The cloud of secrecy that surrounds the private security contracting industry is nowhere more evident than in the workings of Blackwater U.S.A. The postwar business boom in the security industry has brought founder Erik Prince and his Blackwater hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal contracts. However, it is the secretive inter-workings of the organization have made the company the spotlight of more serious inquiry.
For most Americans, the first time they heard the term “private military contractors” was following the gruesome murder of four Blackwater soldiers in Falluja. On March 31, 2004, four Blackwater security contractors were sent on a mission that led them through the center of Falluja, a city that had become a hotbed of resistance to the U.S. occupation. Three of the men were former Army Rangers, and one an ex-Navy SEAL. After entering the city, gunmen approached the convoy, shot and killed the 4 men then set the cars on fire. After the fire died down, the dead bodies were pulled from the vehicle and dragged through the street. The corpses of the men were beaten and dismembered and their remains were hanged on the iron bridge over the Euphrates River.
The response in Washington was forceful. According to the Los Angeles Times, the killings were interpreted by the administration as a “challenge to America’s resolve.” Spokesman McClellan conveyed Bush’s declaration; “We will not be intimidated…We will finish the job.” On April 5, ignoring the advice of Marine commanders, troops were ordered to invade Falluja. Met by organized and prepared resistance, the invasion resulted in bloodshed and death, and achieved nothing in the pursuit of progress in the city or country.
The response by Blackwater was peculiar. The families of the fallen men were not given explanations of their death. Rather, at a memorial service for the men, organized by Blackwater, the families were gathered and told that if they wanted to learn how their sons died they would have to sue for the information.
The families of the four men did just that. In 2005 the families brought suit against Blackwater in Wake Country Superior Court in an effort to find out what happened to their loved ones. The four families claim that “Blackwater, in its zeal to exploit the unexpected market for private security men, showed a callous disregard for the safety of its employees.” In May 2007, in response to a counter-suit by Blackwater, U.S. District Judge James Fox in North Carolina ordered the families and Blackwater into arbitration, a non-public procedure that is designed to resolve disputes without a trial.
The questions that have long remained unanswered: Why were these men traveling through the hotbed of Sunni resistance? Why were they traveling in an unarmored vehicle that could so easily be attacked? Why were there only two men per vehicle and not three as are required for such missions? Most importantly, who allowed, much less, directed these men on such an ill-equipped, fateful mission? The answer to all of these questions: Blackwater.
In 2003 Blackwater landed its first truly high profile contract: guarding Ambassador L. Paul Bremer in Iraq, at the cost of $21 million. From June 2004 Blackwater has been paid more than $320 million in government contracts.
At the time of the incident, Blackwater was expanding its business in Iraq. Seeking to be more than simply “bodyguards,” the company was trying to make a bid on a contract with take over security for convoys delivering kitchen supplies to U.S. military bases in Iraq. According to The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, the original contract was between Blackwater/Regency and ESS. This contract called for a minimum of three men in each vehicle with a minimum of “two armored vehicles” to support each mission. However, the sub-contract between Blackwater and Regency did not contain the same provisions.
Blackwater and Regency signed a sub contract with specified provisions identical to the original except for one word: “armored.” Blackwater deleted it from the contract.
“When they took that word ‘armored’ out, Blackwater was able to save $1.5 million in not buying armored vehicles, which they could then put in their pocket,” said attorney Miles. “These men were told they’d be operating in armored vehicles. Had they been, I sincerely believe that they’d be alive today.”
The omission of the word “armored” from the contract was brought to the attention of Blackwater management by John Potter, manager of the new project with ESS. However, Blackwater refused to re-draft the contracts and subsequently ‘removed’ Potter from his role as project manager. Essentially, Potter was fired for blowing the whistle on Blackwater’s sacrifice of safety in pursuit of a buck. In accordance with the family’s lawsuit, attorney Marc Miles asked the North Carolina for an expedited order to depose John Potter. Upon this request, Blackwater quickly made the decision to re-hire Potter, and ordered him on a mission that made him ‘unavailable’ for deposition.
Three days before the deposition, Miles says, “Blackwater hired Potter up, flew him to Washington where it’s my understanding he met with Blackwater representatives and their lawyers. [Blackwater] then flew him to Jordan for ultimate deployment in the Middle East.”
A deposition from John Potter would be extremely damaging to the corporation, and sanctioned by law or not, they certainly were not going to allow that to happen if they could help it.
From the perspective of Blackwater, and specifically, founder, Erik Prince, the corporation serves as a “patriotic extension of the US military.” Their defense against the lawsuit filed by the families of the four men relies on this assertion. Blackwater argues that the men were operating as part of the U.S. force in Iraq. Thus, as employees of the government, Blackwater argues that they are ensured the same protections against lawsuits as the military for injuries or deaths in the war zone. In court papers, Blackwater states that the lawsuit from the four families “unconstitutionally intrudes on the exclusive authority of the military of the federal government to conduct military operations abroad.” Blackwater’s attempt to shield itself behind the military is interesting, as the aftermath of the killings highlighted a huge difference between contractors and the military. Had an officer sent four lightly armed soldiers into Fallujah, he would likely have faced public scrutiny in the military justice system.
In the 2 years since the lawsuit was filed little has been accomplished or uncovered. However, earlier this month, The Raleigh News & Observer obtained memos written by another Blackwater team, tasked on a similar mission. The information in the memos confirms the families’ claims; that from beginning to end, Blackwater cut corners and risked the safety of their employees.
The families of the victims do not deny that the men were aware of the risks they were taking. The men had signed personal contracts voluntarily assuming the risks connected to engagement. However, the families charge that Blackwater knowingly refused to provide guaranteed safeguards. Noting just a few: the men were told they would be traveling in armored vehicles, and that they would always be traveling with three men in each vehicle—a driver, a navigator and a rear gunner. In addition, the contract mandates that a “risk assessment” test must be conducted before any trip.
A memo written by team leader Jason Shupe of Bravo 2, documents the circumstances surrounding the missions of both Bravo 2, and November 1 (the team of men who were killed).
Powell—the Blackwater site manager—told Shupe that his team would likely go on a mission the next morning. Shupe protested; his team members were fighting jet lag, did not have maps of the route, and had not “sighted” their weapons, or adjusted the scopes so that the bullets would hit the targets in the cross hairs. In addition, Shupe was concerned that the mission could not be carried out two men short.
[Powell] stated “everything is not a debate you do your job and I will do mine,” Shupe wrote. Powell gave him an ultimatum, Shupe wrote: do the job, or go home.
Shupe did do the job, although, he ordered his men to take a different route that traveled around Falluja, rather than through the dangerous city. The men completed their mission and arrived safely in Baghdad. Team November 1 was not as lucky. Obeying the orders and demands of their manager, November 1 drove through Falluja where they shortly met their brutal death. As described by the families’ lawyer, Daniel Callahan, in the middle of Falluja, “without the big gun, without the third man, without the armored vehicle, they were sitting ducks.”
Among the mistakes and negligent acts, one of the most egregious was Blackwater’s failed to conduct a “risk assessment” before the trip, as strictly mandated by the contract. In fact, the suit against Blackwater contends that Blackwater “fabricated critical documents” and “created” a pre-trip risk assessment “after this deadly ambush occurred.”
Blackwater’s response to the information contained in the memos? A company lawyer sent a letter protesting the paper’s possession of the memos and threatening legal action if they were used in a news report.
Leslie Fields contributed to this post.