Ten years ago, Erik Prince, the son of a conservative multi-millionaire, founded the security consulting firm Blackwater USA.The company has since grown into what journalist Jeremy Scahill terms "the world's most powerful mercenary army," in his recently released book titled "Blackwater."
Both Prince and his company prefer to avoid headlines. In March 2004, however, four of Prince's U.S. contractors -- Jerry Zovko, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Wesley Batalona -- were killed in Fallujah while escorting a convoy of empty trucks. They were ambushed, shot and overcome by an angry mob. The men were burnt in their vehicles and then their charred bodies were strung up from a bridge.
The horrific images of the dead men received worldwide media attention. That incident was soon followed by a massive U.S. assault on Fallujah, an attack that reportedly resulted in thousands of dead Iraqi civilians.
Erik Prince's Blackwater USA was no longer under the radar.
For the past three years, the families of the dead contractors have been trying to find out what really happened that March day in Fallujah. And for three years, they say they've been stonewalled by Prince.
In February of this year, relatives of the four slain Blackwater USA contractors testified, at a House of Representatives hearing in Washington held by California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman, on the company's operations. The families of the slain men, still unclear about what happened when their loved ones were killed, sued Blackwater USA for wrongful death and "in the hope that their questions will be answered," the Associated Press reported in mid-June.
The lawsuit alleges that Blackwater sent the men on a job with inadequate equipment and protection.
According to the suit, AP pointed out, "the men should have been traveling in fully armored vehicles and should have had a guard in each vehicle acting as a rear gunner to protect them from attack."
The legal battle could have much broader implications. It "could prompt more government oversight of security contracting companies and determine the extent of their legal liability in the war zone," AP noted.
Blackwater has assembled a high-profile well-connected legal team to combat the suit. They also filed a 10-million-dollar counterclaim. Blackwater's legal dream team -- which once included Fred Fielding, now White House counsel -- includes Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who investigated the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals during the Bill Clinton administration.
Blackwater maintains that since it was working for the government, it was "subject to the same protections against lawsuits as the military, which cannot be sued for the deaths or injuries of its troops," AP reported. The company "argues that the four families' lawsuit 'unconstitutionally intrudes on the exclusive authority of the military of the federal government to conduct military operations abroad.'"
In the two years since the families filed suit, the case has bounced between state and federal courts amid a jumble of claims and counterclaims. Last month 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. While the families are protesting that decision, that is a desirable outcome for the company as it would continue to secrecy for its operations.
That we know as much as we do about Blackwater USA is in part due to the first-rate reporting of several journalists, including The Nation magazine's investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill. In his bestselling book "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" (Nation Books, 2007), Scahill describes the company as "a sort of Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration's 'global war on terror.'"
He maintains that Prince "has been in the thick of this right-wing effort to unite conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and neoconservatives in a common theoconservative holy war."
At the time the book was written, Scahill pointed out that the Moyock, North Carolina-headquartered company had "more than 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries, including inside the United States. It maintains a database of 21,000 former Special Forces troops, soldiers, and retired law enforcement agents on whom it could call at a moment's notice... [It] has a private fleet of more than twenty aircraft, including helicopter gunships and a surveillance blimp division."
In addition, Blackwater had "train[ed] tens of thousands of federal and local law enforcement agents... [as well as] troops from 'friendly' foreign nations." Blackwater "operates its own intelligence division and counts among its executives senior ex-military and intelligence officials."
The company, which has a facility in Illinois, is building one in California, and has a jungle training facility in the Philippines, has garnered more than 500 million dollars in government contracts. This "does not include its secret 'black' budget operations for U.S intelligence agencies or private corporations/individuals and foreign governments," Scahill notes.
In addition to Prince, "A number of Blackwater executives are deeply conservative Christians, including corruption-smeared former Pentagon Inspector General Joseph Schmitz, who is also a member of the Sovereign Order of Malta, which Scahill describes as 'a Christian militia formed in the eleventh century [to defend] territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems,'" Chris Barsanti wote in a review of the book for In These Times.
Blackwater had a visible, and financially lucrative, presence in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as the use of company contractors cost U.S. taxpayers 240,000 dollars a day.
Blackwater USA is the brainchild of Erik Prince -- a former Navy SEAL and son of Edgar Prince, a wealthy Michigan auto-parts supplier -- described by Scahill as a "radical right wing Christian mega-millionaire" who is a strong financial backer of President George W. Bush, as well as a donor to a host of conservative Christian political causes.
In the 1980s "the Prince family merged with one of the most venerable conservative families in the United States," when Erik's sister Betsy -- nine years his senior -- married Dick DeVos, whose father Richard, founded the multilevel marketing firm Amway.
The two families exercised enormous political influence both inside and outside Michigan. "They were one of the greatest bankrollers of far-right causes in U.S. history, and with their money they propelled extremist Christian politicians and activists to positions of prominence," Scahill writes.
Prince, who keeps a relatively low profile, recently appeared at the North Carolina Technology Association's "Five Pillars" conference. There, he put in a plug for his company, saying that had the police had the kind of training that Blackwater provides, they could have dealt with situations such as the killings at Columbine and Virginia Tech much better.
"When I saw the Columbine tapes, I saw a lot of law enforcement officers with really nice gear, equipment and weapons, but they had never really trained together. They had never tested those assumptions," Prince said. "The same with Virginia Tech -- they had never really trained or planned for an active shooter."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service