author of The New York Times best-seller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Jeremy is a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute and correspondent for Democracy Now! He testified two weeks ago before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense at a hearing on defense contracting.
Blackwater has remained relatively quiet in the face of its critics, but last week, the company’s founder, Erik Prince, wrote an article to the Grand Rapids Press in response to a series of articles in the paper on Blackwater. The paper has referred to Jeremy Scahill’s book as putting Prince in the national media spotlight. We get Scahill’s response, and hear about his recent visit to Prince’s hometown and new Blackwater sites in California and Illinois. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Blackwater has remained relatively quiet in the face of its critics. But last week, the company’s founder, Erik Prince, wrote an article to the Grand Rapids Press in response to a series of articles in the paper on Blackwater. The paper had referred to Jeremy Scahill’s book as putting Prince in the national media spotlight. I want to read some of what Erik Prince wrote.
He wrote, "Your story referred to Blackwater as 'arguably the world's most powerful private army.’ The Constitution does not permit the establishment of a private army, and Blackwater’s team of highly motivated and capable security professionals serve at the request of the United States government. Furthermore, Blackwater professionals do not engage in offensive missions. You would be correct in calling them a team of bodyguards, but very wrong in using a description of them as a 'private army.'" Jeremy Scahill, your response?
JEREMY SCAHILL: You tell me what nation in the world has operatives deployed in nine other countries around the world, can boast of a force of 20,000 men to call on at a moment’s notice, has a fleet of aircrafts. I mean, the nation of Costa Rica doesn’t even have a military. So in the case of Blackwater, we’re talking about a heavier force than some nation states of the world.
But on the other issue about Erik Prince saying that they only engage defensive operations, I mean, give me a break. What is more offensive than invading and occupying of a country? Blackwater is at the vanguard of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. They’re protecting the people that the Bush administration has sent in to implement the White House agenda in Iraq. I mean, that is an inherently offensive operation.
AMY GOODMAN: In another part of the article or the letter that Erik Prince writes, he says, "Clearly the mercenary label is intended to polarize the discussion and craft the most negative image possible of Blackwater. The highest authority on rhetoric, The Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines 'mercenary' as 'a professional soldier serving a foreign power.'" Erik Prince goes on to say, "Blackwater does not now, nor has it ever, provided security services for or on behalf of any country other than the United States of America."
Jeremy, the title of your book is Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Even I’m actually glad that Mr. Prince put forward that definition of "mercenary." I mean, there’s all sorts of definitions that one can apply to the term "mercenary," but he says it’s a professional soldier serving a foreign power. Now, according to Prince’s op-ed, it would seem as though Blackwater is just this team of patriotic Americans serving their country. But the fact of the matter is that Blackwater has recruited, hired and deployed mercenaries from countries like Colombia, Chile, Bulgaria, Poland, Fiji — the list goes on and on.
In the case of Chile, this is a country whose home government is against the war in Iraq, refused to join that coalition of the willing. So the Bush administration was able to turn to Blackwater and the coalition of the billing, to go in and hire up Chilean mercenaries who are professional soldiers serving a foreign power in the employ of Blackwater USA, which is a mercenary company. Blackwater’s founder gives the very definition of what Blackwater does. They hire up professional soldiers and enlist them to fight on behalf of a foreign power. So according to his own definition, Blackwater engages in mercenary activities.
As to the other part of it, where Erik Prince is saying that they haven’t provided security services for any other country, he may be very narrowly talking about, we haven’t guarded a foreign official or something, but let’s be clear here. Blackwater has gone into Azerbaijan, a nation whose security forces have an atrocious human rights record. They’ve set up a 90-man Azerbaijani unit with a training program modeled after the U.S. Navy SEALs. They set up a command and control center in Baku, which juts out into the Caspian Sea, in Azerbaijan. Blackwater has trained Jordanian attack helicopter forces. So, you know, I’m not sure how Mr. Prince is defining "security" here, but I would say setting up a 90-man Azerbaijani unit in a country with a very questionable human rights record, that’s providing security services to another country.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, there’s other news breaking, and that is that the government watch group that monitors Iraq reconstruction programs will conduct the most sweeping review of contractors since the war began, will be auditing Blackwater.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, it’s about time that the Congress and the federal agencies tasked with overseeing contractors step up to the plate here. I mean, we have seen this system run rampant for four years. We have billions of dollars in taxpayer money being given to companies who are acting in the name of the people of the United States, and there’s been very little effective oversight.
Now, these kinds of audits, though, are going to sort of look into just the financial arrangements with these companies and the federal government. What I think needs to be audited is the activities of these kinds of armed forces on the ground, because we know that the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction says we can’t even get auditors to go to all of the reconstruction sites around the country for fear of safety. Who then is going to audit the forces acting in the name of the United States of America, who are being sent to Iraq to go where no one else will go? I mean, I’m not so much concerned about the financial component of this — though it is significant — as much as I am the actions on the ground.
I mean, we know that over 900 contractors have been killed in Iraq. We know that over 12,000 have been wounded. Those numbers don’t get counted in the official death toll. But what’s more important is, we don’t know the kinds of crimes that these forces are committing on the ground, what kind of suffering Iraqis are enduring at the hands of contractors. I mean, one senior-ranking U.S. military official, Brigadier General Karl Horst, the deputy commander of the Third Infantry Division, he became so outraged with contractor misconduct, that he began just tracking cases of contractor violence over a two-month period. He documented 12 instances of contractors firing at Iraqi civilians, resulting in six Iraqi civilian deaths and three injuries. That’s just two months and one general with his eyes open. So you multiply that across the scene, and what we have in Iraq is a Wild West-type scenario.
So what’s urgently needed right now is for all of these companies like Blackwater that engaged in armed so-called security operations in Iraq to have their activities on the ground audited. What are they doing in Iraq in the names of the people of this country?
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He has been traveling around the country, giving talks about Blackwater. Jeremy, you went to the two sites where Blackwater has and is trying to build a base or a camp or a site — however you want to refer to it — and you went to Erik Prince’s hometown.
News now, the planning group for the community of Potrero is under fire from residents angry about the group’s support of the proposed Blackwater West military training camp. The planning group members have learned they are subject of a lawsuit, a recall drive and a petition demanding they retake a December vote approving the project that would allow Blackwater to have a site there.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I went out there to Potrero, and just to set it —
AMY GOODMAN: California.
JEREMY SCAHILL: In California. To set it geographically, it’s just outside, about 45 minutes outside of San Diego proper. And it’s actually just a stone’s throw from the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s about three miles from Tecate, Mexico, and it’s not far from Duncan Hunter’s apartheid wall, and in this area of the country where there’s a large military presence with Camp Pendleton. It, of course, is very near the U.S.-Mexico border.
And I think Blackwater thought they were just going to quietly go into Joe Davies County, Illinois, and set up Blackwater North, and then go into Potrero, California, and set up Blackwater West, and what they experienced in Potrero, California, was an indigenous uprising from the town, population 850. It’s a very rural, beautiful valley. And I saw the site. I looked down from a cliff down onto the chicken ranch that Blackwater now wants to take over. And the fact is that about half of the population of Potrero has now signed a petition against Blackwater.
People allege that the planning group passed it without any real public hearing. The only notice of the hearing was in a little newsletter that’s actually operated by one of the planning group members. It wasn’t put into any newspaper or anything like that. It was put into a newsletter. And the fact is that Blackwater now appears to be sort of working with the planning group members to try to sort of wax the wheels of the process. Blackwater positioned its corporate yacht off the coast of California with the big Blackwater flag on it. The head of that local planning group, Gordon Hammers, went out to Moyock, North Carolina, came back saying, "Now that I’ve seen Blackwater’s mother headquarters, I’m even more supportive of the project." Some of the officials in the town are wearing Blackwater USA T-shirts, and they’re facing down against people wearing "Stop Blackwater" T-shirts.
And so, as you said, there’s this recall move underway. There are lawsuits. But more important is that there is a lot of knowledge now in this community of what this company is. It just started initially as a not-in-our-backyard thing: We don’t want the gunfire, we don’t want the traffic. Now it’s turned into: Do we want this corporation, with all of these investigations and lawsuits, coming into our community?
Similar action is brewing in Joe Davies County, Illinois, where I was just out there, where you have an increased number of people — several hundred people came in this very rural community. I thought 40 people were going to come when I came there. They had to move it to a gymnasium, because so many people came. I talked to several people who were Mitt Romney supporters, who said they came out because they’re concerned about this company operating in their community. So we’re seeing people saying, "We don’t want secretive processes on our local level, when we’re talking about bringing a major war contractor into our community."
AMY GOODMAN: Last question about Erik Prince’s hometown of Holland, Michigan. You were just there.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I had an incredibly warm welcome. Very crowded events. There were a lot of people who came out to support the work, although it’s interesting — we had to hold the event in a soccer shop with a sort of indoor soccer field. My understanding is that there were some concerns about recrimination against businesses that would have hosted me there. But three very brave souls stepped forward and opened their space. And it’s interesting. People are, I think, very disturbed at the tight grip on power that the Prince family has had for so long in Holland, Michigan. And I talked with a lot of people — and I’m going to be doing some reporting on this — who had some very interesting things to say about the way in which the Prince family has controlled the local economy of Holland.
AMY GOODMAN: And very briefly, since we haven’t discussed it in this broadcast: Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, his background?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Erik Prince comes from a powerhouse family in Michigan. His father was a very successful businessman, who used his manufacturing company during the '70s, ’80s, and ’90s as a sort of cash-generating engine to fuel and fund the rise of the Republican Revolution. He gave the seed money to several of the key groups that make up the radical religious right. And, you know, this family merged together with the DeVos family, the heirs to the Amway Corporation. Erik Prince's sister married Dick DeVos, who ran for governor last year in Michigan and was defeated. These two families merged together to form one of the most incredibly powerful behind-the-scenes brokers in U.S. conservative politics and radical religious-right politics, and now Erik Prince is the head of one of the most powerful private actors in the global war on terror, forces deployed in Muslim countries.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeremy Scahill, I want to thank for being with us, and also congratulations on your book being on the best-seller list of The New York Times, week after week. It is very rare for an independent publisher to have that ranking week after week. Jeremy Scahill’s book is called Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.