental reason for the US occupation of Iraq is to make sure that the wealth of Iraq doesn’t benefit Iraqis, rather it should benefit global capitalists – oil companies, banks, investors, etc. This is why L. Paul Bremer was brought in to run Iraq in 2003. Bremer re-wrote the Iraqi constitution in such a way as to be favorable to foreign investors. Bremer called for the privatization of numerous sectors of the Iraqi economy and made sure that the “reconstruction” of Iraq would benefit the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater. In fact, Blackwater’s first assignment in Iraq was to guard Bremer. Bremer was so impressed with Blackwater and believed so deeply in private mercenary forces that his last act as defacto dictator in Iraq in 2004 was to pass Order 17, which gave private mercenary forces immunity from prosecution…another one of those minor omissions in recent news coverage of the Blackwater shootings in Iraq.

Some readers might be thinking, “but the news coverage has been really been bad for Blackwater. Blackwater CEO Erik Prince has been on 60 Minutes, the Today Show and CNN and the Iraqis are now suing Blackwater for millions of dollars.” True enough, Blackwater is up against the ropes but it is important to remember that one of the reasons that we are seeing the CEO of Blackwater on CNN, the Today Show and 60 Minutes is because Blackwater hired the PR firm of Burson-Marsteller before Prince appeared in front of Congress in order to do crisis management for the company. Burson-Marsteller has worked for the tobacco industry, the Department of Homeland Security, and acted as a lobbyist for the government of Saudi Arabia to downplay human rights abuses in order to get US aid. (See The Torturers’ Lobby, by Pamela Brogan.) And even if Blackwater is kicked out of Iraq we are still faced with the fact that another 100 private mercenary companies are still operating in Iraq and US taxpayers are footing the bill.

One last omission in recent news coverage of the Blackwater scandal has been the local connection of Erik Prince. Again, it’s not that there is no mention of the Prince family history, but what has been reported is of little substance. The Congressional hearings did produce some questions as to Erik Prince’s relationship with the DeVos family, but this was marginal. The local Indy media news site MediaMouse.org has extensive information and links on the Prince and DeVos family influence under “the Far Right in West Michigan” section. What you will find is that both families have funded numerous rightwing projects for years and wield tremendous influence in the Republican Party and Christian Right circles. This influence has not been explored in the local news coverage of Blackwater. However, there was one editorial column by GR Press editor Mike Llyod on October 7 that was quite instructive.

In his column Llyod cites 2nd Congressional District Representative Pete Hoekstra as his only source. It also says that Hoekstra himself has been guarded by Blackwater mercenaries in trips to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Hoekstra goes on to say that Prince was treated unfairly during the Congressional hearing, that Hoekstra’s in district director, Bill Huizenga, is a good friend of Erik Prince, and that Hoekstra himself talks with Prince on a regular basis for intelligence advice. Hoekstra said, “I’ve called him, and he’s called me. Erik has people on the ground all the time. I get a different perspective from him than I do from our own military.” Do you think this is good practice for legislators, especially one that was the former head of the House Intelligence Committee, to have regular phone conversations with a private security contractor about what was happening in Iraq?

Whatever the outcome with the Blackwater shootings in Iraq it is important that we get independent information on what role this company and other private mercenary groups have in the larger US foreign policy strategy. A great book on Blackwater is by journalist Jeremy Scahill entitled Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Scahill was in Holland this past May. Media Mouse did an interview with him and taped his lecture, both of which can be heard online.