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Blackwater Plans for New Military Facility Near San Diego Draws Fire from Residents, Peace Activists and Local Congressmember

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The private security firm Blackwater USA is planning to build a new military training center on an 800-acre ranch near Potrero, a tiny rural town east of San Diego. The project, known as Blackwater West, is being opposed by a growing coalition of local residents, environmentalists and peace activists. We speak with Rep. Bob Filner, who is exploring legislation to block the project, as well as one of the local organizers and journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re broadcasting from Los Angeles, California. About 150 miles south of here, near the U.S.-Mexico border, the private security firm Blackwater is planning to build a new military training center known simply as Blackwater West. Plans for the new site include multiple firing ranges, training towers, an armory, a helipad, an urban simulation training area and a driving track.

Blackwater plans to build the facility on an 800-acre chicken and cattle ranch near Potrero, a tiny rural town about 45 miles east of San Diego. The project won preliminary approval from the local planning board in December, but since then more than half the registered voters of Potrero have signed a petition opposing it. The residents are being joined by a growing coalition of environmentalists and peace activists.

The project will ultimately need the approval of the county planning commission and the board of supervisors, a process that could take up to two years. Earlier this month, a normally routine county planning meeting on the project drew over a hundred protesters. They were met by three dozen police and sheriff’s deputies, and people entering the meeting were required to walk through a metal detector.

Blackwater West is also running into opposition from a local Democratic congressmember who represents the area. Representative Bob Filner said he’s exploring legislation to block the project.

Congressmember Filner joins us on the phone right now from Washington, D.C. Here in Los Angeles, I’m joined by Raymond Lutz, one of the main organizers opposing the Blackwater West facility. He runs the websites and And in our firehouse studio in New York, I’m joined by Jeremy Scahill, author of the New York Times best-seller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

We called Blackwater to invite them on the program; they declined our request.

I want to begin with Raymond Lutz. First, welcome to Democracy Now!

RAYMOND LUTZ: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the organizing that’s happening, what you understand will be happening in your community. And start by telling us — well, describe Potrero.

RAYMOND LUTZ: Potrero is only about 800 or so people. It’s a very beautiful little valley. There’s hills that go to the rear, and behind those hills, there’s a beautiful valley, mostly untouched, but there has been a chicken ranch there in the past. It’s completely nonfunctional now. But it is a valley that is part of a chain that starts up from the north. And there’s about five valleys that are all part of a natural preserve. It should be a preserve. This valley should be returned, in my opinion, back to its natural state.

Even condors have been sighted, the first time since 1910 that we’ve seen a condor that had been — we’ve spent quite a bit of money replanting those, and to see one coming up through that area, this could be a problem if you have a lot of people shooting at things. They might see that that is some sort of a target.

But it’s just having 300 shooters out there with, they say, only single-shot weapons, but in the Blackwater North facility, which is about 125 miles west of Chicago, the gentleman there I’ve been in contact with says that they’ve now introduced automatic weapons, which makes sense. If you figure they’re going to be training for Iraq, they’re going to need to know how to use a M-16 or AK-47. So the idea that they’re only going to be training with single-shot weapons is sort of questioned.

But if you’re a resident and you live right over the hill and you have what I think looks like about 300 shooters shooting all day, you’re going to be hearing this in the quietness of the back country. A lot of the citizens — I’m told about a third of the residents in Potrero — have moved there specifically because of illnesses to get away from the city contamination, and they are very sensitive.

I just talked to a woman yesterday who told me that she’s got a ranch, her doctor says she has to stay away, and she’s right next to this facility. So if they go in, she’s worried, of course, that this is going to contaminate her ability to stay alive. She’s very, very worried.

AMY GOODMAN: And how much is the community organizing right now?

RAYMOND LUTZ: Right now, they’re going into a recall movement to recall the planning board. This is something I —- is possible. We said there was 300 people that signed the petition, but they didn’t go through all the hoops in order to get those -—

AMY GOODMAN: Three hundred of, what, just over 400 registered voters?

RAYMOND LUTZ: There’s 425 registered voters.

AMY GOODMAN: So three-quarters of the registered voters have signed the petition?

RAYMOND LUTZ: Well, those 300 were not checked well enough, so they need to go back and check. They only need 133 registered voters in Potrero to sign a petition, and then a recall election would go forward.

And the planning board itself is just an advisory board. These are just people, homeowners in the area, who volunteer to sit on this board. And you can imagine these planning boards — what do they usually talk about? Somebody’s garage is too big, or they’re building a fence — something simple. An 824-mercenary training camp with 300 people coming up every week for training is just incomprehensible. It’s way beyond what they should be able to do. And to say, well, we have no conflict of interest, when you’re in a little tiny community with only 800 people and you’re talking about putting in this massive installation, there’s no way there’s not a conflict of interest with everyone there.

So they voted 7-0. How they voted — there’s one member who came on board in January. This vote was taken in December. So she didn’t get to vote on it. They made the vote early for — I think just to get around her vote. And she’s against it. She’s the only one that’s against it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Congressmember Filner in Washington, D.C. You represent this area. What are you doing about Blackwater West?

REP. BOB FILNER: Well, first, I want to, of course, support the community, which is in my district. And when you get a petition of three-quarters of a community, you have to take notice of that and support what they want. Clearly, this is not in the — does not fit into the way of life, the rural area of Potrero, and should be stopped just on those grounds, aside from environmental grounds.

But when you see Blackwater, you have all kinds of other problems, with what they’re doing in the world, what they’re doing in Iraq, how they function as a company. Their mercenaries in Iraq are unaccountable to any law there, and they have taken people out who have been accused of murder. They have not been upfront with relatives of some of the contractors who were killed. So this is not a company you want to have in your backyard.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, did Blackwater approach you when it set its sights on this chicken farm?

REP. BOB FILNER: I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: Did Blackwater approach you, discuss it with you?

REP. BOB FILNER: No, they didn’t. I wouldn’t expect them to. I don’t have land-use authority, you know, as a congressman. The county supervisors do. And what they did was do all their work lining up support at both the county and some other levels before the community ever knew this was happening. And if you have to work like that, work against the community rather than with it, you know something’s wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a dispute over whether you’re in charge of this area or Congressmember Duncan Hunter is, the former head of the House Armed Services Committee?

REP. BOB FILNER: Well, in the redistricting that took place after the last census, this was an area that he, Congressman Hunter, had for 20 years, and some of that county was transferred to me. And so, I am the congressman for this area. It doesn’t mean that — he’s apparently an ally of Blackwater, an ally of anything that is bad in Iraq, actually. So he has also intervened, by trying to show that his friendship with the company should be respected. And, in fact, he intervened, I think, in trying to get the landowner to sell to them in a quick fashion. So, yeah, you would expect us to be on different sides of this kind of issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember, let me bring Jeremy Scahill into this, Democracy Now! correspondent, Puffin Foundation fellow with The Nation Institute, author of Blackwater. Jeremy, congratulations. It’s hit the New York Times best-seller list now for weeks. Talk about your coverage of this particular issue and the significance of Blackwater.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, Blackwater has some incredibly powerful Republican connections in California. Representative Filner mentioned Duncan Hunter. Of course, Duncan Hunter is a Republican candidate for president right now and is one of the people that Blackwater met with in the aftermath of the Fallujah ambush. And those meetings ultimately led to Blackwater rising to prominence within the Congress, the Republican-controlled Congress.

But also, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, worked as an intern for Representative Dana Rohrabacher, another California Republican. In fact, when Blackwater was founded, both Dana Rohrabacher and Representative John Doolittle were brought out, at the company’s expense, to be at Blackwater’s grand opening. So these are deep Republican ties in California that Blackwater has.

But there’s another story that’s gotten no attention with this, and that is that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Homeland Security hired a man named Chris Bertelli in November of 2005 to work in emergency preparedness in the Department of Homeland Security in California. Bertelli was Blackwater’s leading lobbyist, working for the Alexander Strategy Group, the powerful K Street Republican firm staffed and founded by former senior staffers of Tom DeLay. Bertelli was one of the people steering Erik Prince and other Blackwater executives around Capitol Hill after the Fallujah ambush in 2004. Bertelli also was one of the lobbyists for Blackwater who took the lead on trying to block the Pentagon or the Congress from applying the Military Code of Justice, the court-martial system, to Blackwater and other contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And so, I think serious questions need to be raised about the involvement of several leading Republicans in the Congress in this project, but also in this man who was a lobbyist for Blackwater and connected to the Alexander Strategy Group, who now is apparently a senior official within Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Homeland Security. These are very serious contacts within the administration of Schwarzenegger and this sort of revolving door, when you have Bertelli going from being a lobbyist with Blackwater to being in the Department of Homeland Security, and all of a sudden Blackwater is talking about an expansion into California and talking about responding to earthquakes and other natural disasters in California.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Filner, I know you have to go. We’re going to continue this conversation after break. But what specifically, what kind of legislation, are you thinking about introducing?

REP. BOB FILNER: Well, you know, I’ve been trying to figure out a way that, from my level, I can help the local community, again, because this is a county supervisor’s decision. And I know they are being, you know, investigated by the Government Oversight Committee in the Congress. I know that there are serious legal questions raised about the way their contractors are immune apparently from any either military or civilian law. And I’m just trying to explore, and, you know, maybe our author, who’s going to be in San Diego, I understand, next week or the week after — I’m sorry I can’t there be to meet you — but I’m just trying to be creative about bringing the issue into a higher level of public knowledge, by trying to say, you know, maybe any group that is under investigation by the Congress cannot expand until those issues are settled. You know, it’s difficult — I’m in a difficult position to try to do something, but I’m trying to be creative and find a way. And if any of the people on the call or your audience have ideas, I’d be happy to take them.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have an email address?

REP. BOB FILNER: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have an email address?

REP. BOB FILNER: Yeah. Well, we’re at — I think it’s congress/filner(at)

AMY GOODMAN: Well, if you can stay with us, that is great. We’re going to go to break right now. And, Jeremy Scahill, you’re going to be speaking in San Diego, when?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I’m going to be speaking there in early May. I’m going to be there for a couple of days around May 2 and 3.

One thing that I wanted to add, Amy, to what Representative Filner said is that we have a company here, in Blackwater, that has said that it doesn’t want military law to apply to it, and at the same time, facing wrongful death lawsuits, has argued that it can’t be sued in civilian court, saying that it should be entitled to the same immunity as the U.S. military. So we have a company that is essentially declaring itself above any effective law. And I think that raises serious questions anywhere they go in the world, and particularly in this country.

But I’d also like to ask Representative Filner if he believes that contractors should be withdrawn from Iraq, because there’s no effective laws governing their presence. Effectively, we have a Wild West atmosphere. Do you believe, Representative Filner, that the contractors should be pulled out until an effective legal system is put in place?

REP. BOB FILNER: Oh, no question. In the, I guess, Congress, and even those who have been against the war in Iraq, like myself, have been slow, unfortunately, to recognize how many there are and what they’re doing there. You know, it’s almost a one-to-one ratio with U.S. troops. And it’s like privatizing, you know, everything in America, including our armed forces. So the Out of Iraq Caucus in the Congress has now — we write “and contractors” wherever we say the military ought to be withdrawn, because of, you know, this above-the-law kind of attitude and status that they seem to enjoy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion. Congressmember Bob Filner, thanks for joining us from Washington, D.C., represents the area, Potrero, California’s 51st Congressional District. We’re also joined in studio here in California by a Potrero resident who is active in trying to block the site, block the siting of Blackwater West, Raymond Lutz. And Jeremy Scahill is also with us, who is author of Blackwater.


AMY GOODMAN: As we continue with the discussion of Blackwater West and the opposition to this facility, we’re joined by Raymond Lutz, one of the main organizers opposing the Blackwater West facility, runs the websites and And in New York, we’re joined by Jeremy Scahill. His book is called Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

Jeremy, let’s just go back for a minute and talk about the power of Blackwater right now — you’ve been on in the last few weeks talking about this — but for people who are not familiar with this company, how it came into being and how it’s grown.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Amy, this is a company that a decade ago basically didn’t exist, and today they have contracts with the State Department alone totaling three-quarters of a billion dollars. That doesn’t count the work Blackwater does for the Department of Defense or for U.S. intelligence agencies.

The company has become nothing short of the Bush administration’s Praetorian Guard for the so-called global war on terror. It’s Blackwater that protects the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, other senior officials, regional occupation offices. They’re training forces in Afghanistan. They’ve been deployed in the oil-rich Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan, right near Iran.

Blackwater has operated here on U.S. soil in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where the company billed U.S. taxpayers $950 per day per Blackwater operative deployed in the hurricane zone. And as we’ve been talking about today, this is a company that increasingly has its sights set on domestic deployments inside of the U.S., opening Blackwater North a few weeks ago, now trying to open Blackwater West.

And, Amy, it should be said that Blackwater has the largest private military facility in the world based in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. This is a 7,000-acre compound, where they have a man-made lake for amphibious landings, they have airstrips, they have a fleet of aircraft, more than 20 aircraft, on their compound.

And it’s headed by a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, who is not only a bankroller of President Bush’s campaigns and his allies, but has very deep ties to the religious right in this country, people like James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Chuck Colson. So what we essentially have is a Republican guard that’s headed by a man with an agenda of fighting against secularism and restoring religion in government.

AMY GOODMAN: And the connections with the conservative Christian right movement, more fully?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, Erik Prince’s family in Michigan sort of merged with the Amway Corporation empire, when Erik Prince’s sister Betsy married Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway Corporation. And these two families together really bankrolled the rise of the religious right. They gave the seed money to Gary Bauer to start his Family Research Council. They gave significant funding to James Dobson and his Focus on the Family “prayer warrior” network.

Erik Prince was an intern in George H.W. Bush’s White House, but he complained that it wasn’t conservative enough for him. Prince, himself, the head of Blackwater, continues to give significant funding to a wide variety of right-wing Christian causes. He’s on the board of Christian Freedom International, an evangelical missionary organization that operates in Muslim countries around the world.

And one of Prince’s closer political allies has been Chuck Colson. In fact, Prince and organizations he’s affiliated with have given funding to Chuck Colson, who was Nixon’s hatchet man during Watergate, turned into a born-again Christian and evangelical minister. Prince has funded Chuck Colson’s fellowship program to run faith-based prisons. Colson runs a faith-based prison in Texas, in Sugarland, Texas, the district of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. They actually run the lives of 200 prisoners.

So this is a guy who has very deep connections to the Christian conservative religious-right movement and the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: As Blackwater sets up these — what do you call them? Camps? Bases?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I call them private military bases.

AMY GOODMAN: Combat towns? They attempted to do one in the Philippines, but people fought back. Can you describe what happened, Jeremy?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Blackwater started to build up a jungle training facility in the Philippines at an old — at the Subic Naval Base there, and several senior Philippines legislators started raising serious questions about the operation of a mercenary company inside of the borders of the Philippines. And there was a tremendous outcry domestically in the Philippines to the idea of citizens of that country participating as mercenaries in the war in Iraq. And this started brewing, oh, about a year ago, and leading columnists in the papers there took it on. And Blackwater, just days ago, announced that it was pulling out of its plan to operate in the Philippines.

Now, they’re meeting this fierce resistance from people in this rural community in California.

Blackwater has been yanked out of a sort of obscurity that they had enjoyed for a while, and now we have Congress focusing in on it. And I think the crucial issue right now, Amy, is to get the Democrats — the Democratic leadership to stop ignoring Blackwater and other contractors in any withdrawal plan that they put forward. As of now, despite the fact that Representative Filner says he’s calling for a withdrawal of U.S. contractors from Iraq, that is not the position of the Democratic leadership, and it’s certainly an issue that needs to be raised within the Congress, because almost half the occupation force in Iraq now comes from the private sector, and if the Democrats ignore that half of the occupation force, they’re essentially ignoring half of the war on the ground, not to mention the fact that 650,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. So the Democrats really need to pay much closer attention to the dramatic privatization of this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeremy, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Jeremy Scahill, author of the New York Times best-seller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Jeremy, you’ll be on The Daily Show tonight?

JEREMY SCAHILL: That’s what I understand.

AMY GOODMAN: And beginning a California tour from May 26 to May —


AMY GOODMAN: From April 26 to May 6. He’ll be in La Mesa, California on May 2; San Diego on May 1; on Thursday, April 26 in Santa Barbara; and on April 28 in Oakland, California.

Raymond Lutz, I want to end with you. You’re not a Potrero resident, so how did you get involved with this?

RAYMOND LUTZ: We operate Citizens Oversight, and this encourages citizens to become involved in their local planning groups, councils, boards, what have you. As a citizen in a democracy, it’s your responsibility to be responsible for the entire government, which is a lot to ask, but if we get everybody to say, I’m just going to do one thing, just one board, one or two times a month — what we noticed in this case was that the Potrero planning group was more or less a circus. They don’t know what they’re doing at all. They weren’t allowing people to speak anonymously, which they wanted to in this case. They were very worried about it. If you can imagine a mercenary training camp going in, if you’re going to speak against them, maybe there’s some worry that you don’t want to identify yourself. And it’s allowed, to not sign in, not pay. And you can speak, but it’s not stated explicitly in the Brown Act that you can also speak anonymously. The state attorney general’s office has given me an opinion that, indeed, you can. You can say I decline to say who I am.

At this camp, they’re going to have an 18,000-square-foot armory. That’s almost a half an acre of guns and ammunition. This is probably more than New York City has. Most police stations only have a little locker, or they take their firearms home. And this is a very fire-sensitive area. We just had a huge cedar fire that came through. The brush in this area is overhead high, and it is designed to burn. The brush there, it has to burn or the seeds don’t open, so this dead wood and these things is everyone’s worry. There’s only one way in and out. They had a helicopter pad planned, say they’re not going use it, only for emergencies. But the worry is, of course, we have this site of Blackwater that everyone’s worried about, that they’re a mercenary, above-the-law — they’re the Praetorian Guard for the right-wingers.

But we’ve got to try to stop this at the planning level, which is the only way that we can see that we can get it to stop. The Sierra Club is pessimistic. We’re hoping that the fact that we’ve sighted a condor in the area, the fact that there’s five cultural remains excavation-type areas there that are of concern, and it’s bordered by Cleveland National Forest to the north and Bureau of Land Management lands to the other sides. Part of the area is the Cleveland National Forest lands. Senator Barbara Boxer had recently designated the Hauser Wilderness, which is just north of this, Hauser Creek, which this water flows into Hauser Creek. We’re hoping that perhaps she can increase that Hauser Wilderness to include this. At the state convention, Democratic convention, which occurs next weekend, the 26th through the 29th, I believe — 27th through the 29th in San Diego — we’re going to be working the floor to get a resolution passed by the state Democratic people there and also hopefully can talk to Barbara Boxer to get her to extend this. So we’re trying to work on all fronts. The recall election, Bob Filner’s work, hopefully Barbara Boxer to extend the Hauser Wilderness — we have a conservation group that wants to buy it, if we can get past the purchase of Blackwater that’s already in process.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Raymond Lutz, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

RAYMOND LUTZ: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We will certainly continue to follow this struggle.

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