Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Ol' Blackwater, Keep On Rollin'

Blackwater mercenaries have been re-deployed from their current mission of securing Iraq's theocracy to secure order in New Orleans. Hijinks are practically guaranteed to ensue.

Heavily armed paramilitary mercenaries from the Blackwater private security firm, infamous for their work in Iraq, are openly patrolling the streets of New Orleans. Some of the mercenaries say they have been "deputized" by the Louisiana governor; indeed some are wearing gold Louisiana state law enforcement badges on their chests and Blackwater photo identification cards on their arms. They say they are on contract with the Department of Homeland Security and have been given the authority to use lethal force. Several mercenaries we spoke with said they had served in Iraq on the personal security details of the former head of the US occupation, L. Paul Bremer and the former US ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte.

"This is a totally new thing to have guys like us working CONUS (Continental United States)," a heavily armed Blackwater mercenary told us as we stood on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. "We're much better equipped to deal with the situation in Iraq."

"CONUS". Love it. This raises some issues that have been on my mind since about when the Abu Ghraib scandal first went public last May. There were quite a few reports at the time that private contractors had been heavily involved in interrogation sessions, some of which resulted in fatalities.

In general principle, the privatization of combat functions for the military is kind of a scary thing anyway. Remember, the military theoretically is beholden to -- and speaks for -- the American citizenry. The mercenary is not; there is no accountability. In fact, that's why they're being used more and more -- it's much easier to flush their wrongdoings down the memory hole.

So why exactly are mercenaries being deputized and empowered with shoot-to-kill orders? Is this some sort of end-run around Posse Comitatus?

Blackwater mercenaries are some of the most feared professional killers in the world and they are accustomed to operating without worry of legal consequences. Their presence on the streets of New Orleans should be a cause for serious concern for the remaining residents of the city and raises alarming questions about why the government would allow men trained to kill with impunity in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to operate here. Some of the men now patrolling the streets of New Orleans returned from Iraq as recently as 2 weeks ago.

What is most disturbing is the claim of several Blackwater mercenaries we spoke with that they are here under contract from the federal and Louisiana state governments.

Blackwater is one of the leading private "security" firms servicing the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. It has several US government contracts and has provided security for many senior US diplomats, foreign dignitaries and corporations. The company rose to international prominence after 4 of its men were killed in Fallujah and two of their charred bodies were hung from a bridge in March 2004. Those killings sparked the massive US retaliation against the civilian population of Fallujah that resulted in scores of deaths and tens of thousands of refugees.

As the threat of forced evictions now looms in New Orleans and the city confiscates even legally registered weapons from civilians, the private mercenaries of Blackwater patrol the streets openly wielding M-16s and other assault weapons. This despite Police Commissioner Eddie Compass' claim that "Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons."

It's somewhat frightening to think about just what kind of powers certain corporations are allowed to exert over supposedly free, independent American citizens. At this point though, it's the intellectual equivalent of shutting the barn door long after the horse has gone down the road. Most prisons across the country are run by private contractors like Wackenhut and Unicor. Certain aspects of military ops have been getting privatized for years now; companies like Blackwater, Titan, and CACI are generally started up by ex-special ops guys in the first place.

The reason why they leave for the private sector is obvious -- more money. But you have to consider the upside for the government here to outsource cerain military functions. Less accountability. Less scrutiny. Easier to cover tracks. Less chance of internal whistleblowers. And it's all on the "black budget" -- only certain members of Congress are fully apprised of the specifics, and the public will never know the full extent of this.

This is a perfect example of the very real danger of allowing corporate interests to literally have the power to make life-or-death decisions for people.

Officially, Blackwater says it forces are in New Orleans to "join the Hurricane Relief Effort." A statement on the company's website, dated September 1, advertises airlift services, security services and crowd control. The company, according to news reports, has since begun taking private contracts to guard hotels, businesses and other properties. But what has not been publicly acknowledged is the claim, made to us by 2 Blackwater mercenaries, that they are actually engaged in general law enforcement activities including "securing neighborhoods" and "confronting criminals."

That raises a key question: under what authority are Blackwater's men operating? A spokesperson for the Homeland Security Department, Russ Knocke, told the Washington Post he knows of no federal plans to hire Blackwater or other private security. "We believe we've got the right mix of personnel in law enforcement for the federal government to meet the demands of public safety." he said.

But in an hour-long conversation with several Blackwater mercenaries, we heard a different story. The men we spoke with said they are indeed on contract with the Department of Homeland Security and the Louisiana governor's office and that some of them are sleeping in camps organized by Homeland Security in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. One of them wore a gold Louisiana state law enforcement badge and said he had been "deputized" by the governor. They told us they not only had authority to make arrests but also to use lethal force. We encountered the Blackwater forces as we walked through the streets of the largely deserted French Quarter. We were talking with 2 New York Police officers when an unmarked car without license plates sped up next to us and stopped. Inside were 3 men, dressed in khaki uniforms, flak jackets and wielding automatic weapons. "Y'all know where the Blackwater guys are?" they asked. One of the police officers responded, "There are a bunch of them around here," and pointed down the road.


"When they told me New Orleans, I said, 'What country is that in?,'" said one of the Blackwater men. He was wearing his company ID around his neck in a carrying case with the phrase "Operation Iraqi Freedom" printed on it. After bragging about how he drives around Iraq in a "State Department issued level 5, explosion proof BMW," he said he was "just trying to get back to Kirkuk (in the north of Iraq) where the real action is." Later we overheard him on his cell phone complaining that Blackwater was only paying $350 a day plus per diem. That is much less than the men make serving in more dangerous conditions in Iraq. Two men we spoke with said they plan on returning to Iraq in October. But, as one mercenary said, they've been told they could be in New Orleans for up to 6 months. "This is a trend," he told us. "You're going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations."

That can't be good.


Craig Heath said...

No, it certainly can't be good, and this puts the fine point on the larger issue you raise - privatization as a means of skirting accountability.

To me, this is just one example (though a very frightening one) of the general trend you cite - more and more formerly government functions being privatized. It accomplishes two things - it transfers wealth from taxpayers to private corporations (think of all the chow lines that Halliburton runs now instead of the Army cooks and bottle washers), and it absolves the government of responsibility for mishaps (what can we do? It was a private contractor who shot your granny!)

The privatization religion keeps taking bigger and bigger hold on the country, so sending mercenariies into our stricken cities is just the next logical step. Consider - if a U.S. Army private goes up against another citizen, there can be a conflict in his mind that stays his finger from the trigger - he'd be shooting a fellow citizen for acting in a way the solider might agree with. For a mercenary, it's all just business. Nothin' personal, dude, it's my job.

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