By Jill Holslin
Late yesterday, Erik Prince of Blackwater announced his intention to shift its business away from security contracting and focus instead on military training, aviation and logistics. Kudos to Matt Apuzzo and Mike Baker of the Associated Press for getting an exclusive interview with Erik Prince, complete with photos of the Blackwater founder at his headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina no less.
Yet, a little critical distance might have been warranted under the circumstances: Prince rarely allows himself to be photographed, averse to press and public scrutiny, adopting an agenda of secrecy that has served Blackwater’s bottom line well. Blackwater has won over $1 billion in security contracts since 2001. After an Iraqi videotape and a US military investigation of the Nisour Square massacre on September 16, 2007 concurred that Blackwater’s agents acted recklessly, opening fire without provocation and killing 17 Iraqi civilians, the US State Department announced in April plans to renew Blackwater’s lucrative security contract for another year. Prince conveyed his announcement to the public through this puff piece produced by Matt Apuzzo and Mike Baker for the AP, seizing the occasion to reframe Blackwater’s mission in now-familiar terms, as a responsible, patriotic company ready and willing to serve, but unfairly targeted by anti-war activists and a hostile media. “If you could get it right, we might stay in the business,” Prince retorts in the interview, his resentment undermining his own carefully crafted ethos.
Indeed, for a company whose profits depend upon the perpetual flow of no-bid government contracts and immunity from the rule of law, the cooperation of a right-minded media is an essential feature of the business plan. Yet, the Washington Post, New York Times, and LA Times have continued to report on the defense department’s attempts at oversight of a now massive industry of war profiteering.
In October 2007 after the Nisour Square massacre, the Washington Post reported on a Pentagon press conference in which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out the conflict of interest between the practices of private security contractors and the mission of stabilizing Iraq. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell is quoted in the same report, suggesting contractors like Blackwater may have to consider functioning more consistently with the military’s notion of its “total force”, “changing their MO, the way in which they operate, how they drive, how they handle busy traffic circles” in order to “pay greater consideration to the larger mission.” That same month, the LA Times published an opinion piece by former U.S. official Janessa Gans, who had enjoyed the protective services of Blackwater during her two year stay in Iraq. Titled “I survived Blackwater,” Gans’ piece recounts her wild rides in Blackwater vehicles through the streets of Baghdad, careening into oncoming traffic, riding up over road dividers, often racing at speeds exceeding 100 mph.
Just this month, Robert Gates sent a memo on July 10 to the Pentagon’s top military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, prompted by an investigation and some tough questions from Virginia Senator Jim Webb about the new training facility Blackwater opened in June in Otay Mesa, San Diego, California. Gates must have rented the Robert Greenwald film that came out last year, “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” and finally realized that these are questions that he might put to those higher ups who have been in charge of giving away the store for the past seven years. The truth about Blackwater has been hard to come by in Washington.
While we might be tempted by these events to breathe a sigh of relief, imagining that our system of checks and balances has now righted itself, let’s look again. Anyone familiar with public statements made by Blackwater executives knows that the veil of fine sentiments about of duty and service to country is often used to obscure their own culpability in actions that would merit the court-martial of genuine military personnel. Yet Blackwater execs use another representational strategy which may prove to be somewhat more transparently self-serving: as faithful servants of market imperatives, market imperatives which pushed them into massive profits against their will. As they back away having made millions from the lucrative business of private security, Prince and Jackson now claim that making money in the security business was never their intention. As Apuzzo and Baker report, company president Gary Jackson stresses, “Security was not part of the master plan, ever,” and Prince expresses hope that he can somehow rein in his wildly successful business: “If I could get it down to 2 percent or 1 percent, I would go there,” he said.
And certainly the market in Iraqi chaos may be drying up soon, according to Bush’s announcement Friday, July 18, to set a “general time horizon” for troop cuts in Iraq. In fact, Prince saw the handwriting on the wall last year. In an October 15, 2007 interview with August Cole of the Wall Street Journal, Prince noted preciently, “We see the security market diminishing,” and indicated his intention to move into more palatable services–the delivery of humanitarian aid and response to natural disasters.
Wisely, Prince neglected to mention the most lucrative contract that now looms on the horizon for Blackwater: a opportunity to profit handily from the insecurity and chaos on the US-Mexico border. On September 14, 2007, just days before the Nisour Square massacre, The Army Times released a report that Blackwater and four other contractors landed a series of contracts for the Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office at the Pentagon that could total $15 billion. According to a report by Solomon Moore of the New York Times, Marty Strong, Blackwater’s vice president for communications, revealed that Blackwater’s new mission to fight narcoterrorism led them to seek out properties in San Diego County to build new facilities. Strong further explained in the report that the proximity of military installations, borders, ports, and several of the nation’s local law enforcement agencies made San Diego an ideal market for Blackwater. A report by Goverment Executive.com outlining more details of the project suggests that in spite of Blackwater’s insistence to the contrary, their intentions in opening a new facility in Otay Mesa include reaping massive profits from the increased militarization of the US-Mexico border.
The American people might be willing to agree with the obfuscations of Bill O’Reilly and others that a few casualities here and there are the price we must pay for our national security. But it remains to be seen whether we will be as willing to indulge Blackwater’s war profiteering when the price we must pay is stability and security on the borders of our own city.
Photo Credit: Gerry Broome/Associated Press