Friday, March 28, 2008

Pentagon Confirms Contractor Accountability

In a memo dated March 10, Secretary of Defense Bill Gates (pictured) reiterated the accountability of US private security contractors to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He writes:

On October 17, 2006, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) was amended to extend UCMJ jurisdiction over persons serving with or accompanying US armed forces in the field.... Since then, commanders have had avaliable this additional UCMJ disciplinary authority.

The unique nature of this extended UCMJ jurisdiction over civilians requires sound management over when, where and by whom such jurisdiction is exercised. There is a particular need for clarity regarding the legal framework that should govern a command response to any illegal activities by Department of Defense civilian employees and DoD contractor personnel overseas with our Armed Forces.

This latest memo from Secretary Gates does precisely that, clarifying once again that PSCs like Blackwater are accountable to the military when serving with it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Truth About "Blood Money"

Certain media outlets, among them ABC News, have been trying to make hay with a story about Blackwater offering money to the families of civilians killed at Nisoor Square last September. With each telling through other media outlets or around the blogosphere, the story becomes more outlandish: Blackwater trying to bribe families into silence, Blackwater trying to obstruct justice, etc., etc.

The truth of the matter is quite different.

Condolence payments are standard US government policy. In the accompanying photo, Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel shakes hands with a villager from Nangarhar, Afghanistan, who received a solatia payment from the US military.

Condolence payments are similar to a local custom known as solatia. Presently, US military commanders can make on-the-spot condolence payments, a practice that troop supporters like Senator Ted Kennedy have criticized. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in 2007 that describes the US military's practice of condolence payments and solatia.

In Iraq, for example, the Department of Defense routinely offers payments to families of innocent victims of US military operations; generally the sum is reportedly about $5,000. In the case of contractors providing diplomatic security support - such as Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp - the State Department sets the sum. Even ABC admits that Blackwater has been giving between $10,000 and $20,000, and doing so through the Iraqi legal framework.

The people most strongly pushing for Iraqi families to hold out for larger payment are not the Iraqis themselves, but American trial lawyers working the cases. (Some of the lawyers suing Blackwater over Nisoor Square, as we have reported, are tried to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.) Why are they pressing for larger sums? Because they're hoping to profiteer in their own way from the war. They make nothing on condolence payments. But they can make millions - as much as a 30 to 35 per cent cut - from a lawsuit award from a U.S. court.

A source familiar with the situation explains:

The payments are not intended to "make the problem go away" or to admit guilt. They are simply a charitable gesture of condolences, and the right thing to do. I love how the trial lawyers try to put a cash value on a human being. Five thousand dollars isn't enough, for sure. Is five million? I don't think so. How about five billion? Where do these lawyers get off placing cash values on people's lives? They're only interested because the higher the price, the more money they stand to make.... Most Iraqi families have accepted the condolence payments as condolence payments: Not as attempts to place value on the dead or to make things go away, or to bribe, or anything else. Especially in a hospitality-based culture, it's the gesture, not the dollar amount, that matters most.

In an official statement, Blackwater explains:

At the request of US Embassy Baghdad, Blackwater has reached out to the families of those killed or injured in Nisoor Square on September 16 as part of this condolence payment process. These are customary condolence payments, and are not an admission of guilt, but recognize that Iraq is an extremely dangerous place. When faced with an enemy intent on maximizing civilian casualties, innocent people will tragically be caught in the crossfire; when that happens, their suffering should not go unrecognized.

So ABC is running what's essentially a fake story that's driven by trial lawyers who want to profiteer from war victims.

It is worth mentioning one final concern with compensations of any kind, a concern you won't hear in the mainstream media: As is the case with some suicide bombers, impoverished people will sometimes take advantage of large sums and get themselves killed on purpose so that the families can receive the payments. Just another reason to believe the issues at stake aren't always as clear cut as folks like ABC make them out to be.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Clinton, Obama Spar over PSCs

The Democratic primary has become a race to the bottom as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama try to outdo each other in condemnation of America's private security contractors. The only thing keeping the candidates close to honest is each other.

Bloomberg reports that in a speech at George Washington University, Clinton reiterated her commitment to pull all private security contractors out of Iraq - a plan that would lead to the deaths of most, of not all, American diplomats, as this blog has already pointed out. In a rival speech in Monaca, Pennsylvania, however, Obama noted that Clinton is a "latecomer" this issue, simply blowing in the wind as it suits her political interests.

Sadly, Obama's insights seemed to end there. He went on to claim that "we have to crack down on private contractors like Blackwater, because I don't believe they should be able to run amok and put our own troops in danger." This, when he said a short while ago that he would not rule out employing such contractors in Iraq. Would he really do so if they simply "run amok"?

The junior senator from Illinois laid down this maxim for his Iraq policy: "I have been consistently saying that we have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in." If that means employing some of the most well-trained, dedicated, patriotic Americans in the service of the Iraq mission, we applaud the senator's endorsement of Blackwater.

During her speech, Mrs. Clinton "recalled flying into Bosnia under sniper fire to visit US troops" when her husband was president. If anything, Clinton's comments underlined the important role of private security contractors, though she'd never admit it. When she visited Iraq, under Blackwater protection, she suffered no harm whatsoever.

(For the record, in the same George Washington University speech, Mrs. Clinton said she would work with terrorist-sponsoring Syria and Iran, were she to be elected president.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Independent, Bloomberg Estimate Most Contractors are Non-Combatants

Britain's left-wing Independent published an estimate that "put the number of private contractors working in Iraq at 160,000 from up to 300 separate companies." However, the article explains that only "about 50,000 were private security guards from companies such as Blackwater." In other words, less than one third of the contractors in Iraq are engaged in combat duties. The vast majority of contractors handle food, laundry, supplies, communications and other logistical functions. Bloomberg media put the figure even lower: 7,300 security contractors out of a told of 137,000 in Iraq. So next time you read that there are a hundred and some odd thousand "mercenary soldiers" in Iraq, set the record straight.

Human Events Takes Blackwater Critics to Task

Human Events reports that

The Iraq Veterans Against the War held their Winter Soldier II event this weekend at the National Labor College. The implied intent of this event was to give testimony to a myriad of claimed atrocities committed by the US military in Iraq.... Additional time was spent on the left’s obvious and expected platitudes: no blood for oil, Halliburton and Blackwater are evil capitalists, etc., nothing you wouldn’t expect to hear at a Code Pink den meeting.

Remember, this is the same organization to which Jesse Macbeth belonged, until his claims his unit routinely committed war crimes in Iraq were debunked when it was proved he never finished basic training.

Author Katie O'Malley explains

Not surprisingly, [the event] fell far short of its intent.... My conclusions after hearing and reading hours upon hours of the testimony? War is hell. Bad things happen. People get hurt. Sometimes innocents get caught in the fire. As to the specifics that IVAW members alleged, perhaps a few things were questionable and they should certainly be investigated. The rest of the anecdotal stories confirmed nothing more except that in war, unfortunate things happen. This was a collection of war stories, not the exposure of war crimes.

This methodology is to be expected, really. When you don't have an actual argument, the best way to give the impression of one is to throw out some stories, find some "eye witnesses" - even if they weren't witnesses to the events you're alleging - and dance around the subject long enough that those not paying careful attention will connect the dots in the way you want. Thanks, Katie, for seeing through the smoke and mirrors.

Blackwater Founder to Address Grand Rapids Economic Club

Erik Prince, founder and CEO of Blackwater Worldwide, will be addressing the Grand Rapids Economic Club at a luncheon on Tuesday, the Associated Press and the Grand Rapids Press report.

Prince, a former Navy SEAL, is a native of Holland, Michigan and still has family in the area, among them a sister who sits on the Economic Club’s board.
Blackwater Worldwide, based in Moyock, North Carolina, protects US officials in Iraq, supplies frontline US forces in Afghanistan and provides a variety of other services to the US government.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

United Press International Calls Out Journalists

David Isenberg of United Press International, in an article on private security contractors, provides this insightful analysis of most journalistic coverage of the topic:

Articles about private military or security contractors have a depressing tendency to be formulaic. They are predictably mistrustful of business, suspicious of people carrying guns and disdainful of what is, for all practical purposes, a blue-collar profession.

Consider for example the frequently cited belief that private security contractors are unsupervised, out-of-control gunslingers who act with impunity. This was particularly in vogue after the killing of Iraqi civilians and police in Baghdad by Blackwater contractors last September.

If nothing else, that incident provided a great deal of evidence to suggest that the reality is, to say the least, more nuanced. Industry sources were able to show anyone who was interested the numerous rules, regulations, in-house codes of conduct, military rules of engagement, and national and international laws they operate under.

Lawyer Tries to End Blackwater Suit

Wiley Rein, who - along with former partner Margaret Ryan - is facing a $30 million legal malpractice lawsuit, is seeking to have the case dismissed, the Legal Times reports.

Rein and Ryan defended Blackwater against a 2005 wrongful-death suit, but for some reason did not cite the federal officer removal statute and appropriate case precedent when conducting their defense. Had they done so, the case would have remained in federal court and been thrown out. Instead, Rein and Ryan allegedly mishandled the case, which was remanded to the Superior Court of Wake County in North Carolina and is now in arbitration.

At the heart of Rein's argument is a shaky proposition: that Blackwater's four employees killed in Fallujah, Iraq, were not technically working for the US military - in which case the statute would apply - but for a catering contractor which was working for the US military. It takes some pretty serious mental gymnastics to avoid the common-sense conclusion that coming under fire from insurgents in a city where the US military is conducting active combat operations, while employed for folks working for the military, does not constitute working with the military yourself.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bizarre group criticizes private security contractors

Private security companies are facing international criticism again. It's the same old myths, recycled again: accountability, loopholes, ete. What's interesting is where the accusations are coming from.

Jose Luis Gomez del Prado heads the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries to Impede the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination (UNWGUMIRPSD?). He's bringing forward this latest batch of criticism in a report he just issued, and demanding action.

And to whom is he bringing these claims and calling for action? The UN Human Rights Council, whose membership includes such bastions of human dignity and freedom as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Cuba and Nicaragua. Yes, the same body that wants to withdraw the special experts, representatives and rapporteurs who investigate human rights abuses in Cuba, Belarus, Burma and North Korea.

In submitting his report to the group, the UN official said, "The activities of private military and security companies take place in a grey zone, in which human rights violations with impunity are likely to occur."

This "news" is brought to us by Xinhua, an international propaganda arm of the Chinese government.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Enemies List: Waxman Steals Page from Tricky Dick

Congressman Henry Waxman has stolen a page from Richard Nixon's playbook and is trying to use the Internal Revenue Service to go after his political enemies.

Near the top of Waxman's enemies list, Blackwater is the subject of the California Democrat's call for an IRS probe. Waxman has complained loudly about Blackwater's alleged Republican connections, and the fact that the company and its owner have given money to Republicans but not Democrats.

According to Politico, Waxman is "reviving a long-dormant congressional inquiry of the North Carolina-based security firm that has protected US personnel in Iraq," pressuring the IRS to go after the company. Not convinced that the IRS will be enough, Waxman is also leaning on the Labor Department and the Small Business Administration, we learn. This coming from a man who has already been accused of destroying the independent oversight system.

Meanwhile, we already know that Waxman has already been abusing his chairmanship by doing the bidding of a California lawyer who stands to make millions by suing Blackwater.

Blackwater is dismissing Waxman's latest headline-generating stunt. "Blackwater’s classification of its personnel is accurate, and Blackwater has always been forthcoming about this aspect of its business with its customer, the US government," company spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said. "The company regrets the Chairman’s decision to publicly air misleading information."
Next question: Will the IRS respond in a politicized way by answering Waxman's request? Or will it stay out of politics as it's supposed to?

Hillary plan would get our diplomats killed

If Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's plan for Blackwater became law, most of our diplomats in Baghdad and Kabul would be dead.

So would the senator and any other American VIP visiting the Iraqi and Afghan capitals.

As we recently reported, the presidential candidate issued a news release on February 28 saying she had cosponsored legislation to "ban" the use of private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to her news release, "The legislation requires that all personnel at any U.S. diplomatic or consular mission in Iraq be provided security services only by Federal Government Personnel."

But the legislation doesn't have a provision for training and equipping U.S. government personnel for the job - a job the military says it can't do. And the Diplomatic Security Service has only 1,700 agents worldwide, when about two-thirds that number are needed in Iraq alone. Recruiting, screening, training and deploying such a force would take years.

So her bill would "ban" the private security providers while making no provisions for federal personnel to replace them - creating a security gap that would cost many American lives.

Indeed, Senator Clinton had no problem with Blackwater protecting her when she visited the war zones. Now that rival Senator Barack Obama has come around on the Blackwater issue, Senator Clinton has flip-flopped to become a vocal critic.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Blackwater Won't Build in Potrero

Blackwater's opponents are rejoicing that the company is not going ahead with a planned facility on a site in Potrero, CA (pictured). What caused the private security contrator to change its mind? Fiery environmentalists? Political protesters? Hippie pacifists? Actually, it was the acoustics.

"Recent noise tests indicated that sound levels in the bowl-shaped valley exceeded the county limits and would have been prohibitively expensive to fix," the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

"The decision was ultimately made yesterday based on the fact that there was no feasible mitigation with regard to our noise tests," Brian Bonfiglio, Blackwater vice president, told the Associated Press "You'd basically have to put roofs on every single range. It's not workable."

"Blackwater has maintained its position from the very beginning that if we could not meet or exceed (California) and San Diego County guidelines that we would not proceed, and we are keeping to that commitment," Bonfiglio was reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune as saying.

Still, some are tempted to read more into the story. A source close to Blackwater lays these notions to rest: "The company decided for business reasons that the site wasn't worth the planned investment. It could have countered the protesters and challenged the recall vote with a very modest outlay, but opted out completely. [Blackwater] requires either more land or a topography surrounded by high and steep hills to contain the shooting noise.... For the protesters to claim victory is like claiming credit for the sunrise."

Friday, March 7, 2008

New Republic Editor Sees Role for Blackwater

Michael Walzer of the New Republic, in an article titled "Mercenary Impulse," dispels some of the nonsense surrounding Blackwater and discusses possibilities for the private security contractor.

Though Walzer is critical of Blackwater in many ways, he makes several common sense observations. To those who argue that the North Carolina-based company is waging a private war, Mr. Walzer answers that "Blackwater's employees, of course, are not fighting a private war--Iraq is an American war." Against the charges that private security contractors are accountable to no one, the New Republic contributing editor points out that "a voluntary code of conduct has been accepted by many of the security companies operating in Iraq." Finally, Mr. Walzer is aware of the unrecognized cost being borne by Blackwater and other contractors: "The US government keeps no record of the security guards who have died or been wounded."

With regards to the literature surrounding Blackwater, Mr. Walzer has this to say:

Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army is informative but written as if readers already know the argument and so it is necessary only to present Blackwater's history in appropriately indignant tones. Then there is Gerald Schumacher's A Bloody Business: America's War Zone Contractors and the Occupation of Iraq, which defends the contractors but also considers in detail the criticism directed against them. (This happens shamefully often these days: political correctness on the left, intellectual engagement on the right.)

Mr. Walzer understands that private security contractors are sometimes able to perform jobs that others are not. He explains,

Speaking at a conference of arms merchants and war contractors in Amman, Jordan, in March 2006, Blackwater vice chairman J. Cofer Black offered to stop the killing in Darfur. "We've war-gamed this with professionals," he said. "We can do this." Back in the United States, another Blackwater official, Chris Taylor, reiterated the offer.

Since neither the United Nations nor NATO has any intention of deploying a military force that would actually be capable of stopping the Darfur genocide, should we send in mercenaries? Scahill quotes Max Boot, the leading neoconservative writer on military affairs, arguing forcefully that there is nothing else to do. Allowing private contractors to secure Darfur "is deemed unacceptable by the moral giants who run the United Nations," Boot writes. "They claim that it is objectionable to employ--sniff--mercenaries. More objectionable, it seems, than passing empty resolutions, sending ineffectual peace-keeping forces and letting genocide continue."

Some of us might prefer something like the International Brigade that fought in Spain over a force of Blackwater mercenaries. But the International Brigade was also a private militia... never under the control of the Spanish republic.... Whatever Blackwater's motives, I won't join the "moral giants" who would rather do nothing at all than send mercenaries to Darfur.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Blackwater Develops Better Armor for US Forces

Blackwater Worldwide, in conjunction with ARES Systems, has developed "lighter, stronger, more cost-effective armor," according to a recent press release.

The armor, known as EXO Scale, is an appliqué that can be added to vehicles already in use. At recent tests at the Aberdeen Test Center, Army engineers fired projectiles at EXO Scale armor, which "conclusively passed the live fire test, proving the viability of EXO Scale for MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected] II vehicles and as an upgrade to earlier generation MRAP I vehicles," the release explains.

EXO Scale clearly provides better protection for our deployed soldiers, said Maj. Gen. Buff Blount (US Army, ret). EXO Scale weighs approximately 30 percent less than the government's current appliqué armor design. That translates to extended vehicle life, lower operations (fuel) costs and lower maintenance costs due to less wear and tear on the vehicle. He went on to point out that EXO Scale is approximately one-third the cost of current MRAP armor solutions.

In addition to its use as an appliqué, EXO Scale is also being employed on the cutting-edge new Grizzly vehicle from Blackwater (pictured above).

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Clinton Would Abolish Iraq Security Detail

Hours after Senator Barack Obama gave his show of support to Blackwater and private security contractors generally, Hillary Clinton announced that she was cosponsoring legislation "to ban the use of Blackwater and other private mercenary firms in Iraq," according to her website.

I'd rail against the junior senator of New York for her naiveté, pointing out that her proposal that "all personnel at any US diplomatic or consular mission in Iraq be provided security services only by Federal Government Personnel" is impossible. I would point out that her proposal is a backdoor way of saying we should pull out of Iraq - without the gumption to actually say it - since the US government is incapable of operating there without the private sector. I'd say these things and more, but others have beat me to the punch.

The Moderate Voice has come out and said that,

These contractors are fully integrated into every aspect of the operations in Iraq, and at this juncture, we cannot simply “ban” them. The most important immediate step we can take is to get them accountable (and evidently Obama already has legislation in motion for this). Clinton’s move here looks to be both politically expedient and astoundingly naive.
Not only that, but Clinton has benefited personally from Blackwater, and she knows it. When she visited Iraq, she was protected not by U.S. troops or Secret Service agents, but by Blackwater Worldwide's personal security detail. All American lawmakers who visit Iraq go under Blackwater protection.

Clinton knows Blackwater's importance, which is why her Senate office (as opposed to her campaign staff) has been so muted in its criticism of the company. She didn't have much to say against the firm while her opponent, Senator Obama, was trashing the security provider. Now that Obama has seen the light and has given Blackwater the thumbs-up, Senator Clinton has performed one of her famous flip-flops so she can take the other side of the issue.