Wednesday, September 19, 2007

'Blackwater takes many steps to keep clients safe'

The Virginian-Pilot
(Hampton Roads, Virginia)
September 18, 2007

Peter McHugh has been an "egg" - one of the clients Blackwater ferries around Iraq in heavily armed convoys, like the one that came under attack Sunday in Baghdad.

McHugh's motorcade was never ambushed, but he has an insider's view of how the company moves people from here to there inside a war zone.

Today, McHugh is an interagency chairman for the National Defense University at Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. For most of last year, he worked as a transportation counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, trying to help Iraq get its roads, rails, ports and airports up and running.

Progress depended on meetings with Iraqi officials, which meant McHugh had to venture outside the safety of the International Zone. Embassy rules prohibited him from doing so without a security detail.

Blackwater, under its contract with the State Department, provided his escort.

In an interview earlier this year, McHugh described the experience. He said demand for security details outstripped availability. Requests for an escort had to be submitted 48 hours in advance, then screened, prioritized and analyzed for risk. Predictability made a convoy an easier target, so trips to the same place were restricted to three per week. Routes and times were varied.

New destinations were scouted, mapped and photographed by Blackwater, "down to the arrangement of the room, like a table, four chairs, windows that open onto the road," McHugh said. "They made the decision whether or not that venue was safe."

On the day before the outing, a Blackwater team leader and one of his assistants came to the client's office for a briefing. First-time "eggs" were coached on their responsibilities, like "when to duck, when to open the door and when not to," McHugh said.

Plans were laid out for the number of guards, type of vehicles, weapons and departure time. On the day of the mission, Blackwater would dispatch an advance team for a last-minute check of routes and venue. At the appointed hour, the convoy assembled in front of the embassy.

"We were required to wear full 'battle rattle,' " McHugh said of clients, which means helmet, body armor and so on.

Once the client was tucked away - often inside a heavily armored Humvee that McHugh described as "surprisingly uncomfortable, with thick glass, small windows" - the convoy headed for the International Zone's main gate.

"Once out, everybody armors up," he said. "Radios are on, and you're being tracked electronically by a tactical operations center."

Nerves remained taut as the motorcade threaded its way along "narrow roads with high buildings on both sides." At the meeting place, McHugh would be hustled across any open space and into the building with Blackwater's men "acting as a human shield - constantly looking, constantly aware."

Blackwater's presence inside the meeting was negotiated ahead of time, with the contractors usually preferring to stand in with long guns ready.

"That can be hard for a guy trying to do business," McHugh said. "You're meeting with a senior official. He's in a nice office, wearing a nice suit, and here I come with four or six armed, military-looking men. From the Iraqi perspective, that's an insult."

Nevertheless, McHugh said, without such protection, his job would have been even more difficult or impossible.

"They became an integral part of the daily planning and execution," McHugh said, "and a big part in making sure I made it back."

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