The notorious mercenary company now offers spy “services” to Fortune 500 companies, for the right price.
By Jeremy Scahill
This past September, the secretive mercenary company Blackwater USA found its name splashed across front pages throughout the world after the company’s shooters gunned down seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. But by early 2008, Blackwater had largely receded from the headlines save for the occasional blip on the media radar sparked by Congressman Henry Waxman’s ongoing investigations into its activities. Its forces remained deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and business continued to pour in. In the two weeks directly following Nisour Square, Blackwater signed more than $144 million in contracts with the State Department for “protective services” in Iraq and Afghanistan alone and, over the following weeks and months, won millions more in contracts with other federal entities like the Coast Guard, the Navy and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
Blackwater’s Iraq contract was extended in April, but the company is by no means betting the house on its long-term presence there. While the firm is quietly maintaining its Iraq work, it is aggressively pursuing other business opportunities. In September it was revealed that Blackwater had been “tapped” by the Pentagon’s Counter Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office to compete for a share of a five-year, $15 billion budget “to fight terrorists with drug-trade ties.” According to the Army Times, the contract “could include antidrug technologies and equipment, special vehicles and aircraft, communications, security training, pilot training, geographic information systems and in-field support.” A spokesperson for another company bidding for the work said that “80 percent of the work will be overseas.” As Richard Douglas, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, explained, “The fact is, we use Blackwater to do a lot of our training of counternarcotics police in Afghanistan. I have to say that Blackwater has done a very good job.”
Such an arrangement could find Blackwater operating in an arena with the godfathers of the war industry, such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. It could also see Blackwater expanding into Latin America, joining other private security companies well established in the region. The massive US security company DynCorp is already deployed in Colombia, Bolivia and other countries as part of the “war on drugs.” In Colombia alone, US military contractors are receiving nearly half the $630 million in annual US military aid for the country. Just south of the US border, the United States has launched Plan Mexico, a $1.5 billion counternarcotics program. This and similar plans could provide lucrative business opportunities for Blackwater and other companies. “Blackwater USA’s enlistment in the drug war,” observed journalist John Ross, would be “a direct challenge to its stiffest competitor, DynCorp — up until now, the Dallas-based corporation has locked up 94 percent of all private drug war security contracts.” The New York Times reported that the contract could be Blackwater’s “biggest job ever.”
As populist movements grow stronger in Latin America, threatening US financial interests as well as the standing of right-wing US political allies in the region, the “war on drugs” is becoming an increasingly central part of US counterinsurgency efforts. It allows for more training of foreign security forces through the private sector — away from Congressional oversight — and a deployment of personnel from US war corporations. With US forces stretched thin, sending private security companies to Latin America offers Washington a “small footprint” alternative to the politically and militarily problematic deployment of active-duty US troops. In a January report by the United Nations working group on mercenaries, international investigators found that “an emerging trend in Latin America but also in other regions of the world indicates situations of private security companies protecting transnational extractive corporations whose employees are often involved in suppressing the legitimate social protest of communities and human rights and environmental organizations of the areas where these corporations operate.”
If there is one quality that is evident from examining Blackwater’s business history, it is the company’s ability to take advantage of emerging war and conflict markets. Throughout the decade of Blackwater’s existence, its creator, Erik Prince, has aggressively built his empire into a structure paralleling the US national security apparatus. “Prince wants to vault Blackwater into the major leagues of U.S. military contracting, taking advantage of the movement to privatize all kinds of government security,” reported the Wall Street Journal shortly after Nisour Square. “The company wants to be a one-stop shop for the U.S. government on missions to which it won’t commit American forces. This is a niche with few established competitors.”