No Comment — November 24, 2009, 2:57 pm

Blackwater’s Pakistan Capers

The disclosures about Blackwater USA (now Xe Services LLC) are coming at a steady drip now. The company first gained international notoriety following the massacre of seventeen Iraqi civilians in an incident at Baghdad’s Nisoor Square on September 16, 2007. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put the company right in the middle of a controversial program of drone warfare on the Afghanistani-Pakistani border. A recent New York Times story suggests that senior officers approved payments of $1 million to Iraqi officials to silence their criticism of the company, which would raise questions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act even if the payments were never made, as shown in the recent sentencing of businessman Frederic Bourke. As the judge in that case noted, the Justice Department secured a conviction even though there was no substantial evidence of any bribe ever having been paid. Blackwater may of course be subject to a more lenient Justice Department view.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, newspapers have been filled with charges to the effect that the government knows of and is turning a blind eye to Blackwater’s operations on their soil. The Pakistani government has vehemently denied these charges, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik recently insisted that he will resign if Blackwater is proven to be operating in the country. The minister may be in for an unpleasant surprise. The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill offers up substantial detail about Blackwater’s Pakistani operations, which were evidently undertaken at the behest of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Scahill’s reporting confirms and substantially deepens reporting about a targeted killings program operated by JSOC under close supervision by former Vice President Cheney, in which Blackwater played a vital role.

At a covert forward operating base run by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, members of an elite division of Blackwater are at the center of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, “snatch and grabs” of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan, an investigation by The Nation has found. The Blackwater operatives also assist in gathering intelligence and help run a secret US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes, according to a well-placed source within the US military intelligence apparatus…

A former senior executive at Blackwater confirmed the military intelligence source’s claim that the company is working in Pakistan for the CIA and JSOC, the premier counterterrorism and covert operations force within the military. He said that Blackwater is also working for the Pakistani government on a subcontract with an Islamabad-based security firm that puts US Blackwater operatives on the ground with Pakistani forces in counter-terrorism operations, including house raids and border interdictions, in the North-West Frontier Province and elsewhere in Pakistan. This arrangement, the former executive said, allows the Pakistani government to utilize former US Special Operations forces who now work for Blackwater while denying an official US military presence in the country. He also confirmed that Blackwater has a facility in Karachi and has personnel deployed elsewhere in Pakistan.

Scahill goes on to provide a physical description of the Blackwater facility in Karachi. He names and describes Blackwater’s key Pakistani contract counterpart. He also quotes Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief-of-staff at the State Department, on the curious relationship that developed between Dick Cheney and the JSOC operation. “Cheney was actually giving McChrystal instructions, and McChrystal was asking him for instructions.” As a legal matter, the Vice President is not in the chain of command and has no business issuing orders to the military in his own name. But as Bart Gellman demonstrates in his book, Angler, Cheney repeatedly assumed and asserted military command authority, and his usurpation went unchallenged by the Rumsfeld Defense Department.

It seems unlikely to me that we’re anywhere near the end of unwinding the Blackwater relationship with the Bush Administration. Scahill’s latest article points to a complex, far-flung relationship with JSOC, and earlier reporting gives the company a similarly dominant contracting position with the CIA and State Department. In each of these cases, the roles of client and service-provider seem reversed. The rules that normally apply to contractors never seem to apply to Blackwater, a company that provided a revolving door for senior figures in the intelligence community looking for employment in the private world.

How did the Rumsfeld Pentagon justify putting these matters in the hands of a private contractor? Is it because the contractor provides deniability if the matter were to be disclosed? Or is it to avoid congressional oversight? Is it distrust of the CIA? Did JSOC really lack the resources and personnel to manage these projects on its own? Or was it a simple matter of “capture,” the term that social scientists use to describe the way that commercial contractors come first to influence and then to manage the contracting process? If it is the latter, then Blackwater may be the most impressive example of “capture” we have ever seen.

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