Scahill: Obama may be afraid of Blackwater

From Raw Story:

Despite news reports that the security contractor formerly known as Blackwater has seen its contracts dry up and its influence wane, the company continues to do brisk business in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the Obama administration may be too afraid of the firm to do anything about it, says investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill.

“You know who’s guarding Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan right now? Blackwater,” Scahill told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Tuesday night. “You know who guards members of Congress? Blackwater. They have half a billion dollars in contracts in Afghanistan right now. CIA, State Department, Defense Department. Why is President Obama keeping these guys on the payroll? There has never been a company in recent history that made the case that corporations are corrupt, evil organizations [better] than Blackwater.”

Scahill was on The Rachel Maddow Show discussing the New York Times’ revelation that senior Blackwater executives allegedly arranged for bribes of up to $1 million for Iraqi politicians in a bid to retain its contracts and silence criticism of the company in the wake of the Nissour Square massacre in 2007, in which 17 Iraqi civilians died after Blackwater guards opened fire.

Continue reading

Judge closes Blackwater trial to public

From Raw Story:

Prosecution of five Blackwater employees could be thrown out over immunized statements

A US District Court judge has barred the public from attending — or the media from reporting on — hearings in the trial of five Blackwater employees charged over the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in 2007.

A breaking story at the Washington Post reports that hearings to determine whether evidence against the accused was properly collected will be kept under wraps.

At issue are statements the State Department collected from Blackwater immediately after the incident. In exchange for the employees’ co-operation, the State Department, then under the control of the Bush administration, granted the Blackwater guards immunity from prosecution over their statements.

The current case being pursued by the Justice Department is being crafted so as to avoid using the immunized statements. But Judge Urbina ordered hearings into whether those statements were used to gather evidence after all. If it turns out they were, the judge will likely throw out the case against the five Blackwater employees, the Post reports.

The Nisoor Square massacre took place on September 17, 2007, when Blackwater guards escorting a State Department convoy through Baghdad opened fire on civilians in Nisoor Square, in what is largely considered an unprovoked act. Evidently the Blackwater guards started firing when a civilian vehicle was spotted driving down the wrong side of the road near the convoy.

The Post reports:

The five guards — Paul Slough, Nicholas Slatten, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball — are charged with voluntary manslaughter and weapons violations in the killing of 14 civilians and the wounding [of] 20 others. The Justice Department alleges that the guards unleashed an unprovoked attack on Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square while in a convoy. One guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against the others.

The proceedings underway in the District’s federal court, known as Kastigar hearings, will probe how well investigators gathered evidence without being tainted by those immunized statements. If the judge finds the government’s case is tainted, he might be forced to throw out the indictment.

The State Department canceled its Iraq security contract with Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, shortly after President Obama’s inauguration. The Post reported at the time that the company had made $1.3 billion from contracts with the State Department.

The Prison-Industrial Complex Takes Over a Montana Town

From LewRockwell.com:

Posted by William Grigg on September 29, 2009 03:02 PM

Five years ago, the city government of Hardin, Montana decided to build a large jail — 144,000 square feet, 464 beds — in an attempt to capitalize on the detention boom. A development agency called the Two Rivers Authority (TRA) was created; it issued $27 million in bonds to pay for the project.

The jail was built. It remains empty. The bonds have gone into default.

Several months ago, the TRA negotiated a deal — the details of which remain secret — with a private security firm called American Police Force (APF), which was incorporated in Santa Ana, California last March.

The deal reportedly includes $2.6 million for APF to run the jail, plus $23 million to run a 30,000-square foot training facility for military and police personnel on property managed by the TRA.

In addition, APF promises to shower the city will all kinds of amenities — computers for the local schools, donations to the local food bank, tricked-out cars for the local police force…. Whoops, did I mention that last item out loud?

Hardin has no police force; it receives police coverage through the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office. So it caused a stir last Thursday when APF officials arrived in Hardin in grand style — a convoy of black Mercedes SUVs bearing the logo of a non-existent “City of Hardin Police Force.”

The APF hired Becky Shay, a reporter from the Billings Gazette who had covered the story of the Hardin jail, as its new spokesperson (for the enviable salary of $60,000 a year). It also began negotiating an employment deal with mayoral candidate Kerri Smith. Her husband, Greg Smith, is the Executive Director of the TRA and the fellow responsible for working out the deal with APF.  Greg Smith was immediately put on “administrative leave” and has effectively disappeared. (He didn’t answer messages I left at his business telephone number.)

Local residents are understandably curious about this mysterious private “security firm” that appears to be taking over their town.

There was initial speculation that American Police Force (the organization’s website conveniently went dark as this story broke) is a tentacle of the mercenary firm once known as Blackwater and now called Xe (pronounced “Zee”). A press spokesperson at Xe informed me that she had never heard of APF before news broke of recent developments in Hardin.

APF insists that it has plenty of money to make good on its promises, but pointedly refuses to say where it comes from. Its new press spokesman deflects such questions by saying that she’s confident that her paychecks will clear. Civic leaders either aren’t talking or don’t have anything useful to say.

There are some in Hardin who suspect that their town is essentially being taken over by a corporatist mercenary firm. As things stand, that suspicion is entirely justified.

Contractors Outnumber U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

Just more proof that “war is a racket.”

From The New York Times:

Civilian contractors working for the Pentagon in Afghanistan not only outnumber the uniformed troops, according to a report by a Congressional research group, but also form the highest ratio of contractors to military personnel recorded in any war in the history of the United States.

 

On a superficial level, the shift means that most of those representing the United States in the war will be wearing the scruffy cargo pants, polo shirts, baseball caps and other casual accouterments favored by overseas contractors rather than the fatigues and flight suits of the military.

More fundamentally, the contractors who are a majority of the force in what has become the most important American enterprise abroad are subject to lines of authority that are less clear-cut than they are for their military colleagues.

What is clear, the report says, is that when contractors for the Pentagon or other agencies are not properly managed — as when civilian interrogators committed abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq or members of the security firm Blackwater shot and killed 17 Iraqi citizens in Baghdad — the American effort can be severely undermined.

As of March this year, contractors made up 57 percent of the Pentagon’s force in Afghanistan, and if the figure is averaged over the past two years, it is 65 percent, according to the report by the Congressional Research Service.

The contractors — many of them Afghans — handle a variety of jobs, including cooking for the troops, serving as interpreters and even providing security, the report says.

The report says the reliance on contractors has grown steadily, with just a small percentage of contractors serving the Pentagon in World War I, but then growing to nearly a third of the total force in the Korean War and about half in the Balkans and Iraq. The change, the report says, has gradually forced the American military to adapt to a far less regimented and, in many ways, less accountable force.

The growing dependence on contractors is partly because the military has lost some of its logistics and support capacity, especially since the end of the cold war, according to the report. Some of the contractors have skills in critical areas like languages and digital technologies that the military needs.

The issue of the role of contractors in war has been a subject of renewed debate in Washington in recent weeks with disclosures that the Central Intelligence Agency used the company formerly known as Blackwater to help with a covert program, now canceled, to assassinate leaders of Al Qaeda. Lawmakers have demanded to know why such work was outsourced.

The State Department also uses contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, although both the department and the C.I.A. have said they want to reduce their dependence on outside workers.

Responding to the Congressional research report, Frederick D. Barton, a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it was highly questionable whether contractors brought the same commitment and willingness to take risks as the men and women of the military or the diplomatic services.

He also questioned whether using contractors was cost effective, saying that no one really knew whether having a force made up mainly of contractors whose salaries were often triple or quadruple those of a corresponding soldier or Marine was cheaper or more expensive for the American taxpayer.

With contractors focused on preserving profits and filing paperwork with government auditors, he said, “you grow the part of government that, probably, the taxpayers appreciate least.”

Congress appropriated at least $106 billion for Pentagon contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 through the first half of the 2008 fiscal year, the report says.

The report said the combined forces in Iraq and Afghanistan still had more uniformed military personnel than contractors over all: 242,657 contractors and about 282,000 troops as of March 31.

Report: State Dept. extends Blackwater contract in Iraq

From Raw Story:

The mercenary group formerly known as Blackwater International, which was banned from Iraq by its government after a Baghdad massacre which killed 17 civilians, will see its contract extended in the country by the U.S. State Department, according to a published report.

ABC News reporter Kirit Radia notes: “Sources say the department has agreed to temporarily continue using the subsidiary known as Presidential Airways to provide helicopter transport for embassy employees around Iraq until a new contract with another security company, Dyncorp International, is fully implemented. Presidential Airways is an arm of U.S. Training Center, which is a subsidiary of the company Xe, formerly and still commonly known as Blackwater.”

Controversy has surrounded the private security firm practically since it was founded, but erupted anew recently when former employees accused Blackwater’s founder and former CEO of murdering or facilitating the murders of other employees who were preparing to blow the whistle on his alleged criminal activities.

The sworn statements also say that founder Erik Prince and Blackwater executives were involved in illegal weapons smuggling and had, on numerous occasions, ordered incriminating documents, e-mails, photos and video destroyed. The former employees described Blackwater as “having young girls provide oral sex to Enterprise members in the ‘Blackwater Man Camp’ in exchange for one American dollar.” They add even though Prince frequently visited this camp, he “failed to stop the ongoing use of prostitutes, including child prostitutes, by his men.”

One of the statements also charges that “Prince’s North Carolina operations had an ongoing wife-swapping and sex ring, which was participated in by many of Mr. Prince’s top executives.”

The former employees additionally claim that Prince was engaged in illegal arms dealing, money laundering, and tax evasion, that he created “a web of companies in order to obscure wrong-doing, fraud, and other crimes,” and that Blackwater’s chief financial officer had “resigned … stating he was not willing to go to jail for Erik Prince.”

The company was also allegedly involved in the planning stages of the CIA’s assassination program, which was reportedly never used, then scrapped by CIA chief Leon Panetta.

Prince has repeatedly insisted his company has done nothing wrong and Blackwater continues to fulfill its contracts with the United States government.

For the massacre of Iraqi civilians, five Blackwater guards were arrested and charged with manslaughter. A sixth guard flipped and agreed to testify against the others. Government informants later claimed the company tried to gather up and destroy weapons involved in the slaughter.

The State Department announced last January that it would not be renewing Blackwater’s contract for security services in Iraq when it was set to expire in May, however the Obama administration decided to extend it through Sept. 3, according to The Nation Jeremy Scahill.

ABC reported the new contract extension is for an unspecified amount of time and could end “within weeks or months.”

When it is finally allowed to expire, Blackwater’s involvement with Iraq will have ended, completely.

Blackwater Tapped Foreigners on Secret CIA Program

From CNSNews:

Washington (AP) – When the CIA revived a plan to kill or capture terrorists in 2004, the agency turned to the well-connected security company then known as Blackwater USA.

With Blackwater’s lucrative government security work and contacts arrayed in hot spots around the world, company officials offered the services of foreigners supposedly skilled at tracking terrorists in lawless regions and countries where the CIA had no working relationships with the government.

Blackwater told the CIA that it “could put people on the ground to provide the surveillance and support – all of the things you need to conduct an operation,” a former senior CIA official familiar with the secret program told The Associated Press.

But the CIA’s use of the private contractor as part of its now-abandoned plan to dispatch death squads skirted concerns now re-emerging with recent disclosures about Blackwater’s role.

The former senior CIA official said he had doubts during his tenure about whether Blackwater’s foreign recruits had mastered the necessary skills to pull off such a high-stakes operation. Blackwater’s later hiring of several senior CIA officials who were involved in or aware of the secret program, including one of the men who ran the operation, showed the blurred lines of using a private contractor for such a highly classified and dangerous project.

While Blackwater won the government’s confidence by handling security and training operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2004 decision by CIA officials to entrust the North Carolina-based company with such a sensitive overseas operation struck some former agency officials as highly unusual.

“The question remains: Why do we need Blackwater?” said Charles Faddis, a former department chief at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center who retired in 2008 and was not involved in the secret program. “I remain mystified. This is quintessential CIA work. You wonder what it means that the CIA has to rely on Blackwater? Why are we still funding the CIA?”

The former senior CIA official who had knowledge of the program explained that “you wouldn’t want to have American fingerprints on it.”

The former official and several other current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information remains classified.

Xe spokeswoman Stacy DeLuke did not respond to questions seeking comment. Blackwater altered its corporate name to Xe Services after a series of use-of-force controversies, including a September 2007 shooting in Baghdad by five company security guards that left 17 civilians dead.

The former senior CIA official said that close to a dozen Blackwater “surrogates” were recruited to join the death squad program. The recruits, the former official said, were not told they were working for the CIA. The official did not know how Blackwater found them.

Read the rest:

http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/53287

Blackwater Founder Accused in Court of Intent to Kill

From The Washington Post:

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009

The founder of Blackwater USA deliberately caused the deaths of innocent civilians in a series of shootings in Iraq, attorneys for Iraqis suing the security contractor told a federal judge Friday.

The attorneys singled out Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who is the company’s owner, for blame in the deaths of more than 20 Iraqis between 2005 and 2007. Six former Blackwater guards were criminally charged in 14 of the shootings, and family members and victims’ estates sued Prince, Blackwater (now called Xe Services LLC) and a group of related companies.

“The person responsible for these deaths is Mr. Prince,” Susan L. Burke, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. “He had the intent, he provided the weapons, he provided the instructions, and they were done by his agents and they were war crimes.”

Judge T.S. Ellis III expressed deep skepticism about the claims. “Are you accusing Mr. Prince of saying ‘I want our boys to go out and shoot innocent civilians?’ ” he asked the attorneys.”These are certainly allegations of not engaging in very nice conduct, but where are the elements that meet the elements of murder? I don’t have any doubt that you can infer malice. What you can’t infer, as far as I can tell, is intent to kill these people.”

Attorneysfor the former Blackwater company denied the allegations at the hearing, which was called to consider their motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Ellis said he would issue a ruling “promptly.”

The hearing — combative in its words but respectful in tone — was the latest fallout from Blackwater’s controversial actions in Iraq. The North Carolina company, which has provided security under a lucrative State Department contract, has come under scrutiny for a string of incidents in which its heavily armed guards were accused of using excessive force.

The deadliest was a September 2007 shooting in central Baghdad in which Blackwater guards opened fire on Iraqis in a crowded street, killing 17 civilians. The company has said the guards’ convoy came under fire. Five former Blackwater guards have been indicted on federal charges in 14 of those shootings. A sixth guard pleaded guilty.

The lawsuit cites that incident and other shootings to accuse the company of “lawless behavior.” A consolidation of five earlier lawsuits, it says the company covered up killings and hired known mercenaries. In sworn affidavits recently filed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, two anonymous former Blackwater employees also say — without citing evidence — that the company may have conspired to murder witnesses in the criminal probe.

Attorneys for Blackwater say the lawsuit should be dismissed on a variety of legal grounds and that although the deaths were tragic, the guards were closely supervised by U.S. government officials. The allegations “go far beyond describing the harm allegedly suffered by Plaintiffs,” the Blackwater attorneys wrote in their motion to dismiss. “They include an encyclopedia of vituperative assertions.”

The Blackwater attorneys are also calling on the judge to strike the affidavits from the former employees from the court record, calling them “scandalous and baseless” and designed to get publicity. Ellis has yet to rule on that motion.