Blackwater USA, the North Carolina-based security firm best known for supplementing U.S. troops in Iraq, is now attracting international attention patrolling the flooded streets of New Orleans.
Accounts of Blackwater personnel carrying M-16s and other assault weapons around the devastated city have appeared on dozens of Web sites, including sites in Europe, Canada and Australia. Many of the reports compare Blackwater's presence in New Orleans to the company's work in Iraq, where it has been a major provider of private security guards for the U.S.-led coalition.
Anne Duke, a Blackwater spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the company has about 200 personnel in the hurricane-ravaged area. The vast majority - 164 employees - are working under a contract with the Federal Protective Service, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, to protect government facilities. The 30-day contract can be extended indefinitely, she said.
Under a separate contract, the company supplied an airplane to the Coast Guard, Duke said, and also provided a helicopter at no charge to support Coast Guard rescue missions. As of Monday, Blackwater air crews had moved more than 11 tons of supplies and rescued 121 people, she said.
In addition, the company has other employees working for a number of private clients in the hurricane zone, Duke said, including communications, petrochemical and insurance companies.
Jeremy Scahill, a correspondent for the national radio and TV program "Democracy Now!", reported from New Orleans in a Web posting Monday that two Blackwater employees told him they had been "deputized" by the governor to make arrests and use lethal force. If that is what they said, they misspoke, Duke said.
"They were not deputized. They are not law enforcement," she said. "They were hired much like any other security guard is hired, to protect a place or people."
She said Blackwater has a letter from Louisiana authorities authorizing its personnel to carry loaded weapons. Initially, some of them were heavily armed, she said, but now that the threat has been determined to be more "benign" than originally thought, they are carrying only handguns.
Blackwater burst onto the world scene in March 2004, when four of its men were killed in Fallujah and two of the charred bodies were hung from a bridge. In April 2005, seven more Blackwater workers died in a helicopter crash and a bomb explosion in Iraq.
Blackwater is based at a sprawling 6,000-acre compound in Moyock, just over the state line from Chesapeake. Formed in 1996 by two former Navy SEAL commandos, it employs 330 permanent workers and 5,000 independent contractors.
The company has become a lightning rod for critics of the Bush administration, at home and abroad. A Canadian online report describes Blackwater personnel "rumbling through the New Orleans streets, armed to the teeth and in full battle gear." A French Web site carried the headline "Overkill: Feared Blackwater Mercenaries Deploy in New Orleans."
Several accounts compared the federal presence in New Orleans to the U.S. invasion force in Iraq, such as this Monday Web posting in The Nation magazine:
"It's almost as if the Tigris - rather than the Mississippi - had flooded the city. The place feels like a sick theme park - Macho World - where cops, mercenaries, journalists and weird volunteers of all sorts are playing out a relatively safe version of their militaristic fantasies."
Many reports refer to the Blackwater personnel as "mercenaries," but Duke took issue with that characterization.
The United Nations defines a mercenary as someone who fights in an armed conflict for private gain and is not a citizen of a party to the conflict.
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign