award-winning investigative journalist and author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is the national security correspondent at The Nation magazine and a Democracy Now! correspondent. His most recent blog entry is titled 'Erik Prince, You're No Indiana Jones’
Iraq and United Arab Emirates researcher at Human Rights Watch
The United Arab Emirates has confirmed hiring a company headed by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the military firm Blackwater. According to the New York Times, the UAE secretly signed a $529 million contract with Prince’s new company, Reflex Responses, to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign mercenaries. The troops could be deployed if foreign guest workers stage revolts in labor camps, or if the UAE regime were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world. Prince has one rule about the new force: no Muslims. We speak to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and Samer Muscati of Human Rights Watch. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The United Arab Emirates has confirmed hiring a company headed by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater. According to the New York Times, the UAE secretly signed a $529 million contract with Prince’s new company, Reflex Responses, or R2, to put together an 800-member battalion of mercenaries.
Documents show the force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from attacks, and put down internal revolts. The troops could be deployed if foreign guest workers stage revolts in labor camps, or if the UAE regime were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world. One contract document describes, quote, "crowd-control operations" where the crowd "is not armed with firearms but does pose a risk using improvised weapons (clubs and stones)."
The UAE is a close ally with the United States, and it appears the deal has received the Obama administration’s support. One U.S. official told the Times, quote, "The gulf countries, and the U.A.E. in particular, don’t have a lot of military experience. It would make sense if they looked outside their borders for help. They might want to show that they are not to be messed with."
News of the deal also comes just weeks after the UAE’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, visited President Barack Obama at the White House late last month. A White House statement said Obama and the Crown Prince would discuss, quote, "the strong ties between the United States and the U.A.E. and our common strategic interests in the region."
A number of U.S. citizens, including former Blackwater employees, have occupied senior positions in the operation. Legal experts have questioned whether those involved might be breaking federal laws prohibiting U.S. citizens from training foreign troops if they did not secure a license from the U.S. Department of State. The force is reportedly made up of Colombians, South Africans and other foreign troops. Prince reportedly has a strict rule against hiring any Muslims because he’s worried they could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims.
Prince himself now lives in the United Arab Emirates after moving their last year under a cloud of legal controversy here in the United States. The UAE deal is the first to emerge publicly since Prince sold Blackwater and suggested he would leave the private military business behind.
For more, we’re joined by independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, Nation writer, Jeremy Scahill, author of the award-winning bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Jeremy was the first journalist to report on Prince’s move to the United Arab Emirates, two months before it was publicly confirmed.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeremy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this mercenary army that Prince is setting up for the UAE.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, when Erik Prince decided to move to the United Arab Emirates, he gave an interview to a former CIA employee in Vanity Fair in which he said that he was going to be leaving the soldier of fortune business and said he wanted to go and teach high school, and he said, you know, "I’ll teach history. Even Indiana Jones was a teacher." Well, it’s true that Indiana Jones was a teacher, but he also was an anti-mercenary. In fact, in a famous scene in the movie, Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark, his archnemesis, Belloq, who’s working for the Nazis, accuses Indiana Jones of giving a bad name to mercenaries. So, Erik Prince, rather than pursuing that path, has actually pursued the path of the mercenary.
And when he moved to the United Arab Emirates, he said he did so because it was a free society and a country that respected the free market. Well, it didn’t take long for him to get down to business with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and essentially hatched a plot to build up a mercenary army within the borders of the UAE, relying on labor from Colombia. Blackwater has a long history of working with Colombians. In fact, Blackwater paid Colombians $34 a day to operate in Iraq. And when the Colombians protested their payment, saying that they were getting less than the Bulgarians or the others that were working for Blackwater, the white soldiers, Blackwater threatened them, according to the Colombians, and wouldn’t give them their passports back and said, you know, "We’re just going to release you onto the streets of Baghdad." And eventually the Colombians left, and they went and they assassinated the recruiter that had hired them for Blackwater. So it’s ironic that Prince is using the Colombians. Now their pay has been increased to something like $150 a day.
And the purpose of this force, as stated in the corporate documents and in the New York Times, is to deal primarily with the internal situation in the United Arab Emirates. Anyone who’s been to the UAE knows that the economy is entirely fueled by migrant workers, people from the Philippines or from Pakistan or Bangladesh. And they live in these camps, and their conditions are not good, to say the least. So, one of the concerns seemed to be that unrest could spread in those camps, and they didn’t want to use UAE forces to quell those rebellions, but instead send in Erik Prince’s.
The other thing, Amy, that I think is significant about this — and we reported on this on Democracy Now! a year ago — Erik Prince gave a speech in late 2009 in which he talked about the rising influence of Iran in the Middle East and talking about how the Iranians were fanning the flames of Shia revolt. The regime in Bahrain has used the justification to crack down on protesters that they’re agents of Iran or that they’re being influenced or supported by Iran. And Prince essentially came up with a plan, in front of this military audience, for the United States to advocate quietly sending in — this is in late 2009 — quietly sending in private forces, run by Americans or other Westerners, into countries in that region with the express purpose of confronting Iranian influence. We now know that part of the UAE’s arrangement with Erik Prince was aimed precisely at that. So this seems like it’s been something in the works for some time.
I spoke to Representative Jan Schakowsky earlier this week, who of course is on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and has been the most ferocious congressional critic of Blackwater. And she’s raising some very serious questions about whether Erik Prince obtained the necessary license to export these types of services to a foreign country. You have to have a license, what’s called an ITAR license, from the State Department that says, hey, this former Navy SEAL, who has had access to top-secret information from the United States, actually is authorized to conduct these services. Blackwater has been fined in the past millions and millions of dollars by the Justice Department for not obtaining those kinds of licenses. So, it could be, if he didn’t obtain these licenses, that he is actually breaking U.S. law in providing these services to the UAE.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about other U.S. Americans going over there?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, look, the fact is that one of the major sources of income, and one of the things that the UAE is becoming famous for, is being a playground for the war game globally. Companies that service the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have set up shop there, because of the tax situation, because of its proximity to these war zones. And so, you have massive, massive presence of the U.S. war industry in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. And so, for Erik Prince to set up shop there is no surprise. I mean, I know — when I went to Afghanistan late last year, when you’re in the airport in Dubai, it’s journalists, rich Emiratis, or it’s people in transit to Bangladesh or other countries, or it’s the war industry. You see the 18-inch biceps, the wraparound sunglasses. I mean, it really is sort of a gateway to war and a good place to position yourself if you want to make a killing.
AMY GOODMAN: And the other Americans working with Prince in UAE?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, there’s a former FBI agent who actually — CT Chambers, who actually ran Blackwater’s, quote-unquote, "training operation" in Afghanistan for a shell company that Blackwater set up called Paravant. And it seems as though this company was set up explicitly to keep the name Blackwater out of the contract bidding process. It won that contract, and Blackwater still has these contracts to train Afghan national police and military forces. That company came under an intense investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee led by Senator Carl Levin, exploring whether or not Blackwater and the massive war company Raytheon effectively conspired to win contracts for Blackwater while explicitly shielding or shrouding Blackwater’s involvement in secrecy. Two members of that Blackwater force in Afghanistan were recently convicted of manslaughter stemming from the shooting deaths of two Afghan civilians. So the man who ran that program that’s under intense congressional scrutiny right now, and Senator Levin has asked the Justice Department to investigate, is another key player in this Prince operation. He’s supposedly making upwards of $300,000. But the contract is worth $100 million a year, and it started in June, and it’s supposed to go through May of 2015.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to journalist Jeremy Scahill, who wrote the book Blackwater. We’re also joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Samer Muscati. He is the Iraq and UAE researcher for Human Rights Watch, joining us from Toronto. Talk about the human rights situation in UAE, Samer.
SAMER MUSCATI: The human rights situation has gotten worse over the past few weeks. Since April 8, UAE authorities have detained five peaceful activists, including Ahmad Mansour, a prominent rights figure in the UAE and a member of our advisory committee board. And also, they have dissolved the elected boards of two of the country’s longstanding civil society organizations: the Jurists Association and the Teachers’ Association. All this follows calls by citizens for greater electoral rights and greater freedoms. They signed a petition in March, and the associations made a public action in April asking for greater political reforms. And this has been the response of the government. So, unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated further over the past few weeks.
And the UAE also has a long tradition of abusing workers, including the ones that unfortunately this mercenary force appears to be set up to deal with. There’s about 750,000 construction workers and a similar number of domestic workers in the UAE, and they have quite serious complaints, including the fact that they have to pay recruitment fees, which are illegal under UAE law, but they spend thousands of dollars to come to the UAE, and they’re in debt. They work for jobs that pay them very little and in horrible conditions. Even this week, we see temperatures have risen to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit across the UAE, and construction workers are out in the sun, for pennies, basically, slaving away.
AMY GOODMAN: This issue of who lives in the UAE and who would be — whose rebellions would be quelled, if you could talk more about that, Samer, and how much the United States is involved with the UAE, a close U.S. ally?
SAMER MUSCATI: I mean, there is no chance for rebellion, even small protests. We saw in January, the same day that we released our report in the UAE about human rights, about conditions over the past year, the UAE government detained and deported 71 Bangladeshis who had strike because of wage issues. So any sign of discontent or dissent, the UAE authorities act quite quickly to make sure that these type of actions are ended. And even with the latest arrests, I mean, these guys are basically asking for just basic reforms; they’re not asking for an overthrow of the government. And we see the government has come down very hard on them. So the chance of having a widespread movement, that we’ve seen in other countries, I think is not plausible in the UAE.
At the same time, the fact that they’ve taken such draconian measures against these activists, I think, only fuels the idea that reform is needed and, in the long term, undermines the UAE authorities in how they’ve responded to these so-called threats. So it’s — we’re hopeful that these activists will be released soon, but there’s no indication that they will be. And they’re being — basically they’re being looked at for crimes of opposing the government and for insulting the ruling family.
AMY GOODMAN: And the press coverage of what’s going on inside UAE?
SAMER MUSCATI: You know, the press coverage, similar to other press coverage of UAE human rights violations, is minimal locally. Many of the papers are run by the state, and there’s a lot of self-censorship that happens with journalists in the UAE, who are afraid to cover or are unable to cover these issues. It’s fitting that this piece was broken by the New York Times. And what we’ve seen from the UAE local press has been very little coverage of this, of this issue. And the coverage we’ve seen has focused on the statement that was issued by the government, as opposed to a lot of the allegations that have come from the New York Times. But it’s typical. The press in the UAE is not free, and they’re unwilling to report on the serious issues, including this crackdown, and basically present the government’s opinion and analysis, as opposed to what’s happening on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: And unions, Samer?
SAMER MUSCATI: Unions in the UAE, there are no unions. And people who try to formally organize and strike are deported if they’re foreigners. And nationals, if you want to form an association, you have to apply. The regulations are quite stringent. And if they do interfere in what is perceived as politics, what we’ve seen is the UAE government clamps down, dissolves the board, and basically takes over associations. So, there is no notion of unions in the UAE.
AMY GOODMAN: And what can the international community do? I mean, you have a lot of U.S. institutions, as well, not only the U.S. government working with the UAE, of NYU, Guggenheim, a number of institutions that are building branches there and operate there.
SAMER MUSCATI: Absolutely. And we’ve called on these institutions to take a stand. These institutions are partners of the UAE government. They’re saving millions of dollars from the UAE government. And they’re building these branches there, which I think is a good idea, but at the same time, they have to make sure that, you know, they’re not tarnishing their reputation.
AMY GOODMAN: Who are they?
SAMER MUSCATI: New York University is one. We have the Guggenheim. Sorbonne University, whose — one of the lecturers, Nasser bin Ghaith, was actually detained and continues to be detained by the UAE authorities. We’ve written letters to these institutions, asking them to take a stand and not to be complicit in the crackdown. The response we got from Sorbonne University, unfortunately was, you know, they tried to minimize Bin Ghaith’s relationship with the university, as opposed to promising they’d actually voice their concern and demand his freedom. And we haven’t received a response back from the other institutions, who are eager and happy to take money from the UAE, but unfortunately they haven’t been vocal about this latest crackdown, even though the Guggenheim, for instance, has been vocal in China when an artist has been arrested. But closer to home, in the UAE, they’ve been very quiet. And if these institutions don’t speak up — I mean, there in excellent position — then who will? These are institutions that are partnering with the government.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. And, well, as Samer talked about, the issue of the UAE military confirming this arrangement with Blackwater, the spin on it was quite interesting in the official statement, because while much of the attention that’s been focused by the New York Times on this issue has revolved around the potential use to suppress an internal rebellion inside of the UAE, the statement from the military there actually praised the work of Prince’s company and other Western companies that have been working with the military, because it’s enabled them to engage in, quote-unquote, "successful" operations in other theaters of operation, like Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Now, this is interesting because there is a ripe opportunity for mercenary forces to engage in Libya, either on contract with some form of a rebel government or alliance there. And so, if Prince’s company is involved with an arrangement through the UAE that somehow involves Libya, that would be the subject of quite a bit of interest, I’m sure, on Capitol Hill and in capitals around the world, because I think it’s just a matter of time before we start to see an incursion of special operations contractors going into Libya, if they’re not there already.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jeremy Scahill, the timing of Erik Prince moving to the United Arab Emirates, what’s happening here at home, and then if you could also comment on John Ashcroft in his new position?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, Erik Prince put the wheels in motion to go to the United Arab Emirates almost immediately after the five Blackwater executives under him were indicted on a range — a 32-count indictment, felony indictment, for weapons violations, allegations of bribery, of lying to agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The United Arab Emirates does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. It’s not — I think that Erik Prince knows where so many bodies are buried that he kind of is in pole position in terms of being indicted himself. He’s been grey-mailing, what they call it, the U.S. government by leaking details of operations he’s been a part of, as a way of saying, "If you come after me, I’m going to go Ollie North on you and blow the whole thing open." And so, I think he more — in terms of strategic viewpoint regarding the investigations and indictments of Blackwater officials, Prince is trying to make it very difficult to be questioned in these matters. And the UAE is a safe place for him to operate.
And if you have the support of the royals there, which he clearly does, and he’s supporting them — you know, it’s a marriage of convenience and love, apparently — then he has very little to worry about from them. Despite the fact that this Crown Prince can sit with President Obama one day and then be hatching mercenary plots with Erik Prince the next day, is a stunning commentary on how little things have changed from Bush to Obama on this issue of mercenaries.
AMY GOODMAN: And John Ashcroft, the former attorney general?
JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, John Ashcroft has been named — I mean, you can’t make this stuff up — has been named the chief ethics officer for the new Blackwater, that’s actually being run by Bobby Ray Inman, who, you know, was a major figure under the Clinton administration, was picked to take over as defense secretary for Les Aspin, and his nomination was broiled in controversy.
AMY GOODMAN: And he was national security adviser.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And he was the former national security adviser. So they’re sort of trying to rebrand Blackwater. But, I mean —
AMY GOODMAN: New name, Xe, X-E?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, it changes every day. It’s Xe, or it’s United States Training Center. I mean, there’s —
AMY GOODMAN: USTC.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, there’s — I mean, Blackwater has all these shadow entities around the world. I mean, we’ve seen — a new one pops up every day. Now it’s Reflex Response now, R2, Paravant, Greystone. I mean, I could list probably — I could sit here for 10 minutes listing their various shell companies for you.
But, I mean, putting John Ashcroft in charge of ethics at Blackwater is like asking the fox to take care of the baby chicks, you know, on a farm somewhere and hoping everything is going to be fine. I mean, he’s going to devour the very idea of ethics. If you look at his track record when he was attorney general, I mean, this is not an ethical man and not anyone that has any business overseeing the ethics of a notorious mercenary firm.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Nisoor Square, the latest on it, the killings by Blackwater forces in Iraq?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, the five Blackwater guards, as they’re called, were indicted by the federal government for the shooting at Nisoor Square, and the case was dismissed largely on technical grounds and because of malfeasance on the part of prosecutors. The government — of federal prosecutors. The government appealed that decision. And recently, there was — excuse me — there was a ruling favorable to the government. And so, that case very well could move toward settlement, because the guards probably don’t want to stand trial, or it could go to trial, in which case there is going to be a question of how secret it’s going to be.
There is one civil case still remaining against Blackwater, that we’ve covered extensively on Democracy Now!, brought by the father of the youngest victim of the Nisoor Square shootings, the nine-year-old boy named Ali Kinani. That case has been moving forward quietly and could very well go to state court in North Carolina, where if it hits trial, there would be no cam on damages that could be awarded. So that really is the wild card to watch. It could be the one place where there’s any accountability for Blackwater at Nisoor Square.
AMY GOODMAN: And to sum up, this issue of no Muslims in this force that UAE has contracted Erik Prince for, this idea of a private Christian militia in the Middle East?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, you know, I do not need to wax on my opinion about this. We can look at documents submitted in federal court cases from Prince’s own former employees, who say that he is — he views himself as a Christian crusader whose role in the world is wiping out Muslims and Islam in general. They said that he set a tone at Blackwater that rewarded the taking of Muslim life, viewed the operations in Iraq as, quote, "payback for 9/11," even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So the idea that he would implement a policy that had at its core that Muslims would not fire on other Muslims, if they were working for this kind of a force, is consistent with everything we’ve heard out of Blackwater about Mr. Prince’s worldview regarding religion and the supremacy of Christianity over Islam.
It’s very dangerous, Amy, when you have these kinds of forces in such volatile environments, with all of the uprisings happening. The last thing that region needs is a Christian crusader force that appears to have the legitimacy or backing of the United States government, regardless of if it actually does. You know, it’s incendiary, and it’s just — it’s dousing an already burning fire with gasoline. And it’s very, very dangerous. The Obama administration, if they’re not supporting this, they need to do something about it. If they are, well, then that’s serious, and they need to answer questions about what on earth they’re doing continuing this business with Erik Prince’s Christian crusader force.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is a Nation fellow, a Puffin fellow, writes for The Nation at thenation.com, and is a Democracy Now! correspondent. Samer Muscati, thanks for being with us, Iraq and UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch.