It seems that executives from Blackwater Worldwide, the Bush administration's favourite hired guns in Iraq and Afghanistan, are threatening to pack up their M4 assault rifles, CS gas and Little Bird helicopters and go back to the great dismal swamp of North Carolina whence they came. Or at least that's how it is being portrayed in the media.
This story broke on Monday, when the Associated Press ran an article based on lengthy interviews with Blackwater's top guns. Since then, the story has picked up considerable steam and generated a tremendous amount of buzz online and in the press. After all, Blackwater has long been a key part of the US occupation and has been at the centre of several high-profile scandals and deadly incidents. Add to that its owner's ties to the White House and the radical religious right in the US and it is clear why this is news. On top of that, Barack Obama - a critic of Blackwater - just completed a tour of Iraq, where he was touting his withdrawal plan.
Among the headlines of the past 24 hours: "Blackwater plans exit from guard work", "Blackwater getting out of security business", "Blackwater sounds retreat from private security business", and "Blackwater to leave security business". One blogger slapped this headline on his post: "Blackwater, worst organisation since SS, to end mercenary work."
Frankly, this is a whole lot of hype.
Anyone who thinks Blackwater is in serious trouble is dead wrong. Even if - and this is a big if - the company pulled out of Iraq tomorrow, here is the cold, hard fact: business has never been better for Blackwater, and its future looks bright. More on this in a moment.
Back to the matter at hand. Complaining that negative media attention and congressional and criminal investigations are hurting business and that the Blackwater name had become a catch-all target for anti-war protesters, the company's brass told the AP that Blackwater was shifting its focus to its other areas of government contracting, like law enforcement and military training, as well as logistics.
''The experience we've had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk,'' said Erik Prince, Blackwater's reclusive, 39 year-old founder and owner. Company president Gary Jackson said Blackwater has become like the "Coca-Cola" of war contractors, a brand representing all private companies servicing the Iraq occupation. Jackson charged the company had been falsely portrayed in the media, saying, ''If [the media] could get it right, we might stay in the business.''
All of this sounds a bit like whining on a children's playground.
Shame on journalists for not recognising the noble work of the gallant heroes and patriots (who happen to be paid much more than US troops and have not been subjected to any system of law and who can leave the war zone any moment they choose) and forcing Blackwater to consider abandoning its (very profitable, billion-dollar) charitable humanitarian campaign in Iraq. Remember, according to Blackwater, it is not a mercenary organisation. It is a "peace and stability" operation employing "global stabilisation professionals".
While they were at it, Jackson and Prince should have blamed those wretched 17 Iraqi civilians who had the audacity to step in front of the bullets flying out of Blackwater's weapons in Baghdad's Nisour Square last September. After all, following those killings, Erik Prince told the US Congress that the only innocent people his men may have killed or injured in Iraq died as a result of "ricochets" and "traffic accidents". If that is true, Nisour Square might have been the most lethal jaywalking incident in world history.
As for the current hype, the day after the AP story broke, Blackwater's long-time spokesperson Anne Tyrrell was quick to clarify the matter. Blackwater, she said, has no immediate plans to exit the security business. "As long as we're asked, we'll do it," she said. Meanwhile, the US state department, which renewed Blackwater's contract for another year in April, says it has received no communication from the company indicating it is not going to continue on in Iraq. "They have not indicated to us that they are attempting to get out of our current contract," said undersecretary of state Patrick Kennedy.
As of 2005-2006, according to the company, about half of Blackwater's business was made up of its security work in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and post-Katrina New Orleans. Today, Jackson says it is about 30%. ''If I could get it down to 2% or 1%, I would go there," he said in the interview.
Blackwater, like all companies operating in US war zones, is following political developments very closely. The company may be bracing for a possible shift in policy should Obama win in November. Blackwater could be contemplating resignation before termination. On the other hand, Obama has sent mixed messages on the future of war contractors under his Iraq policy. While he has been very critical of the war industry in general - and Blackwater specifically - he has also indicated he will not "rule out" using private armed contractors at least for a time in Iraq.
Perhaps Blackwater has already gotten what it needed from Iraq: over a billion dollars in contracts and a bad-ass reputation, which has served it well. In May, Blackwater boasted of "two successive quarters of unprecedented growth." Among its current initiatives:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Erik Prince's private spy agency, Total Intelligence Solutions, is now open for business, placing capabilities once the sovereign realm of governments on the open market. Run by three veteran CIA operatives, the company offers "CIA-type services" to Fortune 1000 companies and governments.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Blackwater was asked by the Pentagon to bid for a share of a whopping $15bn contract to "fight terrorists with drug-trade ties" in a US programme that targets countries like Colombia, Bolivia, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The New York Times said it could be the company's "biggest job" ever.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Blackwater is wrapping up work on its own armoured vehicle, the Grizzly, as well as its Polar Airship 400, a surveillance blimp Blackwater wants to market to the Department of Homeland security for use in monitoring the US-Mexico border.
On top of this, Blackwater affiliate Greystone Ltd, registered offshore in Barbados, is an old-fashioned mercenary operation offering "personnel from the best militaries throughout the world" for hire by governments and private organisations. It also boasts of a "multi-national peacekeeping programme," with forces "specialising in crowd control and less than lethal techniques and military personnel for the less stable areas of operation." Greystone's name has been conspicuously absent in this current news cycle.
At the end of the day, maybe this is just a story, a whole lot of a hype and a dash of misdirection from a pretty savvy company. Safe money would dictate that Blackwater plans on continuing to be, well, Blackwater.
Consider this. The other day Blackwater president Gary Jackson told the AP: "Security was not part of the master plan, ever."
Interesting claim. It was in fact Jackson himself who, back at the beginning of the Iraq occupation, described his goal for Blackwater as such: "I would like to have the largest, most professional private army in the world."
Jeremy Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008