IRAQ: Blackwater Blues for Dead Contractors' Families

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press Service News Agency

Ten years ago, Erik Prince, the son of a conservative multi-millionaire, founded the security consulting firm Blackwater USA.

The
company has since grown into what journalist Jeremy Scahill terms "the
world's most powerful mercenary army," in his recently released book
titled "Blackwater."


Both Prince and his company prefer to avoid headlines. In March 2004,
however, four of Prince's U.S. contractors -- Jerry Zovko, Scott
Helvenston, Michael Teague and Wesley Batalona -- were killed in
Fallujah while escorting a convoy of empty trucks. They were ambushed,
shot and overcome by an angry mob. The men were burnt in their vehicles
and then their charred bodies were strung up from a bridge.


The horrific images of the dead men received worldwide media
attention. That incident was soon followed by a massive U.S. assault on
Fallujah, an attack that reportedly resulted in thousands of dead Iraqi
civilians.



Erik Prince's Blackwater USA was no longer under the radar.


For the past three years, the families of the dead contractors
have been trying to find out what really happened that March day in
Fallujah. And for three years, they say they've been stonewalled by
Prince.


In February of this year, relatives of the four slain
Blackwater USA contractors testified, at a House of Representatives
hearing in Washington held by California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman, on
the company's operations. The families of the slain men, still unclear
about what happened when their loved ones were killed, sued Blackwater
USA for wrongful death and "in the hope that their questions will be
answered," the Associated Press reported in mid-June.



The lawsuit alleges that Blackwater sent the men on a job with inadequate equipment and protection.


According to the suit, AP pointed out, "the men should have
been traveling in fully armoured vehicles and should have had a guard
in each vehicle acting as a rear gunner to protect them from attack."


The legal battle could have much broader implications. It
"could prompt more government oversight of security contracting
companies and determine the extent of their legal liability in the war
zone," AP noted.


Blackwater has assembled a high-profile well-connected legal
team to combat the suit. They also filed a 10-million-dollar
counterclaim. Blackwater's legal dream team -- which once included Fred
Fielding, now White House counsel -- includes Kenneth Starr, the
special prosecutor who investigated the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater
scandals during the Bill Clinton administration.


Blackwater maintains that since it was working for the
government, it was "subject to the same protections against lawsuits as
the military, which cannot be sued for the deaths or injuries of its
troops," AP reported. The company "argues that the four families'
lawsuit 'unconstitutionally intrudes on the exclusive authority of the
military of the federal government to conduct military operations
abroad.'"


In the two years since the families filed suit, the case has
bounced between state and federal courts amid a jumble of claims and
counterclaims. Last month U.S. District Judge James Fox in North
Carolina ordered the families and Blackwater into arbitration, a
non-public procedure that is designed to resolve disputes without a
trial. While the families are protesting that decision, that is a
desirable outcome for the company as it would continue to secrecy for
its operations.


That we know as much as we do about Blackwater USA is in part
due to the first-rate reporting of several journalists, including The
Nation magazine's investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill. In his
bestselling book "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful
Mercenary Army" (Nation Books, 2007), Scahill describes the company as
"a sort of Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration's 'global war
on terror.'"


He maintains that Prince "has been in the thick of this
right-wing effort to unite conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and
neoconservatives in a common theoconservative holy war."


At the time the book was written, Scahill pointed out that the
Moyock, North Carolina-headquartered company had "more than 2,300
private soldiers deployed in nine countries, including inside the
United States. It maintains a database of 21,000 former Special Forces
troops, soldiers, and retired law enforcement agents on whom it could
call at a moment's notice... [It] has a private fleet of more than
twenty aircraft, including helicopter gunships and a surveillance blimp
division."


In addition, Blackwater had "train[ed] tens of thousands of federal and
local law enforcement agents... [as well as] troops from 'friendly'
foreign nations." Blackwater "operates its own intelligence division
and counts among its executives senior ex-military and intelligence
officials."


The company, which has a facility in Illinois, is building one
in California, and has a jungle training facility in the Philippines,
has garnered more than 500 million dollars in government contracts.
This "does not include its secret 'black' budget operations for U.S
intelligence agencies or private corporations/individuals and foreign
governments," Scahill notes.


In addition to Prince, "A number of Blackwater executives are
deeply conservative Christians, including corruption-smeared former
Pentagon Inspector General Joseph Schmitz, who is also a member of the
Sovereign Order of Malta, which Scahill describes as 'a Christian
militia formed in the eleventh century [to defend] territories that the
Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems,'" Chris Barsanti wote in a
review of the book for In These Times.


Blackwater had a visible, and financially lucrative, presence
in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as the use of company
contractors cost U.S. taxpayers 240,000 dollars a day.


Blackwater USA is the brainchild of Erik Prince -- a former
Navy SEAL and son of Edgar Prince, a wealthy Michigan auto-parts
supplier -- described by Scahill as a "radical right wing Christian
mega-millionaire" who is a strong financial backer of President George
W. Bush, as well as a donor to a host of conservative Christian
political causes.


In the 1980s "the Prince family merged with one of the most venerable
conservative families in the United States," when Erik's sister Betsy
-- nine years his senior -- married Dick DeVos, whose father Richard,
founded the multilevel marketing firm Amway.


The two families exercised enormous political influence both
inside and outside Michigan. "They were one of the greatest bankrollers
of far-right causes in U.S. history, and with their money they
propelled extremist Christian politicians and activists to positions of
prominence," Scahill writes.


Prince, who keeps a relatively low profile, recently appeared at the
North Carolina Technology Association's "Five Pillars" conference.
There, he put in a plug for his company, saying that had the police had
the kind of training that Blackwater provides, they could have dealt
with situations such as the killings at Columbine and Virginia Tech
much better.


"When I saw the Columbine tapes, I saw a lot of law
enforcement officers with really nice gear, equipment and weapons, but
they had never really trained together. They had never tested those
assumptions," Prince said. "The same with Virginia Tech -- they had
never really trained or planned for an active shooter."


*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative
movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies,
players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
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  • 23 Private Security
  • 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign