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“Our corporate goal is to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did to the Postal Service.”
– Erik Prince CEO of Blackwater USA
As the war in Iraq continues and the US Congress sheepishly debates withdrawal dates and timelines, it would do all of us good to understand the growing significance of private mercenaries, also known as private security forces. Few people have done as much investigation into this growing phenomenon as has Jeremy Scahill. He has been reporting and writing on the use of private mercenaries in Iraq and New Orleans in The Nation magazine and for Democracy Now!. His new book–Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army–on the largest private mercenary firm, Blackwater, comes at a time when the anti-war movement needs a more sophisticated analysis of the US war in Iraq and the so-called War on Terrorism.
The founder and CEO of Blackwater is Erik Prince, son of Edgar Prince, the now deceased businessman from Holland, Michigan. Prince’s background as a Western Michigander is not just limited to geography, the brother of Betsy DeVos has also embraced the conservative religious beliefs that his family promoted zealous, particularly with their money. Erik began his political career working as an intern for Gary Bauer at the Family Research Council and also worked in the Bush I White House, although he thought that this administration was too liberal. Prince disapproved of the Bush I administration to the extent that in 1992 he supported Patrick Buchanan for President, something that got him into trouble with his sister Betsy.
Unlike his family, which is part of the Christian Reformed Church, Erik Prince is a Catholic. He most likely became Catholic when he married his first wife, who died of cancer shortly after they were married. Interestingly enough, most of the leadership at Blackwater is also Catholic, albeit a conservative wing of the church that is quite reactionary. Erik Prince is personally connected to conservative Catholic groups like Catholic Answer, Crisis magazine, and a Grand Rapids-based group, the Acton Institute. But Prince has not abandoned his Protestant/Evangelical roots and is a close friend of Watergate criminal turned believer Chuck Colson. They have shared the podium on several occasions, even once at Calvin College. According to Scahill, Prince is aligning himself with a new Catholic/Evangelical alliance called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The ECT manifesto states:
“The century now drawing to a close has been the greatest century of missionary expansion in Christian history. We pray and we believe that this expansion has prepared the way for yet greater missionary endeavor in the first century of the Third Millennium. The two communities in world Christianity that are most evangelistically assertive and most rapidly growing are Evangelicals and Catholics.”
Prince’s relationship to what Scahill calls the “Theocon” movement is not marginal. Prince himself writes about this relationship and it’s importance, particularly with the mission of Blackwater. Prince says “Everybody carries guns, just like the Prophet Jeremiah rebuilding the temple in Israel – a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.”
The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to an understanding of Prince’s creation known as Blackwater. Prince was a Navy Seal himself during the 1990s and felt that security issues were paramount for the future of the US. Blackwater was created in 1997, but its growth was influenced by several events in the years following. The first major event to propel Blackwater to the forefront of the “security” debate was the school shootings at Columbine in 1999. Blackwater responded by building a training facility called “R U Ready High” and that became a major training center for local law enforcement training on rapid response to such incidents. The second event was the attack against the USS Cole in October of 2000. With Prince’s connection to the Navy, he was able to negotiate a contract worth $35.7 million to conduct “force protection training.” However, the biggest incident that propelled Blackwater to its current status were the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Blackwater was quickly providing training and gaining contracts with the FBI, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Treasury and even the Department of Health and Human Services. These connections eventually led to the agency’s work in Iraq, which landed them their most high profile contract – guarding Paul Bremer in Iraq. This no-bid contract was worth $27.7 million that included “personal security detail and two helicopters for Bremer.” Not surprising, Bremer is also Catholic and has maintained an intimate relationship with Prince and Blackwater even after his reign in Iraq. This symbiotic relationship led Bremer to create Order 17 as his last political act in Iraq. Order 17 in effect protects those in the private mercenary business from being prosecuted from any wrongdoing. Once Blackwater made a name for themselves in Iraq business really took off.
Then Fallujah happened. Several Blackwater contractors were killed in what Scahill documents as a botched mission. This didn’t stop the administration and Blackwater in using the Blackwater deaths as justification for a massive military assault on that city just after the 2004 Presidential election. Blackwater used the incident to hire its first lobbyist, Paul Behrends, from the Republican lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group. Here Prince’s religious right connection paid off. Behrends was on the board of Christian Freedom International (CFI) with Prince for years. The CFI was founded by veterans from the Reagan administration, many of who were “major players in the Iran-Contra scandal.” This lobbying certainly paid off.
Blackwater was able to expand in step with where US foreign policy interest lay. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the US set up military bases in the Caspian region. In Azerbaijan, Blackwater “would be tasked with establishing and training an elite Azeri force modeled after the US Navy SEALs that would ultimately protect the interests of the US and its allies in a hostile region.” This all occurred during a time when the US State Department said there were “restriction[s] on the right of citizens to peacefully change their government; torture and beating of persons in custody; arbitrary arrests and detention, particularly of political opponents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; excessive use of force to disperse demonstrations; and police impunity.”
This constant growth for Blackwater posed a problem, in that they were not able to keep up with the growing demand for training and providing mercenary forces for “security duty.” Again Prince turned to his past connections. He was stationed for a period of time in Chile while in the US military. It was here that he tapped into another military source. Jose Miguel Pizarro was an ex-military man in Chile that Prince knew. Pizarro, an ardent defender of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinichet eventually became Blackwater’s main recruiter for mercenaries from Latin America. Soon, other Chilean mercenaries, Colombians and Hondurans would become contract workers for Blackwater in Iraq. This raises interesting questions about the type of people that Blackwater employs, considering many of them have worked as part of military or Para-military organizations with brutal track records.
Blackwater was also able to tap into veterans of the US intelligence community. Cofer Black a 37-year veteran of the CIA, was hired by Blackwater in February of 2005 as the company’s vice chairman. Black had been appointed by Bush as his “coordinator of counterterrorism, with the rank of at large ambassador at the State Department.” Soon after that the company scored another big insider in the person of Joseph Schmitz. Schmitz, before joining Blackwater was tasked with the job of overseeing all war contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Schmitz, whose connection to war profiteers was well known, determined after his investigation that “there was no wrong doing” with any of the private contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan. For those who have seen the documentary Iraq for Sale, you know this to be a bold lie. Shortly after Schmitz exonerated his friends in the war profiting industry he announced that he was going to work for Blackwater.
Schmitz is also part of the inner circle of Theocons with Prince. In a 2004 speech Schmitz said “No American today should ever doubt that we hold ourselves accountable to the rule of law under God. Here lies the fundamental difference between us and the terrorists.” Schmitz is a member of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, “a Christian militia formed in the eleventh century, before the first Crusades, with the mission of defending territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems.” In addition, Schmitz is a devotee to someone who fought alongside of George Washington, the Prussian militarist Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben. “Von Steuben is one of four men often cited by Blackwater officials as founding mercenaries of the United States.” Erik Prince and the other Blackwater leadership, like Joseph Schmitz, think they are following in that tradition.
As Scahill’s book was going to press he noted that Blackwater is now in the process of building 2 more facilities in the US – Illinois and California – and a jungle training facility in the Philippines. Those of us who are trying to have a healthy analysis of the US war in Iraq, the War on Terrorism and US foreign policy in general, would do well to read this book.
Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, (Nation Books, 2007).