Blackwater: One Man's private army

In Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books, $26.95, 452 pp.), journalist Jeremy Scahill explores how a Michigan Republican founded and grew a private security company into what many consider one of the most significant military forces in the world. Drawing on news stories, personal interviews, government documents and other research, Scahill narrates a story of a changing U.S. military, a private company capitalizing on the White House's invasion of Iraq and how these actions have affected the men and the families involved. We present an excerpt from the preface.

While the war on terror and the Iraq occupation have given birth to scores of companies, few if any have experienced the meteoric rise to power, profit, and prominence that Blackwater has. In less than a decade, it has risen out of a swamp in North Carolina to become a sort of Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration's "global war on terror." Today, Blackwater has 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. Blackwater has a private fleet of more than twenty aircraft, including helicopter gunships and a surveillance blimp division. Its 7,000-acre headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina, is the world's largest private military facility. It trains tens of thousands of federal and local law enforcement agents a year and troops from "friendly" foreign nations. The company operates its own intelligence division and counts among its executives senior ex-military and intelligence officials. It recently began constructing new facilities in California ("Blackwater West") and Illinois ("Blackwater North"), as well as a jungle training facility in the Philippines. Blackwater has more than $500 million in government contracts — and that does not include its secret "black" budget operations for U.S. intelligence agencies or private corporations/individuals and foreign governments. As one U.S. Congressmember observed, in strictly military terms, Blackwater could overthrow many of the world's governments.

Blackwater is a private army, and it is controlled by one person: Erik Prince, a radical right-wing Christian mega-millionaire who has served as a major bankroller not only of President Bush's campaigns but of the broader Christian-right agenda. In fact, as of this writing Prince has never given a penny to a Democratic candidate — certainly his right, but an unusual pattern from the head of such a powerful war-servicing corporation, and one that speaks volumes about the sincerity of his ideological commitment. Blackwater has been one of the most effective battalions in Rumsfeld's war on the Pentagon, and Prince speaks boldly about the role his company is playing in the radical transformation of the U.S. military. "When you ship overnight, do you use the postal service, or do you use FedEx?" Prince recently asked during a panel discussion with military officials. "Our corporate goal is to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did to the postal service."

Perhaps the most telling sign that such a transformation had taken place came when the White house outsourced the job of protecting America's most senior officials in Iraq to Blackwater beginning in 2003. As L. Paul Bremer, Bush's envoy in the first year of the occupation, hunkered down in Baghdad to implement the Bush agenda, he was protected by Blackwater, as every successive U.S. ambassador there has been. In contrast to active-duty soldiers who are poorly paid, Blackwater's guards were given six-figure salaries. "Standard wages for PSD (personal security detail) pros [in Iraq] were previously running about $300 [per man] a day," Fortune magazine reported at the time. "Once Blackwater started recruiting for its first big job, guarding Paul Bremer, the rate shot up to $600 a day." With almost no public debate, the Bush administration has outsourced to the private sector many of the functions historically handled by the military. In turn, these private companies are largely unaccountable to the U.S. taxpayers from whom they draw their profits. Some began comparing the mercenary market in Iraq to the Alaskan Gold Rush and the O.K. Corral. As The Times of London put it at the time, "In Iraq, the postwar business boom is not oil. It is security."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]

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