Monday, March 26, 2007

America's Private Army

Contrary to popular belief, Britain is not the second largest player in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. That honor belongs to Blackwater USA the increasinly well-known "private military contractor"firm. Blackwater has 48,000 private soldiers in Iraq, about six times the number of soldiers provided by the Brits. The use of the term "mercenary" is disputed by Blackwater:

Blackwater objects to the use of the m-word for its employees, preferring the term "private military contractors." For one thing, "mercenary" is not accurate. Private military contractors in Iraq do not execute offensive operations--they only provide security, and their rules of engagement are to use proportionate force only when attacked.


In fact, Blackwater objects to its personnel being tarred as mercenaries mainly because they regard it as an assault on their character and their professionalism. "We're in nine different countries," says Chris Taylor, "probably have about 2,300 people deployed today, another 21,000 in our database, and these are people the majority of whom have already had a career in public service, either military or law enforcement, who are honorably discharged, who have any number of medals for heroism. Yet we still have to face critics who say everybody is a mercenary--they're only out for a buck."
One might question why they felt the need to leave the military for Blackwater if they were motivated by pure idealism as Taylor tends to imply. It's also hard to ignore that Blackwater contractors make $100,000 during the six months out of the year that they deploy to Iraq. But the Weekly Standard article offers assurances of Blackwater's good intentions:

He hardly fits the soldier of fortune archetype. He is a staunch Christian--his father helped James Dobson found Focus on the Family--and his politically conservative views are well known in Washington, where Prince supports a number of religious and right-leaning causes. He attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, a font of conservative ideology, where he is remembered for being the first undergraduate at the small liberal arts school to serve on the local volunteer fire department. (The only book on the shelf in the boardroom of Blackwater's Northern Virginia offices is a copy of the eminent conservative historian Paul Johnson's A History Of The American People.)

Nobody can say Prince is in it for the money, either. His father Edgar started a small die-cast shop in Holland, Michigan, in 1965. Along the way he patented the now-ubiquitous lighted vanity mirror in automobile visors; a year after his 1995 death, the family company sold for over $1 billion, an enormous inheritance for Erik and his sisters.

So he's a right-wing fundamentalist Christian multi-millionaire? Why is this left-leaning working class atheist not comforted by the thought of a guy like that commanding his own private army of former Navy SEALs and Marine infantrymen? Must be something in the water.

Perhaps the Weekly Standard was playing to its audience a bit, but fundamentalist Christians who get into positions of power (see: George W. Bush) tend to believe that their power is due to divine will, and thus that they are above the laws of man in how they use that power. And what sort of power does Mr. Prince have? According to the same article:

* A burgeoning logistics operation that can deliver 100- or 200-ton self-contained humanitarian relief response packages faster than the Red Cross.

* A Florida aviation division with 26 different platforms, from helicopter gunships to a massive Boeing 767. The company even has a Zeppelin.

* The country's largest tactical driving track, with multi-surface, multi-elevation positive and negative cambered turns, a skid pad, and a ram pad for drivers learning how to escape ambushes.

* A 20-acre manmade lake with shipping containers that have been mocked up with ship rails and portholes, floating on pontoons, used to teach how to board a hostile ship.

* A K-9 training facility that currently has 80 dog teams deployed around the world. Ever wondered how to rappel down the side of nine stacked shipping containers with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd dog strapped to your chest? Blackwater can teach you.

* A 1,200-yard-long firing range for sniper training.

* A sizable private armory. The one gun locker I saw contained close to 100 9mm handguns--mostly military issue Beretta M9s, law enforcement favorite Austrian Glocks, and Sig Sauers.

* An armored vehicle still in development called the Grizzly; the prototype's angular steel plates are ferocious-looking. The suspension is being built by one of Black water's North Carolina neighbors--Dennis Anderson, monster truck champion and the man responsible for the "Grave Digger" (the ne plus ultra of monster trucks).

Some might be concerned that Prince, or perhaps one of his successors, might one day have an axe to grind with a future administration, especially after the Iraq War ends and their fat contracts go away, and all these "private military contractors" still have families to feed. For a guy with helicopter gunships, armored personnel carriers, and tens of thousands of highly trained ex-Marines and SEALs at his beck and call, all of whom were "willing to drink the Blackwater Kool-aid", as Blackwater's vice president for strategic initiatives Chris Taylor put it, the step from "CEO" to "war lord" is rather short. The checks and balances that prevent the President of the United States from becoming a military dictator don't apply to CEOs of "private military contractors". And while Blackwater USA may not currently engage in offensive operations, they are more than capable of carrying them out in the future. If there was a militia out there with an armory this big, the ATF would have raided them by now. Or more accurately, the ATF would have tried to raid them by now.

All of this as the Iraq War weakens our actual military.

But it's not just soldiers who are crossing over to Blackwater:

A number of senior CIA and Pentagon officials have taken top jobs at Blackwater, including firm vice chairman Cofer Black, who was the Bush Administration's top counterterrorism official at the time of the 9/11 attacks (and who famously said in 2002, “There was before 9/11 and after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves came off.”) Robert Young Pelton, author of the new book, Licensed to Kill, says that an early Blackwater contract—a secret no-bid $5.4 million deal with the CIA—came in 2002 after Prince placed a call to Buzzy Krongard, who was then the CIA's executive director.

A CIA source with whom I spoke said that Prince is very tight with top agency officials and has a “green badge,” the security pass for contractors who have access to CIA installations. “He's over there [at CIA headquarters] regularly, probably once a month or so,” this person told me. “He meets with senior people, especially in the D.O.” (The D.O., or Directorate of Operations, runs covert operations; last year, it was absorbed by the newly created National Clandestine Service.)

Some have speculated that Blackwater USA is actually a CIA front. That would probably be a best-case scenario, unless one takes Mr. Prince at his heart-of-gold word.

Last year, I discussed the Army recruiting gangbangers and neo-Nazis to fight in Iraq, as well as American cities' lack of preparedness for a major disaster. Urban warfare in the U.S. combating gangs or hate groups who've received training in heavy weaponry from our military might be the next logical step for Blackwater USA after the Iraq War ends. Best case, they'll be training U.S. law enforcement personnel. Worst case, they'll be duking it out with the gangbangers and skinheads themselves... for a price.

In short, there are a lot of potentially disastrous after-effects that spring out from a private army like Blackwater building up inside of the U.S. The time to curtail its exponential growth would appear to be now, before their military capabilities outmatch our own. While we try to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Sunni insurgents in Iraq, we may be feeding the single-greatest existential threat to the U.S. right here at home, much like we did with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein back in the 80s.

I recognize the value in having a company available to provide training to military and law enforcement personnel, and in that regard, Blackwater USA could be a major asset. My concern lies with any company or person maintaining a private army this large. Congress should be concerned, as well. Blackwater is not sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Their loyalty lies with the almighty... dollar.

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