“Osama bin Laden turned Blackwater into what it is today,” Clark said.
The Cole bombing settled the company’s internal debate: Blackwater would
quit foraging for civilian business and start going for federal contracts in a
"We were at about 20-something emplyees," Jackson said.
"The Cole was bombed, and the
Navy did a bottom-up review and looked at their processes, their
procedures, their tactics, and they found out that there were some glaring
holes. The young sailor was not getting the training with live firearms.”
The Navy, along with the other services, had been downsized in anticipation
of a post-Cold War “peace dividend.”
“They lost most of their firearms instructors,” Jackson said. “So they
called us up and asked us, could we train up to 20,000 students in a prescribed
amount of time … and I said, 'Sure.’ And we did it.”
Blackwater trained 50,000 sailors under that five-year contract. Today, it
trains more than 40,000 people a year from a variety of agencies – including
all the military services – at its Moyock compound, which it says is the
largest tactical training facility in the world. At least 90 percent of its
revenue comes from government contracts.
While the company had struggled early on, its timing was excellent. Several
forces had created a perfect storm for the rise of the private military
Instead of peace, the end of the Cold War created a power vacuum and a
chaotic world order, putting millions of former soldiers out on the market. At
the same time, there was a growing trend toward privatization of government
functions. The result: a $100 billion-a-year global business.
Most of the work is mundane, supporting troops in the field by cooking the
meals, doing the laundry and driving the trucks. Blackwater’s sliver of the
industry – accounting for roughly 5 percent of total revenues – provides
tactical military services. Other major players in that field include DynCorp
International and Triple Canopy in the United States and ArmorGroup
International and Aegis Defense Services in Britain.
In the lingo of military wonks, Blackwater and its competitors are at the
“tip of the spear.”
In the year since the Cole attack, training had dominated the company’s
mission. After 9/11, the focus began to veer toward on-the-ground security
January 2002 brought the start-up of a new division, Blackwater Security
Consulting, which quickly landed its first assignment, a classified contract
still in force today. The company won’t talk about who the client is or what
the work entails.
It is known that Blackwater security teams have been dispatched to the Middle
East, Asia, South America and Africa.
Contacts can help pave the way for work. Private military companies often
pepper their ranks with influential names, and Blackwater plays that game as
well as anyone. Last year Prince, a major Republican campaign contributor,
snagged two heavyweights as they came through Washington’s revolving doors.
Cofer Black, a career CIA and State Department official, is now
Blackwater’s vice chairman. Joseph Schmitz, a former inspector general at the
Pentagon, is the Prince Group’s chief operating officer and general counsel.
Connections are desirable at any level. Blackwater employee Gloria Shytles
recently won a Republican primary for a seat on Currituck County’s Board of
Commissioners. Shytles is one of the company’s “lead detailers,”
responsible for matching contractors with missions.
As Blackwater’s federal contracts have soared into the hundreds of
millions, its revenues and profits can only be guessed at, since the company is
But Blackwater says it’s more about patriotism than profit.
“We’re a force for good,” said Taylor, a beefy former Marine who has
been with the company four years. “We are working in support of freedom and
democracy around the world.
“It’s intoxicating. This is the best place to work in the world.”
It got even better in March 2003, when President Bush expanded the “global
war on terror” to Iraq, providing yet more fuel for Blackwater’s meteoric
It also got more complicated.
On May 1, 2003, President Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier
Lincoln under a "Mission Accomplished" banner and declared:
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
But it was just the beginning for private military companies and their
missions in Iraq.
U.S. government agencies coming in to rebuild the shattered country expected
a benign environment. Instead, they found a cauldron of violence. As insurgent
attacks steadily escalated, millions of dollars were diverted from
reconstruction to security, opening up a huge new market for the private
One of the first companies to jump in was Blackwater USA.
Executives of the North Carolina-based company landed a meeting with Paul
Bremer III, the diplomat chosen by Bush to head the Coalition Provisional
Authority, Iraq's interim government.
"Nobody had really figured out exactly how they were going to get him
from D.C. and stand him up in Iraq," Blackwater President Gary Jackson
said. "The Secret Service went over and did an assessment and said, 'You
know what? It's much, much more dangerous than any of us believed.' So they came
back to us."
In August 2003, Blackwater was awarded a $21 million no-bid contract to guard
Bremer, and U.S. agencies have been tapping the Blackwater well ever since. The
company now has about 1,000 contractors in Iraq - the most it has ever had.
Other players also have rushed in to meet the demand. Last month, the
government estimated that there were at least 180 security companies operating
in Iraq with more than 48,000 employees - the largest private military
deployment in history.
In the first Gulf War 15 years ago, the ratio of private contractors to
troops was 1 to 60; in the current war, it's 1 to 3.
In fact, the private sector has put more boots on the ground in Iraq than all
of the United States' coalition partners combined. One scholar, Peter Singer of
the Brookings Institution, suggests that Bush's "coalition of the
willing" would be more aptly described as the "coalition of the
Those bills are in the billions and rising.
Blackwater alone has won $505 million in publicly identifiable federal
contracts since 2000, according to an online government database. About
two-thirds of that amount was in no-bid contracts.
The bulk of those are with the State Department, which has used the company
to guard its ambassadors in Iraq since Bremer's provisional government was
disbanded in mid-2004.
Federal regulations allow agencies to bypass competitive bidding in cases of
"unusual and compelling urgency" - which just happens to be
Blackwater's stock in trade.
"When there is a crisis," Jackson said, "they have a tendency
to call us first."
Why does Blackwater get so much federal work? Company officials say it's
because of their strong track record. The organization's high-level political
connections certainly don't hurt.
Blackwater declined to discuss the particulars of its work in Iraq, but Brian
Leventhal, a State Department spokesman, said the company's contracts were
awarded under "emergency conditions." Competitive bids were sought in
May and are now being reviewed, he said.
The mushrooming presence of private security contractors on the battlefield
is uncharted territory, spawning a difficult set of questions about conflicting
objectives, poor coordination and lack of accountability.
As the United States and the global community struggle for answers,
Blackwater - once again - finds itself in the middle of the fray.
In Iraq, Blackwater's security teams stepped into a world that has been
widely compared to the Wild West.
In defense-speak, it's a "complex battle space," shared by a
dizzying array of players: military forces, government agencies, humanitarian
groups, contractors, insurgents and Iraqi civilians just trying to get through
When Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes did a stint in Iraq in early 2004, he
encountered them all. Hammes was assigned to help set up bases for the newly
reconstituted Iraqi armed forces. On several occasions, he crossed paths with
Blackwater convoys escorting Bremer.
They did a professional job, he said, but they used "very
aggressive" tactics in protecting the "principal" - security
lingo for the VIP under guard, also known as the "package" or
"I was in an Iraqi army civilian vehicle at the time so we were treated
as Iraqis" by the Blackwater contractors, Hammes said in an e-mail
interview. "... The very act of guarding a principal - forcing his convoy
through traffic, keeping all Iraqis away from the vehicle - irritated the
Blackwater accomplished its mission: keeping Bremer alive. But, Hammes said,
it did nothing to help further the larger U.S. goal of winning Iraqi hearts and
"The Iraqis perceived the armed contractors as being above the
law," he said. "They felt if a U.S. soldier or Marine did something
wrong, he might eventually be held accountable for it. They believed contractors
would simply fly out of the country.... They don't seem to be held responsible
by any authority."
Since the start of the war in March 2003, no private military contractors
have been charged with - let alone convicted of - a crime in Iraq.
Unlike military personnel, dozens of whom have been charged with crimes in
Iraq, private contractors are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military
Chris Taylor, a Blackwater vice president, said the company doesn't want its
workers subjected to the military justice system because of possible
"institutional biases" against contractors.
Under an order issued by Bremer that remains in effect, contractors are also
generally immune from Iraqi law for acts performed while carrying out their
jobs. Contractors might or might not be covered by civilian U.S. law, depending
on which agencies they work for.
According to the Raleigh News & Observer, which reviewed voluntary
reports filed with the government during a nine-month period in 2004-05,
contractors fired into 61 Iraqi civilian vehicles.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Blackwater contractors fired
into a taxi at a Baghdad intersection in May 2005, killing a passenger and
wounding the driver. A review by the U.S. Embassy found that two contractors had
not followed proper procedures and they were fired, a U.S. official told the
Asked about the shooting, Taylor said: "To the best of my knowledge, it
after a car bombing last year in Baghdad, a Blackwater helicopter hovers
over the area. The company's air fleet consists of 25 planes and
choppers, all of which belong to its aviation affiliate, Presidential
Airways. MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/GETTY
Amid the crazy quilt of actors in the Iraq war zone, trigger-pullers
on the same side sometimes end up shooting at each other.
A report last year by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional
watchdog agency, found many instances of "blue on white" violence:
U.S. troops firing on contractors or, less often, contractors firing on troops.
In one five-month period in early 2005, there were 20 such incidents reported.
They were so frequent that reports weren't always filed, investigators were
Communication appears to be better these days. The GAO reported that there
were just 12 incidents of friendly fire filed from June 2005 to June 2006. But
relations between the military and private sectors are still rocky.
U.S. military commanders have authority over private contractors within the
confines of military installations. One Army officer told the GAO that his unit
had barred some security contractors from the mess hall because they insisted on
carrying loaded weapons.
Outside the bases, contractors operate independently of the military chain of
command - a fact that gives some officers heartburn. Two examples in the GAO
report bear strong resemblance to known Blackwater incidents, but the report did
not name the companies involved:
- An Army officer said security providers escorted the Coalition Provisional
Authority administrator into his squadron's area of operations without the
military's knowledge, got involved in a firefight and had to be rescued.
- A division commander didn't know several contractors were operating in his
area until he was instructed to recover the bodies after they had been killed.
Taylor said the establishment of regional operations centers in Iraq where
contractors can voluntarily coordinate their activities with military commanders
has helped smooth out the rough spots.
"As with anything in a conflict zone, there are speed bumps," he
said. "Lessons are learned. This gets better and better all the time."
The GAO also found that there are no established U.S. or international
standards for contractor training, experience, weapons qualifications or other
skills. The International Peace Operations Association, a Washington-based trade
group of 24 military contractors including Blackwater, agrees standards are
needed - with a caveat.
"We're all for that, but you have to have some flexibility built into
the system," said Doug Brooks, the association's president. "Most of
the work in terms of security is doing things like guarding gates and
perimeters. And you really don't need a James Bond to guard a gate."
Amnesty International issued a report in May asserting that the United
States' "war outsourcing" has created a "virtual rules-free
zone" for contractors. The organization cited a survey of 60 publicly
available Iraq military and reconstruction contracts. Not one explicitly
required that contractors obey international human rights law.
"There's a culture of impunity," said Mila Rosenthal, director of
the business and human rights program at Amnesty International USA.
Rosenthal points out that some of the interrogators accused of abuses at Abu
Ghraib prison were private contractors. So far, none have been punished.
"It sends the message that you can do whatever you want over there and
get away with it," she said.
No Blackwater personnel were among those implicated in the Abu Ghraib
Taylor said the training regimen for his company's contractors includes
instruction in ethics and international humanitarian law. Each contractor is
given a 55-page handbook that lays out applicable laws regarding murder,
torture, humiliating and degrading treatment, human trafficking and destruction
of religious and cultural facilities.
"We constantly reinforce to our people their obligations under
humanitarian law," Taylor said. "When there is chaos and conflict,
there will always be a difficult environment."
Taylor acknowledged that because of his company's high profile, the margin
for error is especially small.
"It does not behoove us to cut corners or break laws," he said.
"Everybody's looking at us. Because we're Blackwater, we extra can't do
Concerns about financial accountability are growing right along with
the increased workload being shouldered by private military companies.
The GAO found that none of the major federal agencies operating in Iraq - the
State Department, the Defense Department or the U.S. Agency for International
Development - has complete data on the cost of using private security providers.
There is wide agreement, even within the industry, that the government is
ill-equipped to guard against waste, fraud and abuse. In March, a federal jury
found Custer Battles, a Northern Virginia-based security company, guilty of
defrauding the Iraqi interim government and ordered it to pay more than $10
million in damages and fines.
"If you're going to outsource this much, you've got to have the
oversight capability," said Brooks, the trade-group spokesman. "We've
downsized our oversight. We don't have enough contract officers."
U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., one of several members of Congress who have
taken an interest in the issue, has been trying for a year to get a
contractor-oversight bill enacted.
"The administration needs to get its act together on this," Price
said. "There's been a certain kind of legal twilight zone that these guys
have been operating in, and the military commanders have too often, it seems,
not known exactly what was going on."
Congressional frustration boiled over at a hearing in Washington last month
when members of a House subcommittee grilled security company spokesmen and
government officials for five hours.
Blackwater's Taylor and representatives of two other companies were peppered
with questions about their revenues, contracts, training and hiring practices.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said there is an "astonishing lack of
accountability for the billions of dollars being spent on private security
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., complained that he asked the Pentagon 18 months
ago for a cost accounting of Iraq contracts awarded to Blackwater and three
other companies and has been "stonewalled" ever since.
The criticism was bipartisan.
"Some conservatives are starting to wonder if this misadventure in Iraq
isn't more about money for defense contractors than it is about security,"
said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn.
One exchange with a Pentagon official left Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio,
"If someone connected with a private contracting company was involved in
murdering a civilian," Kucinich asked, "would the department be ready
to recommend their prosecution?"
Shay Assad, a senior contracting official in the Defense Department, replied:
"Sir, I'm just not qualified to answer that question."
"Wow, think about what that means," Kucinich said. "Private
contractors can get away with murder."
Industry spokesmen say they welcome regulation - up to a point.
At a recent conference in Washington, Blackwater Vice Chairman Cofer Black
said his company is "not fly-by-night; we're not tricksters. We are all for
oversight of an industry like ours."
He also said there are limits to what the company would support. For example,
he said, putting contractors under the military chain of command might pose
problems when the client is a nonmilitary agency.
Blackwater's major client in Iraq is the State Department, so that's where
the company gets its marching orders.
"We are responsible to who hired us," Black said. "You have to
leave the dance with the one that brought you."
In an e-mail interview, Blackwater founder Erik Prince said: "Given the
sensational tone of the media coverage our industry receives, it is
understandable that there are calls for more regulation."
In the end, though, an unfettered marketplace is self-regulating, Prince
"Those companies or individuals who disregard the moral, ethical, and
legal high ground are not long for this industry.... We want to reduce
opportunities for abuse without constraining the flexibility that makes our
industry so valuable."
That industry was churning along with little public scrutiny until a
Blackwater convoy found itself lost on a spring day in 2004 near a bridge over
the historic Euphrates River.
Helvenston-Wettengel, whose son and his three colleagues were killed in
2004 in Fallujah, says Blackwater sent them ''on a suicide mission.''
The four families are suing the company for damages. CHRIS
CURRY / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
with Katy Helvenston-Wettengel, mother of slain Blackwater contractor
It was the lynching seen around the world.
On March 31, 2004, an American convoy was ambushed by insurgents in Fallujah,
a hotbed of Iraqi rage over the U.S. presence. The four men escorting the convoy
in two Mitsubishi SUVs were killed in a fusillade of small-arms fire. A furious
mob set the vehicles ablaze, dragged the bodies out and partly dismembered them.
Two were strung up from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
The entire episode was captured on film and aired worldwide.
The four dead Americans were not soldiers. They were civilians working for
North Carolina-based Blackwater USA. The nation learned with a horrifying jolt
that there was something new going on here: Modern warfare was being privatized.
The Fallujah ambush had profound consequences on two fronts:
In Iraq, it irrevocably altered the course of the war. U.S. military
commanders, who had no advance knowledge of the convoy’s presence in Fallujah,
were ordered by Washington to change tactics and pound the city into submission,
inflaming the Iraqi insurgency to new heights.
Blackwater also is the target of a lawsuit involving three servicemen killed
in a plane crash in Afghanistan in November 2004. Citing the pending litigation,
Blackwater declined to discuss either incident.
“Out of respect for the judicial process and out of respect for the
families, we just won’t comment,” said company vice president Chris Taylor.
But in court papers, the company has laid out its defense in sweeping terms.
Blackwater is arguing that although it is a private company, it has become an
essential and indistinguishable cog in the military machine and, like the
military, should be immune from liability for casualties in a war zone.
At stake, Blackwater says, is nothing less than the authority of the
president, as commander in chief of the armed forces, to wage war as he sees
The plaintiffs say it’s all about corporate greed, unaccountability and a
private army run amok.
Things do go wrong in a violent business like Blackwater’s.
A memorial garden on the Moyock compound attests to that. A ring of 25 large
stones encircles a pond. Each one bears the chiseled name of a fallen
The company’s casualties are among more than 500 civilian contractors who
have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of the fighting –
roughly one-sixth of U.S. fatalities and more than twice as many as have been
suffered by all of America’s coalition partners combined.
When a military service member is killed on the battlefield, a public
announcement is made within 48 hours. The service member is entitled to burial
in Arlington National Cemetery with a 21-gun salute and a bugler playing taps.
An American flag is draped over the casket and presented to the next of kin.
When a private contractor dies, there is no fanfare. There is not even an
official list of contractor casualties. The identities of the dead trickle out
as their families come forward.
In a sense, it is the 21st century incarnation of the Unknown Soldier.
Taylor said the company’s policy of not identifying casualties is based on
privacy concerns for their families.
“They have the choice of how they will honor the service and commitment of
their loved ones,” he said.
Compared to soldiers, Taylor said, even wounded contractors “don’t enjoy
a respectful status. How do you tell a guy who’s just lost his arm and eye
escorting someone that just because he’s no longer wearing a uniform, he’s
any less noble?”
With his tousled blond hair, Hollywood face and muscular build, Scott
Helvenston was a walking advertisement for the Navy SEALs.
The Florida native joined the Navy on his 17th birthday and became the
youngest-ever recruit to finish the rigorous training for the elite commando
While stationed at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base and living in the North
End of Virginia Beach, he met a local girl, Patricia Irby. They were married in
the base chapel in 1988, settled in San Diego and had two children.
Helvenston spent 12 years in the Navy, about half that time as a SEAL
instructor. He was also a world champion pentathlete , fitness trainer and movie
stuntman who coached Demi Moore for her role in the film “G.I. Jane.”
In March 2004, recently divorced and looking to make some short-term cash
while waiting to start a new job, Helvenston signed on with Blackwater for a
two-month tour in Iraq.
His mother says she begged him not to go.
“I said, 'It’s all about oil, Scotty. You don’t want to go risk your
life for oil,’” said Katy Helvenston-Wettengel of Leesburg, Fla. “But he
wanted to help, and he needed to make some money.”
She said he was told he would be doing security work for Paul Bremer III,
head of the interim Iraq government. But after a week in Kuwait,
Helvenston-Wettengel said, the mission suddenly changed.
Around 10 p.m. March 28, Helvenston was ordered to leave at 5 a.m. the next
day with three Blackwater contractors he had never met, according to the lawsuit
filed by the four men’s families. Their assignment: escort a convoy of flatbed
trucks to pick up kitchen equipment from a military base on the edge of Fallujah.
When Helvenston resisted the order, citing the short notice and lack of
preparation, the lawsuit alleges, his boss, Justin McQuown, reacted violently.
McQuown “burst into Helvenston’s bedroom … screamed at and berated him
– calling Helvenston a 'coward’ and other demeaning and derogatory names,”
the plaintiffs say in court papers. “McQuown then threatened to fire
Helvenston if he did not leave early the next morning with the new team.”
Helvenston’s teammates, all ex-Army Rangers, were Wesley Batalona of
Honokaa, Hawaii; Mike Teague of Clarksville, Tenn.; and Jerry Zovko of
According to the lawsuit, Blackwater broke its contractual obligations to the
contractors by sending them into hostile territory in unarmored vehicles without
automatic weapons or a rear gunner.
The lawsuit says: “Blackwater cut corners in the interest of higher
Blackwater won’t talk about Fallujah now, but eight days after the ambush,
Patrick Toohey, a senior company executive, told The New York Times that the
company had already made changes in its “tactics, techniques and
Today, Taylor will say only: “We don’t cut corners. We try to prepare our
people the best we can for the environment in which they’re going to find
The lawsuit says otherwise, alleging that a Blackwater employee refused to
give the team maps of the area, telling them “it was too late for maps.”
“They were sent on a suicide mission,” Helvenston’s mother said.
Helvenston-Wettengel says she was sitting at her home computer that day,
doing research for her job as a real estate broker, with the TV on in the
background, when the images of the burning SUVs and the rampaging mob began
“I thought, 'How horrible for those families.’ A couple of hours later
they said they were security contractors, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, Scotty’s
a security contractor. But he’s in Baghdad, he’s OK, he’s not in Fallujah.
He’s protecting Paul Bremer.’
“Finally around 4 o’clock they said 'Blackwater.’
“I called Blackwater and said, 'My name’s Katy. I’m Scott
Helvenston’s mom. Is he OK?’ and they said, 'We don’t know.’ I was on
and off the phone with Blackwater until 3 a.m. By midnight I knew he was gone.
“They said, 'He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.’”
Blackwater's memorial rock garden, stones etched with the names of
fallen contractors pay tribute to 25 men - and one dog - killed while
serving with the company in Iraq and Afghanistan. The statue of a boy
represents the families of contractors. CHRIS
CURRY / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
The U.S. Marines, who had military responsibility for the Sunni Arab
heartland in and around Fallujah, knew it was a tinderbox and had been trying
hard not to set it aflame. “Patient, persistent presence” was their motto.
The attack on the Blackwater convoy changed everything.
The convoy had entered the city by bypassing a Marine checkpoint without the
Marines’ knowledge. The Marines learned of the ambush the same way the rest of
the world did: from the grisly pictures on TV.
President Bush, enraged by the attack, ordered a major assault on the city.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a Pentagon spokesman, said of the coming U.S. response:
“It will be deliberate, it will be precise and it will be overwhelming. … We
will pacify that city.”
A key objective of the assault, U.S. leaders said, was to capture the killers
of the Blackwater contractors and bring them to justice.
The Blackwater incident was a tragic error that provoked a violent chain of
events, according to Bing West, a former Marine and Reagan-era assistant defense
secretary who wrote “No True Glory,” a book about the battle for Fallujah.
“Ultimately, Fallujah was a decision by our top leadership against the
advice of the Marines,” West said in an interview. “They were not going to
change their entire strategy because of a tactical error. They were
with Katy Helvenston-Wettengel, mother of slain Blackwater contractor
Contractor Scott Helvenston's last e-mail
Blackwater's fallen contractors
The last flight of Blackwater 61
What followed days later, in early April, was the first street-by-street
fighting by U.S. military forces since the Vietnam War. As Al-Jazeera
broadcast pictures of dead, bleeding and maimed Iraqis in Fallujah hospitals,
the city became a rallying point for anti-U.S. anger.
Worried that the assault was jeopardizing the political stability of the
country, U.S. leaders suspended the offensive a week later. The fighting
settled into a series of skirmishes, flare-ups and periods of calm.
Four days after Bush was re-elected in November, the Marines launched a
second, more deadly assault on the city with massive bombing and bloody
house-to-house combat. The major fighting was over within a week.
“It looked like a savage tornado had roared through the downtown
district, smashing everything in its path,” West wrote.
Over the course of the two sieges, U.S. forces carried out nearly 700
airstrikes in which 18,000 of the city’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or
destroyed. About 150 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis were killed. The city
was locked down behind barbed wire, a curfew declared and access limited by
A year later, only about half of Fallujah’s population of 300,000 had
The insurgency was quelled in Fallujah but intensified elsewhere across
Iraq. Before the second assault on Fallujah in November 2004, U.S. military
leaders estimated active enemy forces at 20,000. By January 2005, Iraq’s
national intelligence chief placed the number at 200,000.
“In some ways, the second Fallujah campaign was the end of any hope for
success for the United States in Iraq,” said Juan Cole, a professor of
Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan.
The perpetrators of the Blackwater ambush were never found.
On Nov. 14, 2004, the Marines rolled away a coil of razor wire and
held a ceremonial reopening of the Fallujah bridge, calling the span’s
clearing for traffic a symbolic victory. In black paint on the green trestle,
a Marine had printed: This is for the Americans of Blackwater murdered here in
2004. Semper Fidelis.
Less than two weeks later, over Thanksgiving weekend, Blackwater was in the
In broad daylight and clear weather, a twin-engine turboprop airplane
operated by the company’s aviation affiliate, Presidential Airways, slammed
into a mountainside in the rugged highlands of Afghanistan, killing all six
aboard: three company crewmen and three U.S. soldiers.
An Army investigation found that the crewmen had no flight plan, lacked
experience flying in Afghanistan, were poorly trained, had inadequate
communications gear and violated federal regulations requiring the use of
oxygen masks at high altitudes.
The families of the dead soldiers are suing Presidential Airways for
negligence. The case is set for trial in February.
In both cases, Blackwater claims immunity under the Feres doctrine, a legal
precedent that prevents someone injured as a result of military service from
suing the federal government.
Contracts signed by the Fallujah victims include a section releasing
Blackwater from liability for any loss or injury suffered on the job. The
plaintiffs say the contracts are invalid because Blackwater failed to fulfill
In court papers, the company cites the Pentagon’s “Total Force”
concept, which designates private contractors as an integral component of the
military mission along with active-duty and reserve troops and civilian
Blackwater says the government’s unprecedented reliance on private
contractors on the battlefield has made them so indistinguishable from
uniformed personnel that the company should enjoy the same immunity from
liability as the government.
“You can’t separate the contractors from the troops anymore,” Joseph
Schmitz, general counsel of Blackwater’s parent company, said after a March
federal appeals court hearing in Richmond.
In court papers, Blackwater says its contractors perform “a classic
military function” and asserts that the courts “may not impose liability
for casualties sustained in the battlefield in the performance of these
Blackwater casts its defense in constitutional terms, arguing that the
separation of powers and presidential authority are at stake.
“The judiciary may not impose standards on the manner in which the
President oversees and commands the private component of the Total Force in
foreign military operations,” the company says in one brief.
To that, the plaintiffs in the Fallujah case reply that Blackwater is
trying to have it both ways – acting as a private entity on one hand and
aligning itself with the government on the other.
In their filing, they argue: “Blackwater cannot have its cake and eat it
too. As a private security company, reaping private profits, they should be
held accountable for their wrongful conduct, just like every other private
corporation in America.”
Undergirding Blackwater’s profits, the plaintiffs say, is the workers’
compensation insurance that covered the Fallujah victims and has provided
death benefits to their families under the federal Defense Base Act –
insurance that is ultimately paid for by taxpayers.
The premiums are paid up front by Blackwater, then passed along to the
government in the contracts. And if the insured person is injured or killed in
a war zone, the government reimburses the insurance carrier for benefits paid.
Blackwater officials point out that the Defense Base Act has been in
existence for 65 years and is routinely used by overseas government
In the end, the case is about more than money, said Marc Miles, a Santa
Ana, Calif., lawyer representing the Fallujah victims’ families: “It’s
about sending a message.”
Regardless of how the court fight turns out, Blackwater is moving on,
looking for new opportunities once the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan
Last summer, thanks to a nasty storm, it found a new niche right here at
the worst, Blackwater contractors rushed into the hurricane-ravaged
Gulf Coast in September heavily armed. At the height of its work
there, the company had close to 600 contractors in the region. Nearly
a year later, the assault rifles are gone but roughly 100 Blackwater
men are still on the job. CHRIS
NEW ORLEANS — Every day, storm victims still line up at FEMA’s disaster
relief centers. Time has only fueled their frustration.
It’s been nearly a year since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and
huge swaths of New Orleans remain in rubble. Red tape, mix-ups or dead ends
can easily trigger a boil-over.
The people who work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency usually
catch the wrath.
“Let me put it to you this way,” says Gary Marratta, one of the
agency’s security coordinators. “We used to go out in T-shirts with a big
'FEMA’ across the back. We don’t do that anymore – ever since this one
guy told me, 'You know, that space between the 'E’ and the 'M’ makes a
pretty good target.’”
Blackwater USA protects FEMA’s Katrina staff – a contract that has cost
taxpayers $73 million through the end of June, or about $243,000 a day.
Tony Yates runs the Blackwater security crew assigned to a disaster relief
center set up in the city’s downtown public library. FEMA’s workers at the
library are mostly women – local teachers recruited after the storm
destroyed their schools. They hunch over rows of laptops, interviewing
applicants at long tables jammed between bookshelves. They’re not accustomed
to the kind of rage that can come their way.
“Sometimes they see it building in the person they’re talking to,”
Yates says, “but they’re too intimidated to call us over. So we keep an
eye on body language.”
He also keeps an ear cocked for the code. This week, it’s “blue
form.” If a worker raises her voice and asks for one, a Blackwater guard
strolls over and hovers. One look at his sturdy presence – and the
dull-black sheen of the 9 mm Glock on his hip – persuades most tough
customers to rein it in. Two to three times a month, Yates says, someone
leaves the library in handcuffs.
with Blackwater VP Chris Taylor
Mary Cornelius, the center’s director, looks up from her desk, watching
as Yates makes his quiet rounds.
“I can’t tell you what it means to have them here,” Cornelius says.
“A lot of people are at the end of their rope down here. We never know
who’s going to walk in that door or what they have in mind.”
For battle-hardened Blackwater, New Orleans appears to be gravy work
– at least at this point. It’s the tail end of a milestone mission: the
private military company’s first domestic deployment – an undertaking
that, at its height, employed close to 600 of the company’s contractors.
Blackwater’s men were among the first outsiders to reach the Gulf Coast
after the costliest hurricane in U.S. history made landfall Aug. 29. The
company’s quick response led to a windfall of work, both government and
It also has affected the way disasters within the nation’s borders will
be dealt with in the future. Katrina woke Americans to the harsh fact that
calamities can overwhelm even the government, and rescue can be a long time
coming. Some people girding for the next one have already laid plans to hire
their own deliverance from companies like Blackwater.
At first, Blackwater’s arrival set off alarms in New Orleans. The
company’s work in Iraq has forged a soldier-of-fortune image, and nerves
jangled when Blackwater’s commando-types surfaced on the streets of
Louisiana, outfitted with body armor and assault rifles.
Concerned calls came in to Mark Smith, who works for Louisiana’s
Department of Homeland Security, part of the governor’s office.
“Everyone wanted to know what those Blackwater mercenaries were doing
down here,” Smith said.
Blackwater bristles at that reaction.
“This is not the occupation of Louisiana,” said Andy Veal, one of the
company’s Katrina zone supervisors. “This is Americans helping fellow
It is also a potential plug for a hole in Blackwater’s business model.
Private military companies thrive on war – an icy fact that could gut the
now-booming industry when or if Iraq settles down.
Katrina offered Blackwater a chance to diversify into natural disasters.
After the hurricane, the company formed a new division of domestic operations.
Seamus Flatley, a retired Navy fighter pilot, is the division’s deputy
“Look, none of us loves the idea that devastation became a business
opportunity,” Flatley said. “It’s a distasteful fact, but it is what it
is. Doctors, lawyers, funeral directors, even newspapers – they all make a
living off of bad things happening. So do we, because somebody’s got to
FEMA workers is Blackwater’s primary task now in the Gulf Coast.
Contractor Chris Knight is part of a security detail that keeps the
peace at the New Orleans Public Library, which doubles as a disaster
relief center. CHRIS CURRY
PHOTOS / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
America’s Gulf Coast is a long way from the troubled lands where
Blackwater usually plies its trade. But after Category 3 Katrina, the area
resembled a war zone. Hundreds were dead. Communities were destroyed. Law and
order collapsed with the levees. Residents were trapped by floodwaters.
Rescuers were being shot at.
“The scope of this thing – how big it was – was just too much for any
organization,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Todd Campbell, who directed a large
part of the rescue operations, including the dramatic rooftop airlifts that
had the nation glued to the TV.
“Every aircraft we had was committed,” Campbell said. “And it
wasn’t enough. I couldn’t find anyone who could give us more.”
Campbell didn’t know it, but a Blackwater crew was already beating its
way toward Louisiana in a just-purchased Super Puma helicopter.
Bill Mathews, Blackwater’s executive vice president, explained why the
company headed in before anyone called for help:
“We ran to the fire because it was burning.”
Campbell says Blackwater asked just one thing: that the Coast Guard cover
the cost of the Puma’s fuel. But what really impressed him was the crew’s
“Just the way they walked in,” Campbell said, “with confidence in
their faces. They weren’t rattled one bit by what was going on. They just
listened to what we wanted and went out and did it.”
9th Ward of New Orleans still looks much like it did in the weeks
after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, Blackwater escorted
rescuers into the area. The company says conditions were so depressing
that it rotated the duty among its contractors
Precisely what that was depends on who’s doing the recalling.
According to Gary Jackson, Blackwater’s president: “We were lifting
people off of housetops, off of small boats, to med-evacs – people that were
sick and hurt.”
According to Campbell: “They offered to do rescues, but there were legal
concerns. What if someone got hurt? So we asked them not to engage in pulling
people out. They debriefed me at the end of every day, and no one ever
mentioned doing any rescues. If they were out there doing them, it was solely
on their own.”
Campbell has no doubts about the rest of Blackwater’s help. For two weeks
after the storm, the Puma conducted survey flights and ferried 12 tons of
water, food and supplies to rescuers and stranded inhabitants.
“What they did was critical,” Campbell said. “I’ve never been in a
position like that before, where I had to reach out to civilians for help. I
couldn’t have asked for a better, more professional response.”
In the midst of all that humanitarian work, the phones started ringing at
company headquarters in Moyock, N.C.
“The word got out,” Jackson said. “'Blackwater’s in New Orleans.’
People started calling us from the hotels: 'Can you do this? Can you do
that?’ We set up a 24-hour-a-day operational center, and we started taking
these commercial contracts.”
The first customer was a communications company that hired Blackwater to
fetch 100 of its employees who were stuck in flooded homes. Because a state of
emergency had been declared, Blackwater could bypass Louisiana licensing
requirements. Boats, waders and other gear were loaded on a company cargo
plane. A convoy of SUVs rolled out of Moyock.
Within 18 hours, Jackson said, Blackwater had 135 men on the ground. They
were outfitted for battle, complete with helmets, flak vests, pistols, batons
and M-4 carbines, capable of firing 900 rounds per minute.
“Yes, we looked a little heavy-handed coming in,” Jackson said, “but
it was because of the intel that we received.”
Exaggerated or not, Jackson said, reports coming out of New Orleans
indicated the place was in anarchy, with armed looters roaming the city and
outlaws preying on the populace.
“We did a risk assessment and decided we’re going to send guys in there
for real,” he said.
Jackson said Blackwater re-established order in the city’s most famous
area: “We got guys into the French Quarter … and we basically secured
His claim rubs some the wrong way.
“There may be some braggadocio involved there,” said Lt. Lawrence
McCleary of the Louisiana State Police. “If they were securing a hotel or
something down there, that’s one thing, but locals secured the French
Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard said: “Every group wants to
kind of thump their chest a little bit, but just think about it. We live here.
Seems kind of naive to think Blackwater beat us to the French Quarter.
“But you know what? I’m not interested in getting into a pissing match
over it – not with someone who came down here and really helped. It’s safe
to say they were among the first to arrive.”
Whatever the sequence of events, in those first days after the storm,
Blackwater’s client list exploded.
Blackwater says it has not fired a single shot since arriving in
Louisiana. The company’s contractors heard plenty of gunfire, though. None,
they say, was aimed at them.
“We’d be on one street going to a house for extraction and on the next
street over we’d hear 'bang-bang-bang,’” Veal said. “Then the
Blackhawks would swarm in. It was kind of surreal, that all that was happening
in this country. Americans were floating by dead in the street and there was
no time to do anything about it. We had to focus on the living. It was like
something you’d see in the Third World.”
Veal says Blackwater rescued plenty of nonpaying folks along with the
“Once you came across someone, you just couldn’t leave them there,”
Clients were signing up quickly. Blackwater won’t name them or reveal
what it charged. It will only say that the jobs called for a laundry list of
Blackwater contractors stood guard over fuel shipments, generators,
transmitters, railroad cars, stores, hotels, banks, museums, landmarks,
industrial sites, power plants and a temporary morgue set up in Baton Rouge.
They escorted CEOs, insurance adjusters, technicians and repair crews. They
watched over high-dollar homes and conducted “asset retrieval.” They
plucked priceless paintings off walls and fetched precious gems from abandoned
“It was hot and miserable,” Veal said. “We were all sleeping in
tents. The bugs just ate you alive.”
One week after the storm, Blackwater landed a contract with the Federal
Protective Service, the agency that provides security at federal buildings and
watches over FEMA when its workers deploy. The rate, according to a copy of
the contract obtained from the Department of Homeland Security: $950 per day
for every man the company supplied.
Dennis O’Connor, a spokesman for the Federal Protective Service, said the
magnitude of the disaster left the agency with little choice: “We don’t
have enough people to handle something like this ourselves, and the local
security companies were devastated. Whoever we awarded the contract to had to
be totally self-sustaining. Everything down there was wiped out.”
Blackwater had the mind-set for dealing with such hardships. The company
set up its own camps, equipped with shower trailers, dining tents, post
offices, barber shops, laundry facilities, armories and mechanic shops.
Contractors from across the country poured into Moyock, where they were
outfitted with tactical gear and sent south.
The Federal Protective Service contract gave Blackwater more impact in the
hurricane zone. While contractors were not deputized – a fact that left them
with no official law enforcement powers – their formidable presence was now
spread across the city.
“They helped us keep the bubble afloat,” said the National Guard’s
Bush. “At first, they occupied their battle space and we occupied ours, but
as the weeks trickled on and the Guard guys from other states started going
home, Blackwater stepped in to fill the void.”
The transition worried some locals, Bush said.
“I think it was the fact that they were civilians more than anything
else,” he said. “So we walked the ground together for a while, until
everyone got more comfortable. We turned over some pretty big areas to
Less than a month after Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Rita
delivered a second blow, coming ashore just to the west.
Federal Protective Service expanded its contract and Blackwater rushed
“At one time,” Jackson said, “we were spread across 500 miles, from
Texas to Mississippi.”
the heavily padded “red man” in the bad guy role, contractor Eric
Miller practices the proper way to use a baton. The class, at
Blackwater’s base in Baton Rouge, is part of a four-day course the
company set up to ensure its contractors meet Louisiana requirements
for security work. CHRIS
CURRY PHOTOS /THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
The commercial work has dried up. So has the need for military-style
action. The combat look has softened to tan polo shirts and sidearms. Tents
have been replaced with hotel rooms. Dinner is served on china. FEMA is the
main reason Blackwater is still here.
Roughly 100 contractors are all that remain. They’re split between New
Orleans, Baton Rouge and a few scattered outposts. They work 12-hour shifts,
often seven days a week, standing guard at FEMA sites. They’re paid around
$300 a day, which means they can earn up to $9,000 a month.
Most are former law enforcement officers. They hired on after the storm,
when special-ops types were no longer required and Blackwater made the shift
to a long-term presence.
“Law enforcement is better suited for this kind of job,” Blackwater’s
Flatley says. “They’re used to dealing with the public – with Americans.
They’re trained to defuse things, not escalate them.”
There are harder-core guys, who rotate between stints in Iraq and New
“You wouldn’t really call this a vacation,” Flatley says, “but they
are able to recharge here between tours overseas.”
When it comes to hiring, the stakes are high. Everybody carries a gun, and
one hothead making the wrong call could ruin the company’s image and derail
a lucrative future in the disaster business. Of the 1,600 contractors
Blackwater has cycled through the Gulf Coast, Flatley says, around three dozen
have been sent home for various infractions – none criminal.
“It can be as small as unprofessional behavior, partying too much or even
just a bad attitude,” he says. “We can’t afford to put up with any of
it. At that point, my only question is, 'Do you prefer an aisle or a window
Young operates the Chateau LeMoyne, a hotel in New Orleans that was
guarded by Blackwater. The company flag at the French Quarter hotel is
the only one flying at a site other than the Moyock compound,
according to Blackwater.
State and local police say they know of no arrests of Blackwater
contractors in their area, but that does not stop the talk. Rumors had
Blackwater commandeering apartments, shooting bad guys and conspiring with
the government to hide corpses.
The company says there is no truth to such stories. Tommy Potter, a
former police officer from Franklin, is the company’s area manager for New
Orleans. He shakes his head at the rumors.
“Look,” he says, “people swore that there were alligators walking
down the streets. How does that stuff get started? Who knows?”
The Blackwater men admit that, in the early days, they bumped heads a bit
with local police, who resented all the out-of-town guns. They’ll
volunteer that someone slashed all four tires on a company SUV. At the
library, Yates confesses he was in one real knock-down, drag-out – with a
large woman who leaped on him and wouldn’t quit.
Kathleen Young runs the Chateau Le-Moyne, a French Quarter hotel. She
thinks Blackwater’s mere presence stops trouble in its tracks. Young’s
hotel chain hired the company the day after Katrina.
“I didn’t know that,” she says, “and I was scared to death coming
back into the Quarter after the storm. Looters were everywhere. Windows were
smashed out. There were no police.
“And then I got here, and there were two Blackwater guys camped out in
my lobby. Nothing was touched. They stayed with me for weeks, and I never
saw anyone challenge them.”
Young was so impressed, she struck a deal with Blackwater to house more
of its men. At one point, contractors occupied nearly half of her 171-room
hotel. The number has dwindled, but her lobby, at any given time, is still
full of men carrying guns.
Young has also put Blackwater on retainer.
“If something like this ever happens again,” she says, “I want them
in here before the storm.”
Blackwater isn’t content to wait around for Mother Nature to strike
again. It’s busy scouring the far corners of the world for more business.
parachuted onto the public stage in a flashy way this spring at the
Virginia Gold Cup horse race in Northern Virginia. The show marked a
turning point for a company that has long preferred its privacy. CHRIS
CURRY PHOTOS / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
WARRENTON, Va. - Emerald rolling hills. Acres of white fence. It's a
postcard spring day in horse country.
Fifty-thousand people are gathered for the 81st running of the Virginia
Gold Cup, a high-stakes steeplechase that draws the political glitterati from
Sleek steeds prance toward the starting line. "The Star-Spangled
Banner" swells. Wide-brimmed hats turn skyward. Hands shield designer
Oooh, says the crowd. Look at that. Five parachutes have blossomed against
the blue - pre-race entertainment. But these chutes don't belong to the usual
military show teams: the Army's Golden Knights or the Navy's Leap Frogs.
These are emblazoned with a bear-paw logo and strapped to some of the
finest jumpers in the world - five of whom now work for Blackwater USA.
It's the new team's first public U.S. performance, and a high-visibility
U-turn for a company that has long preferred the shadows.
The reason behind the strategy shift: Blackwater has decided that l ying
low is a problem.
"People were getting our story wrong," said company vice
president Chris Taylor. "The parachute team is a way to create awareness,
so people will ask about us and we can deliver the accurate story."
It does get them noticed.
Necks crane as the jumpers come together, link into a tiered formation and
float to Earth, unfurling Blackwater's flag as they descend. Touchdown is
perfect, a cloud of billowing silk on the infield. The crowd erupts in
"Wow," says John O'Rourke of Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a management
consulting company. "Can't say I've ever heard of Blackwater before, but
that jump was phenomenal."
"Stirring," adds O'Rourke's wife, Jenine.
The couple are leaning on a fence, watching as their two children join
other kids invited to help the jumpers repack their chutes.
"Isn't that sweet?" Jenine says.
Impressing the power brokers is more important. Unlike the military,
Blackwater must woo its customers. The well-heeled crowd at the steeplechase
is flush with the right kind of people - VIPs who could pave the way for a
government contract, buy the company's new products or use its personal
bodyguard service themselves.
Blackwater's hospitality tent buzzes with invitation-only guests. Gathered
around white linen tablecloths, they network and nosh hors d'oeuvres. A few
stout-looking men dressed in suits stand sentinel, arms crossed, the coiled
wire of an earpiece disappearing into the back of their collars.
Erik Prince, the company's reclusive founder, is reportedly in attendance,
but as usual, he steers clear of the spotlight.
Later, Taylor asks a newspaper photographer if he managed to snap any
pictures of Prince at the race.
The answer is no. Taylor grins.
"Good. Then we did our job."
Prince may choose to stay in the background, but his company is bent
on polishing its image. A good reputation makes domestic work, like the
Katrina contract, easier to line up. It can offset character-damaging
accusations, like the two yet-to-be settled lawsuits that portray the company
as callous and inept.
Blackwater wants all doors open. The company says it has more than two
dozen projects under way, an almost dizzying pursuit of new frontiers.
In addition to its ongoing assignments guarding American officials and
facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blackwater has won contracts to combat the
booming opium trade in Afghanistan and to support a SEAL-like maritime
commando force in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic.
- On the home front, Hurricane Katrina's $73 million purse has persuaded
Blackwater officials to position themselves as the go-to guys for natural
disasters. Operating licenses are being applied for in every coastal state
of the country. Governors are being given the pitch, including
California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom a Blackwater official recently
visited to discuss earthquake response.
"We want to make sure they're aware of who we are and what we can
bring to the table," said Seamus Flatley, deputy director of
Blackwater's new domestic operations division. "We want to get out
ahead of it."
- Last year, the company opened offices in Baghdad and Amman, Jordan. More
recent expansion plans call for a Blackwater West in Southern California
and a jungle training facility at the former Subic Bay naval base in the
Image is already affecting the Philippines deal. News reports out of
the area indicate strong local opposition, fueled by fears of an influx of
"mercenaries." A Filipino senator says he intends to investigate
accusations that Blackwater is recruiting his countrymen for security jobs
in Iraq; the Filipino government forbids its citizens to work there.
Taylor said the locals are overreacting. Clients at Subic and the type
of training offered there will be subject to Defense Department oversight.
"We will only teach who and what the U.S. government wants us
to," he said.
Taylor also denied accusations that Blackwater is using its toehold at
Subic Bay to recruit for Iraq.
"Why does everyone think that?" Taylor asked. "Why can't
we just be offering training in that part of the world?"
The company confirms that it does recruit in foreign lands. Taylor said
Blackwater has hired roughly 20 Filipinos for guard duty in Afghanistan,
where there is no ban on such work.
A few years back, Blackwater created a diplomatic embarrassment for
Chile by recruiting Chileans who had trained under the ousted regime of
military dictator Augusto Pinochet. The new Chilean government was
concerned about its country's reputation abroad and worried that the
former henchmen of a toppled dictator would not represent it well.
Similar concerns surface here at home about the way America's private
military companies represent the country overseas.
Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, encountered U.S.
contractors during his 2004 tour of duty in Iraq. To the Iraqi people,
Hammes said, those contractors were America:
"We are held responsible in the people's eyes for everything they
do, or fail to do."
graduate of the Blackwater Academy program, Thomas Pouge looks at
pictures with his high school sweetheart at a graduation ceremony at
the Blackwater USA compound in Moyock. CHRIS
CURRY / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
Thomas Pogue will soon be on his way to somewhere dangerous – most
likely Iraq. Of the 19 young men who entered the latest Blackwater Academy,
Pogue is among the nine who made it all the way through.
In fact, Pogue, 25, a former Navy SEAL from Chesapeake, won the academy’s
“Honor Man,” an award given to the top all-around student in the class.
After graduation, Pogue said he was anxious about what he’ll encounter
the same time, really different.”
"I'm sure it'll be a lot like what I'm used to," he said,
"but at the same time, really different."
Pogue pointed out that contractor teams have limited time to train
together. They don’t have a massive force of men and machines at their back
when things go wrong. They aren’t necessarily privy to military
intelligence. And their defensive role, he says, places them at a
“The enemy comes to you,” he said. “You wait to be attacked.”
He’s counting on Blackwater to even things up.
“You just hope the experience of the guys you’re with makes up for all
the rest. I’m really relying on the company to make the right hires and
choose the right contracts.”
The cutthroat “mercenary” image of private contractors, Pogue said,
“is a product of ignorance. We’re the same people you have in the
military. We just got out.”
Money is a big reason, Pogue said: “This country does not pay its
soldiers enough for the work they do. This industry is one way to level the
He sees a big future for the private military business. “These forces can
be employed without a lot of publicity – and that’s a very useful
characteristic for any government. It’s politically easier, and there is
less red tape.”
The ultimate reason Pogue believes his profession will stick around:
“We’re expendable. If 10 contractors die, it’s not the same as if 10
soldiers die. Because people will say that we were in it for the money. And
that has a completely different connotation with the American public.”
One day, Pogue could find himself among the men Blackwater marshals
for what is perhaps its most controversial plan ever: the creation of a
brigade-size armed force – about 1,700 troops – that could be deployed on
“peacekeeping” or “stability” missions in world trouble spots, such as
the Darfur region of Sudan.
Speaking at a special-operations conference in Amman in March, Blackwater
Vice Chairman Cofer Black said the company has approached the United Nations
and several African countries with the idea.
“I do believe there are situations where it is viable to use the
commercial contractor option,” he said, arguing that a small private force
would be a flexible, low-cost alternative to U.N. troops.
The idea found support in some quarters and raised alarm in others.
After interviewing Blackwater officials this spring, veteran news
commentator Ted Koppel suggested that private military companies shoulder more
In a May column in The New York Times, Koppel wrote that a “rent-a-force,
harnessing the privilege of every putative warrior to hire himself out for
more than he could ever make in the direct service of Uncle Sam, might relieve
us of an array of current political pressures.”
Others worry where companies like Blackwater will draw the line. Peter
Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank, said that in the
past, private military companies “have been hired to do everything from
defending facilities and escorting convoys to protecting drug cartels and
Indeed, there are no laws that dictate who Blackwater can work for, as long
as the client isn’t involved in criminal activity or at war with the United
But Taylor said his company would only hire out for missions approved by
the American government.
“If we went against the wishes of our government, we’d be
blackballed,” he said. “We’d never get another U.S. contract.”
Taylor said Black’s remarks have been misunderstood: “We’ve never
said we’ll be an army for hire to go fight somebody’s battles. We have
never said that we would provide an offensive combat capability. It would be
That distinction is difficult, if not impossible, to draw, Singer
“It’s not analytically honest,” he said. “No one in the military is
defined as to whether they’re offensive or defensive. No weapon is offensive
or defensive. The saying is, a weapon is offensive or defensive depending on
which side of the gun barrel you’re facing.”
Singer offered an example. If a convoy bristling with machine guns came
rumbling through the streets of Norfolk, he said, local residents would likely
view it as offensive – regardless of the troops’ stated intentions.
“Often these companies will say, 'We only do defensive work, so that
means that we’re somehow good,’” Singer said. “Basically what
they’re trying to do is put a moral imprimatur on a business. Companies
aren’t good or bad. They’re just companies. It’s how they operate that
determines their moral standing.”
Unsavory activities by private warriors have prompted legislative action in
several countries, most notably South Africa, where memories of the nation’s
apartheid-era security forces are still fresh. Hearings were held by
Parliament this spring on a tough new anti-mercenary bill that would prohibit
South Africans from participating in armed conflict areas without the
permission of their government.
Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a
Washington-based trade group of private military companies including
Blackwater, flew to Johannesburg to speak against the bill, arguing that it
would hobble peacekeeping operations around the world.
Several thousand South Africans are estimated to be working for security
companies in Iraq.
“They don’t want to be considered criminals when they go home,”
Taylor distanced Blackwater from the kind of overt combat missions
undertaken by companies like Executive Outcomes, a South African firm that was
hired to put down insurgencies in Angola and Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s.
“I don’t think you’ll ever see that again,” Taylor said. “The
first thing we want to be is a tremendous deterrent. Our first goal is not to
actively engage in live-fire exchanges.”
On the other hand, he added, “You can’t ask people to defend something
and then penalize them for defending it well.”
There have never been easy answers in war. Questions about motives,
money and morality litter battlefields, while people caught up in
life-and-death struggles make split-second decisions.
Blackwater says it’s only filling a niche others can’t or choose not
to. So, while the country wrestles with this new twist on an old way to wage
war, Blackwater will keep plugging away – engaging critics, courting
customers and hatching plans.
Every day brings a new challenge.
“We have a very long-term view to our work,” company founder Prince
said in an e-mail interview. He said Blackwater wants to help transform the
Defense Department into “a faster, more nimble organization.”
Company President Gary Jackson put it this way: “We have a dynamic
business plan that is 20 years long, and it starts every day at zero-745”
– 7:45 a.m. military time, when Blackwater’s daily staff meeting begins.
“We’re not going anywhere. Anybody that builds a 65,000-square-foot
headquarters in the middle of the Dismal Swamp does not have an exit
- Reach Joanne Kimberlin at (757) 446-2338 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Reach Bill Sizemore at (757) 446-2276 or email@example.com.