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2004-03-02

Head of U.S. Security Firm That Guarded Aristide Speaks Out

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Reports emerged yesterday that the private U.S. security firm guarding President Aristide was prevented by the White House from sending reinforcements to Haiti last week to bolster his security. We speak with the CEO of the firm Kenneth Kurtz. [includes transcript]

As we reported yesterday on Democracy Now!, Jean-Bertrand Aristide says he was told by US officials this weekend that if he did not leave Haiti, paramilitary leader Guy Philippe would storm the palace and Aristide would be killed. Congressmember Maxine Waters said on this program that Aristide was told by the US that they were withdrawing Aristide’s US security. But just what was Aristide’s "US Security?"

It turns out that Aristide was being guarded by a private security firm, based in San Francisco. It is called the Steele Foundation. It is made up of former US special forces soldiers, intelligence officers and other security experts. The company has been on a State Department-approved contract with the Haitian government since 1998.

The Miami Herald reports that the White House blocked a last-minute attempt by Aristide to bolster his US security as the paramilitaries reached the capital. The paper said U.S. officials prevented reinforcements from the Steele Foundation from going to Haiti last week to protect Aristide.

According to media reports, the Steele Foundation asked the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince on Saturday whether the company could count on American protection in the event of rebel hostilities at the presidential palace. They were reportedly told that no such protection would be provided.

The Steele Foundation knows well the Haitian leaders of the current coup. In December 2001, Steele’s guards fought back a coup attempt by paramilitary leader Guy Philippe–who had been trained by US Special Forces in Ecuador in the early 1990s. In that coup attempt, Guy Philippe led two dozen heavily armed men in attacking the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, killing four people.

Aristide was not in the palace at the time and survived the attempt. Following the incident, Aristide’s Steele guard rose from about 10 to about 60 in 2000 after an apparent coup attempt the previous December, according to Herald reports.

  • Kenneth Kurtz, CEO of the San Francisco-based security company Steele Foundation.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday we managed to reach the CEO of the Steele Foundation, Ken Kurtz, on the telephone at his corporate headquarters in San Francisco.

KENNETH KURTZ: The Republic of Haiti contracted with the Steele Foundation to provide protective services and training to the office of the president in the Republic of Haiti in 1998, and we have successfully carried out that contract since then.

AMY GOODMAN: President Aristide is saying that he was kidnapped. Can you comment on that?

KENNETH KURTZ: I haven’t heard President Aristide say that he was kidnapped. I can tell you that the mission of our company is to protect the head of state from assassination, kidnapping, and embarrassment, and that’s what we did.

AMY GOODMAN: He says he told a Congressmember–and he was just on CNN–and he said he was kidnapped.

KENNETH KURTZ: Again, I haven’t heard President Aristide say that, so I cannot comment.

AMY GOODMAN: Have some Steele Foundation security gone with him to the Central African Republic?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot comment on that.

AMY GOODMAN: And were Steele Foundation personnel there on Saturday night?

KENNETH KURTZ: We were with the president when he left the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ask the US Government in Haiti whether you could count on more protection if rebels attacked the president?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot comment on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you concerned in these last days that you didn’t have enough personnel there, given the environment?

KENNETH KURTZ: Oh, I think for weeks the government was deeply concerned about protecting themselves against a rebel force that was very well armed. I think that over the last few weeks, you saw that President Aristide asked for international assistance to be able to protect his government, a democratically elected government against an invading rebel force essentially.

AMY GOODMAN: How well armed is that rebel force?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot go into specifics. They were well armed.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the Steele Foundation still in Haiti protecting other personnel of the government of Haiti?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot confirm that.

AMY GOODMAN: Does the Steele Foundation work hand-in-hand with the US military in a case like this, with US soldiers coming in?

KENNETH KURTZ: No, not at all. In this case we work for the government of Haiti. We took direction directly–and only from–the president.

AMY GOODMAN: Was the president concerned that the military–or that his security forces–would be leaving? Did the Steele Foundation ever tell the president that you would be leaving him, if he did not leave?

KENNETH KURTZ: No, no, of course not. We’ve been in Haiti since 1998, and we’ve been through one attempted coup d’etat–in December 17th a couple of years ago. We’ve been through some very, very serious situations. The people that worked in Haiti, protecting the president, were 100% dedicated to President Aristide and insuring that we fulfilled our mission and our focus, which was to insure his safety as well as the safety of his family.

AMY GOODMAN: Are many of the forces that you work with, or the personnel that the Steele Foundation works with, are they veterans of US Special Forces?

KENNETH KURTZ: Our personnel are all trained in their respective skills. The Steele Foundation is a multinational corporation. Our team in Haiti, I can confirm, is an international team.

AMY GOODMAN: The attempted coup was carried out by whom? In December 17th.

KENNETH KURTZ: I think there were a number of people. Guy Philippe was certainly involved in that. I think, that historically, if you look at the individuals that are involved in this "rebel force," they are all historical individuals in Haiti, who had a very active role in some extreme violence in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think President Aristide had reason to be concerned?

KENNETH KURTZ: I can’t speak on behalf of President Aristide.

AMY GOODMAN: Were your men concerned?

KENNETH KURTZ: We were concerned about the overall security situation in the country. As protecting the president, we consistently made sure that we had proper resources in place.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the US Government ever tell the Steele Foundation to leave?

KENNETH KURTZ: No.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they tell you?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot comment on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they ever say they wouldn’t help you in these last days, when it got more and more precarious, more and more dangerous?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot comment on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel that you had the support of the US Government there in protecting President Aristide?

KENNETH KURTZ: It was our job to protect President Aristide, not the job of the United States Government.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in the Miami Herald, that says, "The Bush Administration blocked a last minute attempt by President Aristide to bolster his bodyguards–mostly former US Special Forces members–fearing he wanted them to organize and lead a counterattack against the rebels... US Officials also forced a small group of extra bodyguards from the Steele Foundation to delay their flight from the United States to Haiti from Sunday to a later day–too late to help Aristide, said the sources, who are close to Aristide." Is that true?

KENNETH KURTZ: No. No. It’s not.

AMY GOODMAN: Did those reinforcements come?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot comment.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel President Aristide’s life was in danger when he left?

KENNETH KURTZ: I think that the security situation in the country was very serious, and I think that if international assistance would have arrived, it would have certainly stabilized the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you call for it as well?

KENNETH KURTZ: It wasn’t our place to call for that. Our only mission was to provide protection to the office of the president.

AMY GOODMAN: And you felt that if forces had come in, it would have shored him up? It would have protected him?

KENNETH KURTZ: I think it would have stabilized the security situation in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Did any of your men get delayed in coming down and adding to the contingent around the president?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot comment on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Steele Foundation was the company that was there to protect the president. In the end, the president clearly felt he had gotten the message, he said, from US Forces, that he would no longer be protected. Why do you think he felt that way?

KENNETH KURTZ: I cannot comment on why President Aristide, or what President Aristide said. I guess anybody watching the news can see that the security situation in the country was dire.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the US Military could have made a difference at the end?

KENNETH KURTZ: Well, I would probably turn that question around you to, and ask, "Looking at the US military, coming in the day after he left, and that, in itself, insuring some stability, do you think that, if they would have come in a day before, it would have created stability?"

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Kenneth Kurtz, CEO of the Steele Foundation. You can hear the whole interview on our website at democracynow.org. Steele Foundation works in security around the world, including in Iraq. I asked Mr. Kurtz if the Steele Foundation is providing security for Paul Bremer. He said he would not comment. That does it for today’s program. Again, our website has comprehensive coverage of the situation in Haiti–democracynow.org.

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