Monday, February 19, 2007

Coalition Of The Billing

Although I have covered the issue before, including fairly recently, comments from another recent post made me want to read up a bit more about what I feel is one of the more pernicious and under-reported trends in the American military -- private contracting, particularly Blackwater, which has capitalized quite well on the money and political connections of its founder, Erik Prince.

Well, Erik Prince, the head of Blackwater, and other Blackwater executives are major bankrollers of the President, of Tom DeLay, of Santorum. They really were -- when those guys were running Congress, Amy, Blackwater had just a revolving door there. They were really welcomed in as heroes. Senator John Warner, the former head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called them “our silent partner in the global war on terror.” Erik Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, is married to Dick Devos, who recently lost the gubernatorial race in Michigan.

But also, Amy, this is a family, the Prince family, that really was one of the primary funders. It was Amway and Dick DeVos in the 1990s, and it was Edgar Prince and his network -- Erik Prince's father -- that really created James Dobson, Focus on the Family -- they gave them the seed money to start it -- Gary Bauer, who was one of the original signers to the Project for a New American Century, a major anti-choice leader in this country, former presidential candidate, founder of the Family Research Council. He credits Edgar Prince, Erik’s father, with giving him the money to start the Family Research Council. We’re talking about people who were at the forefront of the rightwing Christian revolution in this country that really is gaining steam, despite recent electoral defeats.

And what’s really frightening is that you have a man in Erik Prince, who is a neo-crusader, a Christian supremacist, who has been given over a half a billion dollars in federal contracts, and that's not to mention his black contracts, his secret contracts, his contracts with foreign friendly governments like Jordan. This is a man who espouses Christian supremacy, and he has been given, essentially, allowed to create a private army to defend Christendom around the world against secularists and Muslims and others, and has really been brought into the fold. He refers to Blackwater as the sort of FedEx of the Pentagon. He says if you really want a package to get somewhere, do you go with the postal service or do you go with FedEx? This is how these people view themselves. And it embodies everything that President Eisenhower prophesied would happen with the rise of an unchecked military-industrial complex. You have it all in Blackwater.

Get all that? The Prince family, already heirs to a billion-dollar auto-parts buyout, are hooked up with the Amway money of the longtime conservatard DeVos family. Talk about your wingnut pedigrees.

And Prince complements his Christofascist upbringing with what appears to be an extremely efficient and competent operational model:

Slavko Ilic circles the grappling forms, darting in to shout encouragement or correct a technique. He's an extra-large martial arts expert. He sports a shaved head, chiseled arms and the look of a man who does not back down.

"Again!" Ilic barks. "Do it again!"

Getting it right in class now could be the difference between life and death later. Graduates are, most likely, headed to the messy battlefields of the war on terrorism - a fitful conflict with no front lines.

These men are not soldiers, at least not anymore. All have military experience, but in order to join a new breed of warriors - private security contractors - they must pass this eight-week, $20,000 course.

Ilic also holds black belts in four martial arts, according to the article. Seems like he'd be ideal training Special Forces teams in the U.S. Army, rather than for some shadowy private militia owned by a certifiable nut.

Only the authorized get past the gate. A buzz-cut guard sees to that, a handgun strapped to his thigh. Inside, a winding road leads to the heart of the 7,000-acre compound - a bigger spread than any military base in South Hampton Roads.

Heavy equipment scurries to and fro, moving mountains of dirt. Over here, a 6,000-foot runway is taking shape for an air wing coming up from Florida. Over there, a 1-acre hangar will shelter the company's state-of-the-art blimp project.

Just past a 15-acre lake is the new nerve center: a 65,000-square-foot headquarters with 300 rooms. Opened this spring, it is the largest building in Camden County. Machine-gun barrels serve as handles on the heavy front doors. A receptionist sits behind a desk fashioned from armor plating.

These guys are not screwing around. State-of-the-art facilities, equipment, and instructors, and a hands-off policy from the civil authorities -- indeed, the secrecy and authority of Prince's organization appears to be tacitly endorsed by the local civic leaders and the federal legislators Blackwater contracts with.

Contractors and soldiers also can get in each other's way. There have been episodes of friendly fire and missions that don't mesh.

Another point of tension: The military talent drain. Hefty paychecks available at companies like Blackwater are luring some of the best and brightest away from the service while creating friction with those still in uniform.

Issues like these have prompted a number of politicians to push for greater regulation of the private military industry. They want established standards and better oversight.

The spotlight fell on Blackwater in March, when Vice Chairman Cofer Black announced at a conference in Jordan that his company was ready to provide peacekeeping brigades to foreign governments and international bodies. News accounts of his speech raised the specter of a private army for rent to the highest bidder. The company insists Black never said any such thing.

It was hardly Blackwater's first time on the front page. Its contractors have shown up repeatedly in war zone photographs - a muscular wall of men in mirrored sunglasses, bristling with firepower, guarding VIPs. Those images helped make Blackwater an icon for its industry.

Then there was Fallujah, which put the company's name on everyone's TV screen - and changed the course of the war. After four Blackwater contractors were killed there, Marines were ordered to pound the city - a shift in strategy that fanned the flames of insurgency across Iraq.

Cofer Black is a goddamned creep; I just felt it was important to mention that. But more critically, as shown above, not only have there been instances where the mercenaries' mission has conflicted with an operation being performed by the actual armed forces of the United States. Worse yet, Fallujah was besieged, pounded flat, and turned into a ghetto of retinal scans and forced labor, in no small part as a response to the Blackwater casualties. Thousands of innocent people have died so a select few could make some money and live the life of adventure and danger that they believe is their entitlement.

And Erik Prince and friends have capitalized on all this with a ruthless precision that makes them all the more dangerous.

Peter Singer (who also coined the phrase which titles this post) wrote a comprehensive overview of the overall situation for the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law several years ago. (And believe me, if you're not reading the CJTL, you are missing out on one hell of a swimsuit issue.) One excerpt stood out to me in particular:

Being service-orientated businesses that operate on the global level and often have small infrastructures, PMFs [privatized military firms] have the ability to transform in order to circumvent legislation or escape prosecution. That is, there are specific firm tactics that have allowed PMFs to defeat local state regulation through recreating or relocating themselves. If the local government proves inhospitable or begins to target their contracting, PMFs can shift their bases of operation to more amenable areas. For example, at the time that South African legislation began to focus on his firm in the late 1990s, Eben Barlow, the founder of Executive Outcomes, expressed that he was not all that concerned. “Three other African countries have offered us a home and a big European group has even proposed buying us out.”

Another escape option is for firms simply to take on a new corporate structure or name whenever they are legally challenged. The Lifeguard firm, operating in Sierra Leone, was considered by many to be a spin-off from Executive Outcomes, which eventually closed in South Africa. Lifeguard was made up of many of Executive Outcomes’ former employees, maintained some of its old corporate ties, and operated in its former contract zones. Similarly, the Capricorn Air firm was re-registered as Ibis Air in Angola and South Africa and later was reported to have shifted to Malta. The result is not only that national legislation is a difficult long-term solution, but also that attempts to eliminate the firms tend only to drive them and their clients further underground, away from public oversight.

The second problem with national regulation results from the often extraterritorial nature of possible enforcement. The real risk of gross misbehavior by PMFs is not during their operations in sound states like the United States, but rather the contracts they have in weak or failing states. The inherent problem is that local authorities in such areas often have neither the power nor the wherewithal to challenge these firms. For example, the weak central government of Sierra Leone could not control its own capital, let alone monitor and punish the actions of an outside military firm.

There's a lot there that has been borne out in the results, at least what little that has actually leaked to the corporate media. Corroborated allegations of private security personnel (specifically from Blackwater, Titan, and CACI) having active involvement in what could euphemistically be described as "coercive interrogation" techniques, such as those we all saw from Abu Ghraib -- at least, the photos we children were actually permitted to see.

But the name Executive Outcomes also rang a bell, and here's why:

On 25 November, Sir Mark Thatcher faces a daunting appearance in a South African court on charges that he helped fund a military coup in the West African state of Equatorial Guinea. If found guilty he could face 15 years in a South African prison.

The Money Programme has travelled to Africa to investigate the full story of the attempted coup and the men who led it. What was Sir Mark's role, and how much did he really know?

Sir Mark's business career has long attracted controversy, and rumours have persisted about the true source of his money.

After a series of controversial business deals in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and the USA, in 1995 he settled in Cape Town.

It was here that he met another British expat, former SAS officer Simon Mann, and this was the friendship which would lead to his current predicament.

Mr Mann had extensive military experience, and drew on it to set up a private security company called Executive Outcomes. Last year he was presented with a potentially lucrative business opportunity.

It should be pointed out that Obiang is a scumbag's scumbag, a vicious little thug whose brutality seems almost designed to make, say, Mobutu Sese Seko look like a pussy in comparison. The world be none the poorer if Obiang were toppled and summarily staked to an anthill, reputedly Obiang's preferred method of dealing with political opponents.

But obviously that's not the point; there is no indication that opposition leader Severo Moto would be any better than Obiang, nor can any comparative good be obtained from allowing a bunch of corporate Hessians to prop Moto into place, ostensibly for the good of Equatorial Guinea. It's a criminally negligent dodge, especially since that country, given Nigeria's increasing instability, is becoming more and more of a West African oil asset for us.

And if anything, it also increases the capacity for exploitation of these corrupt petrocracies -- American tankers merely show up at the offshore platforms, located dozens of miles out in the ocean, fill up, and return to Houston. Not even the pretense of helping with the ancillary economies that would ordinarily spring up in such locales -- restaurants, resorts, and the like. It's a sweet little racket, one that definitionally disenfranchises most Equatorial Guineans. So Executive Outcomes' little corporate protection racket, in conjunction with such operations, is one that is designed to protect the thug-of-the-week from his own people.

That sounds decidedly un-Christian to these heathen ears, but I lost that tune many years ago.

Here's more on the specific functions (and crimes) of these companies:

As the U.S. military wages the war on terrorism, it is increasingly relying on for-profit companies like Blackwater to do work normally performed by soldiers. Defense contractors now do more than simply build airplanes -- they maintain those planes on the battlefield and even fly them in some of the world's most troubled conflict zones. Private military companies supply bodyguards for the president of Afghanistan, construct detention camps to hold suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, and pilot armed reconnaissance planes and helicopter gunships to eradicate coca crops in Colombia. They operate the intelligence and communications systems at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, which is responsible for coordinating a response to any attack on the United States. And licensed by the State Department, they are contracting with foreign governments, training soldiers and reorganizing militaries in Nigeria, Bulgaria, Taiwan, and Equatorial Guinea.


The United States has a history of dispatching private military companies to handle the dirtiest foreign assignments. The Pentagon quietly hired for-profit firms to train Vietnamese troops before America officially entered the war, and the CIA secretly used private companies to transport weapons to the Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s after Congress had cut off aid. But as the Bush administration replaces record numbers of soldiers with contractors, it creates more opportunities for private firms to carry out clandestine operations banned by Congress or unpopular with the public. "We can see some merit in using an outside contractor," Charles Snyder, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, recently told reporters, "because then we're not using U.S. uniforms and bodies."

Like the Clinton administration, the Bush administration is relying heavily on private military companies to wage the war on drugs in South America. Federal law bans U.S. soldiers from participating in Colombia's war against left-wing rebels and from training army units with ties to right-wing paramilitaries infamous for torture and political killings. There are no such restrictions on for-profit companies, though, and since the late 1990s, the United States has paid private military companies an estimated $1.2 billion, both to eradicate coca crops and to help the Colombian army put down rebels who use the drug trade to finance their insurgency.

The largest beneficiary of this privatized war has been DynCorp, which is helping Colombia's national police destroy coca crops with aerial defoliants. But according to experts familiar with the war, the company's role goes well beyond spraying fields. DynCorp employees "are engaged in combatant roles, fighting in counterinsurgency operations against the Colombian rebel groups," says Peter Singer, a foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors. "Indeed, the DynCorp personnel have a local reputation for being both arrogant and far too willing to get ‘wet,' going out on frequent combat missions and engaging in firefights." DynCorp has not responded to the allegation.

Relying on DynCorp and other private military companies has enabled Washington to circumvent Congress and avoid attention. "If the narcotraffickers shot American soldiers down, you could see the headlines: ‘U.S. Troops Killed in Colombia,'" says Myles Frechette, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia during the Clinton administration. By contrast, the 1992 assassination of three DynCorp employees, whose helicopter was shot down during an anti-drug mission in Peru, merited exactly 113 words in the New York Times. (In February, when another air-craft crashed during a drug operation in Colombia, three employees of Northrop Grumman were taken hostage.)

Private military companies also played an unheralded role in the Balkans. After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations placed an embargo on providing military assistance to either Serbia or Croatia. Some in the State Department, however, wanted to counter the dominance of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic by strengthening Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, a self-proclaimed Aryan supremacist. Private military companies once again provided the answer. In 1994, the State Department issued a license to MPRI to provide military training to the Croatian army. "It allowed the United States to exert a good deal of political heft while reserving its official stance of not being involved," says Avant, the international-affairs expert at George Washington University.

MPRI insists that it provided no combat training to Croatian troops, saying it merely instructed the country's military in how to operate in a Western-style democracy under civilian control. But according to independent reports, the company taught basic infantry tactics to Croatian soldiers and explained how to coordinate assaults. In August 1995, after the training ended, the Croatian army launched Operation Storm, a U.S.-style military operation designed to take back the disputed Krajina region from the Serbs. The four-day assault was a bloody episode of ethnic cleansing. Croatian graduates of MPRI's training carried out summary executions and indiscriminately shelled civilians, leaving hundreds dead and more than 150,000 homeless. Afterward, the Croatians expressed their gratitude for MPRI's help. "They lecture us on tactics and big war operations," one officer told The Observer of London, "which is why we needed them for Operation Storm."

Such incidents point to the greatest danger underlying the increasing push to privatize war. Soldiers who disobey orders or violate standards of conduct can be court-martialed and incarcerated; their supervisors can be reassigned or forced to retire. Private companies, by contrast, are able to operate in almost complete secrecy, with little accountability to civilian or military authorities. Consider the case of two DynCorp employees who exposed a sex-trafficking scandal in Bosnia, where the company was assisting the American military with peacekeeping operations during the late 1990s. According to court documents, DynCorp employees bought and sold local Bosnian girls, some as young as 13, for use as sex slaves, often confiscating the passports of victims so they couldn't escape. The men were not subjected to local or U.S. criminal charges; DynCorp simply whisked them home -- and fired the two whistleblowers.

The lack of accountability could have grave consequences in battle. The Pentagon has become so dependent on private military companies that it literally cannot wage war without them. Troops already rely on for-profit contractors to maintain 28 percent of all weapons systems, and the Bush administration wants to increase that figure to 50 percent. In most cases, private military companies can legally withdraw their employees if faced with danger in a combat zone -- an escape clause that worries many military officials. If contractors flee when the shooting starts, it could sever supply lines, ground aircraft, and leave soldiers to run complex weapons systems they no longer have the skill or know-how to keep in working order. "There are some weapons systems that the U.S. military forces do not have the capability to do their own maintenance on," concedes David Young, a deputy commander at the Defense Contract Management Agency. "When you take these weapons systems into a combat zone, is contract support still reliable, especially if you are facing weapons of mass destruction? It's a source of worry when you're talking about chemical or biological weapons."

Where to begin? These companies operate with almost total impunity, extra-nationally, supra-nationally, with no accountability or even modest oversight. As the article points out, there's nothing to stop a few bastards from making some money and getting some strange on the side by selling Balkan teenagers, or maybe doing a midnight run of some of that Colombian dope they're supposed to be eradicating. How do you think it gets here in the first place, on the back of Juan Valdez' trusty mule, or a Miami Vice speedboat, or something along that line? Or is it more likely the connected creeps and motherfuckers who operate in the shadows, at high profit and minimal exposure?

That 43 lbs of heroin was found on board the Lear Jet owned by Wally Hilliard, the owner of [Mohammed] Atta’s flight school, just three weeks after Atta enrolled – the biggest seizure ever in Central Florida – was just bad luck. That Hilliard was not charged shows how specious the claims for conspiracy truly are.

That Hilliard’s plane had made 30-round trips to Venezuela with the same passengers who always paid cash, that the plane had been supplied by a pair of drug smugglers who had also outfitted CIA drug runner Barry Seal, and that 9/11 commissioner Richard ben-Veniste had been Seal’s attorney before Seal’s murder, shows nothing but the lengths to which conspiracists will go to draw sinister conclusions.

This does not mean that Blackwater or DynCorp had any specific involvement with Wally Hilliard or Barry Seal, only to point out that, given the lack of transparency and accountability, it's very easy for such illicit activities to take place practically unnoticed.

And with someone like Erik Prince, a scion of what could charitably be characterized as the moneyed christian supremacist movement that flourishes in various corners of the vaunted heartland, the possibilities range from the merely unseemly to the downright scary.

The drive by the Christian right to take control of military chaplaincies, which now sees radical Christians holding roughly 50 percent of chaplaincy appointments in the armed services and service academies, is part of a much larger effort to politicize the military and law enforcement. This effort signals the final and perhaps most deadly stage in the long campaign by the radical Christian right to dismantle America’s open society and build a theocratic state. A successful politicization of the military would signal the end of our democracy.

During the past two years I traveled across the country to research and write the book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” I repeatedly listened to radical preachers attack as corrupt and godless most American institutions, from federal agencies that provide housing and social welfare to public schools and the media. But there were two institutions that never came under attack—the military and law enforcement. While these preachers had no interest in communicating with local leaders of other faiths, or those in the community who did not subscribe to their call for a radical Christian state, they assiduously courted and flattered the military and police. They held special services and appreciation days for all four branches of the armed services and for various law enforcement agencies. They encouraged their young men and women to enlist or to join the police or state troopers. They sought out sympathetic military and police officials to attend church events where these officials were lauded and feted for their Christian probity and patriotism. They painted the war in Iraq not as an occupation but as an apocalyptic battle by Christians against Islam, a religion they regularly branded as “satanic.” All this befits a movement whose final aesthetic is violence. It also befits a movement that, in the end, would need the military and police forces to seize power in American society.

One of the arguments used to assuage our fears that the mass movement being built by the Christian right is fascist at its core is that it has not yet created a Praetorian Guard, referring to the paramilitary force that defied legal constraints, made violence part of the political discourse and eventually plunged ancient Rome into tyranny and despotism. A paramilitary force that operates outside the law, one that sows fear among potential opponents and is capable of physically silencing those branded by their leaders as traitors, is a vital instrument in the hands of despotic movements. Communist and fascist movements during the last century each built paramilitary forces that operated beyond the reach of the law.

This is where a guy like Prince comes in and establishes a presence. Prince himself has averred that Blackwater's true mission has been to provide the best facilities and training for specialized security ops, without all the pesky carrying costs (such as health care). But that is disingenuous, given the role of Prince's own family in endorsing and supporting some of the most radical Christianist culture-warrior organizations in the country.

This is the downside of all the cost-cutting in the military budget over the past decade or so -- private contractors become ever more plentiful, frequently performing jobs that armed forces personnel are no longer even trained to do. Meanwhile, the institutionalized neutrality insisted upon (in at least a pro forma manner) becomes circumvented by the growing power and influence of these private organizations with their own explicit agenda.

What happens if a heathen American populace decides on an electoral course not to Erik Prince's liking? This is not some ramshackle compound of racist yahoos in Buttfuck, Idaho, this is a military-grade establishment a short drive from the nation's capital.

“Contracting out security to groups like Blackwater undermines our constitutional democracy,” said Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Their actions may not be subject to constitutional limitations that apply to both federal and state officials and employees—including First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from illegal searches and seizures. Unlike police officers they are not trained in protecting constitutional rights and unlike police officers or the military they have no system of accountability whether within their organization or outside it. These kind of paramilitary groups bring to mind Nazi Party brownshirts, functioning as an extrajudicial enforcement mechanism that can and does operate outside the law. The use of these paramilitary groups is an extremely dangerous threat to our rights."

The politicization of the military, the fostering of the belief that violence must be used to further a peculiar ideology rather than defend a democracy, was on display recently when Air Force and Army generals and colonels, filmed in uniform at the Pentagon, appeared in a promotional video distributed by the Christian Embassy, a radical Washington-based organization dedicated to building a “Christian America.”

Maybe the individual rent-a-thugs who work for Erik Prince share his ideology, maybe they don't. Is there even a remote question that that is not a chance worth taking? Maybe we should ask the folks in New Orleans about that one. I'm sure Geraldo Rivera's looking into it.

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