Blackwater Blues for Dead Iraqi Civilians

Erik Prince, the founder and head of Blackwater USA, has contributed mega-bucks to Republican Party candidates and Christian right organizations and causes. Why is this advocate of “traditional family values” stonewalling the families of four Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah in March 2004?

After an incident over the weekend that resulted in the murder of eight civilians and the wounding of thirteen others by private security forces in Iraq, the ministry of interior yesterday took the decision to expel Blackwater from the country.

According to The Guardian, US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, “apologized to the Iraqi government … in an attempt to prevent the expulsion of all” Blackwater employees from Iraq.

Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, the son of conservative multi-millionaire, the late Edgar Prince, and the brother of Betsy DeVos, the wife of Dick DeVos, the son of Amway founder Richard DeVos.

Over the paast two decades, both the Prince and DeVos families have given millions of dollars to Republican Party candidates, and conservative Christian organizations and causes.

‘The world’s most powerful mercenary army’

In 1997, Erik Prince founded Blackwater USA, a company that 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 the spotlight.

In March 2004, however, four of Prince’s Anerican 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 Americans 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. For three years they’ve been stonewalled by Prince.

The suit and countersuit

In February of this year, relatives of the four slain Blackwater USA contractors testified, at a House hearing in Washington — held by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. — 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 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. It “is the most prominent [suit] in an emerging body of litigation surrounding the secretive world of private security contractors in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As details about security operations are revealed in the court cases, pressure has intensified in Congress to regulate how armed contractors operate.”

Blackwater has assembled a high-profile well-connected legal team to combat the suit. They also filed a $10 million 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 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 its suit, it 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.

Blackwater USA

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 maintainsa 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 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 the American taxpayer $240,000 a day.

‘Radical right wing Christian mega-millionaire’

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 exercized 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 American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Lloyd Rowsey said on September 19th, 2007 at 6:04am #

    I don’t know. Maybe I just can’t concentrate enough these days to follow tedious reviews like this one, overviewing the subject to death after coming on like a New York Review “masterpiece.”

    If there are any other DV readers afflicted like me, or even one or two who agree with my opinon of this review, you’ll love today’s review of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, by Martin Smith, on the front page of the website of the Iraq Veterans Against the War.

    moc.liamtohnull@yeswordyoll

  2. Mike said on September 20th, 2007 at 2:20pm #

    I’ve often decried the use of these pesudo-army security agencies in the middle east. It should be interesting how quickly the Bushies – who once proclaimed the pre-eminence of the Iraqi’s self-government – backpedal and rush to Blackwater’s defense. Oh wait, they probably already have.

    Lloyd, I don’t think that this was a book review at all.