No Comment — March 21, 2008, 8:17 am

Blackwater’s Gray Zone

Bruce Falconer and Daniel Schulman, writing in the current issue of Mother Jones, offer an interesting take on a key piece of Blackwater’s contract military services that fits rather uneasily into the image the company seeks to project.

Responding to questions before Congress about an incident in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square that left seventeen Iraqi civilians dead and numerous others wounded, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince stated:

“I believe we acted appropriately at all times.”

But investigators from the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to a sharply different assessment. They noted that the Blackwater convoy was not, at the time of the incident, protecting anyone, and that the discharge of firearms was reckless and irresponsible. A criminal investigation continues into the event. It is being defended largely with hypertechnical arguments challenging the Justice Department’s statutory authority to conduct the investigation and bring charges on the basis of it. My hunch is that Blackwater’s impressive backroom muscle within the Bush Administration will succeed in blocking any charges from being raised. That, moreover, is exactly what happens consistently when corporate muscle interacts with justice in the Bush era.

Prince bristles when Blackwater employees are called “mercenaries.” During his Congressional appearance, he stated:

“The Oxford dictionary defines a mercenary as a professional soldier working for a foreign government. We have Americans working for America, protecting Americans.”

That statement was true, but highly misleading. In fact Blackwater USA employs U.S. citizens, but other components of the Blackwater empire recruit and hire highly qualified “special ops”-type soldiers from around the world.

More and more of his foot soldiers now come from Third World countries, and his corporate network is aggressively pitching for business from foreign governments. (It has already trained naval commandos in Azerbaijan and has been hired to train special forces troops in Jordan.) In his most ambitious moments, Prince has set out a vision in which his companies would act as for-profit peacekeepers, working with the United Nations and other international organizations in conflict areas around the world. Even Blackwater’s marketing materials are infused with the imagery of global humanitarianism; one of the company’s recent ads shows a tiny malnourished infant being spoon-fed and proclaims the company’s intention to “provide hope to those who still live in desperate times.”

Yet the most important vehicle for Prince’s global aspirations isn’t Blackwater proper, but Greystone Limited, a company he quietly founded in 2004 as his firm’s “international affiliate.” According to Chris Taylor, a former Marine Recon soldier who until May was Blackwater’s vice president for strategic initiatives, Prince sought to build a new brand. “Blackwater has a sexy name and people pay attention to it,” Taylor says, and sometimes that high profile “may not fit the proposed mission.” In particular, he says, “international opportunities” were to be “looked at through Greystone.”

Nearly all of the 20 or more companies Prince has launched or acquired over the years are U.S. based. Greystone, however, was incorporated in the Caribbean tax haven of Barbados, although it is managed from Blackwater’s headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina. (The Barbados address and phone number listed in the federal government’s contractor database trace back to a firm that specializes in shielding corporate revenues from U.S. tax authorities.) “As far as I know, they were the same company with different names,” notes a contractor who worked for Blackwater in Iraq.

On the road last year, I came across a published advertisement for a job fair that a Blackwater-related entity was running in Romania. It was seeking to recruit persons from the Balkans with experience in counter-terrorism and special operations. No doubt there are quite a few potential candidates in the Balkans with real frontline experience. I wondered how a member from a Serbian death squad would fare in one of those interviews.

But this article gives us a good glimpse at Greystone’s recruitment operations in Latin America, frequently using subcontractors—something which has gotten a good deal of press coverage in papers in Colombia, Peru, and more recently, in the Miami Herald.

Consider the case of Greystone subcontractor ID Systems. Incorporated in Panama and headquartered in a nondescript office complex in Bogotá, Colombia, the company in 2005 placed newspaper ads that drew men with military experience—a plentiful commodity in a country torn by civil war and terrorized by guerrillas and paramilitaries. According to one ID Systems recruit, a former Colombian army officer who asked to remain anonymous, he and at least 30 other men were promised $4,000 per month to do security work for Blackwater in Iraq. They went through a quick refresher course in firearms and hand-to-hand combat at the Colombian army’s cavalry school in northern Bogotá, he said; among the instructors were several Americans, all ex-U.S. military working for Greystone. Afterward, the recruits returned home to wait for the call to Iraq.

It came late one evening in June 2006. The men assembled at ID Systems’ offices, where they were met by Gonzalo Adolfo Guevara, a former Colombian army captain who had overseen their recruitment. He handed them contracts and told them to be at the airport in four hours. They were told they would be making not $4,000 but $2,700 per month—still not bad in Colombia, where some workers only earn that much in a year. But the actual contract, which some of them didn’t read until after they were airborne, provided for just $1,000 per month, or $34 per day.

On arriving in Baghdad, the men were issued weapons and introduced to Blackwater and Greystone managers. Bitterness turned to anger when they discovered that their pay was about one-fourth that of the Romanians they were replacing. They composed a letter to managers at ID Systems, Greystone, and Blackwater demanding either a raise or a ticket back to Colombia. The companies stonewalled, and it wasn’t until three months later, after reports of the dispute had appeared in Semana, Colombia’s largest newsmagazine, that the men were finally sent home. (Chris Taylor says there was no impropriety: “Before every single one of those professionals were deployed, they understood there was a change in the contract. Those who went understood perfectly what they were signing.”) According to the former recruit, ID Systems continues to supply personnel to Greystone. But Guevara, the man who deceived the recruits about their wages, is no longer involved—he was shot and left to die outside a Bogotá bakery last May.

Note of course, hiring soldiers in Colombia and Romania to provide security services for the U.S. Government in Iraq comes right within the Oxford dictionary definition of “mercenary.”

Still, there is an ill wind in the air for the vendors of mercenary services. The presidential field has been reduced to three, and all have been sharply critical of the Bush Administration’s heavy reliance on security contractors in Iraq. Come next January, things will be changing. Erik Prince’s Greystone clearly senses the change in the offing. It’s time to locate some new clients.

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