Blackwater Blues for Dead Contractors’ Families

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

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Timber said on July 2nd, 2007 at 10:50am #

    Call it “blaming the victim” if it makes you feel better, but I have to ask whether the widows of the four mercenaries killed in Fallujah ever questioned their husbands’ choice of profession.

    My guess is that as long as their husbands came back alive, and as long as their husbands were bringing home $100K a year for doing the government’s dirty work, these four women–and the thousands of others with husbands still working for Blackwater and any of the dozens of other mercenary firms–neither asked nor cared what their husbands did.

    We talk a lot about the power of common people to effect change; but when so many won’t even confront this kind of thinking in their own homes, what power do the rest of us have in changing the minds of the people who implement the policies we criticize?

  2. rosemarie jackowski said on July 3rd, 2007 at 4:02pm #

    Timber…yes, there is an element of personal responsibility here. To some degree we, all of us, are responsible for the actions and policies of our government. Sadly, the average USA citizen has never heard of Blackwater. Even sadder is the secrecy being imposed by the Court. Until the Black Budget is eliminated we will have these secret killing armies that know no rules, answer to no one, and operate in the dark. One of the biggest failures of the anti-war movement is the failure to expose Blackwater. Even if ALL of the troops came home today, it would not end the killing. The secret armies are far more deadly!

  3. larkin the Irish said on July 9th, 2007 at 12:20pm #

    Before we continue to throw bags of money to “GUNS for GOD” types like
    Blackwater lets try doing this.
    We deploy thousands of cable and satelite installers armed to the teeth with coaxial lines and bullet proof recievers to Iraq and Afghanistan. Then we make sure that every house, hut, stable, bunker, and goat filled manger has a premium package (including high definition). We train the village elders on how to operate the remote control and change the batteries). The elders would be responsible for showing every other person how its done. We make sure NOT to show them how to block certain channels and TiVo is definantly a no-no.
    After two weeks of intensive channel surfing techniques, taught by hungry community college students from Minnesota, we hand over the full control to the locals. For security reasons we would leave behind a small group of highly skilled satelite and cable guys to troubleshoot any problems that may arise.
    This is to assist the locals with the finer points of Picture in Picture, Zoom,
    widescreen or standard features. The we just sit back and watch the apathy
    consume them like in a warm soft haze (the equivelent of two oxycontin and a
    six-pack of Coors) .
    Within a few months children will be lethargic, women will obsess about their weight (“Do I look fat in this burqua?”), and men will know what kind of bait works best when Bass fishng. Although with any luck the only fishing they will be doning is on the couch with their Wiis.
    The most vital piece to this plan is to make sure the power never goes out!
    Because then it could lead to war.

  4. Bob Coleman said on August 13th, 2007 at 11:36am #

    I served with Jerry Zovko as a civilian contractor at Camp Caldwell, Iraq, as we trained the NEW Iraqi Army in 2003. Wes Batalona was there also, but I only spoke with him a few times. Jerry and I, on the other hand, became close friends, despite the fact that I was quite older than he was. When Jerry was murdered, I wrote a letter to his mother about my time with Jerry and was honored when Jerry’s brother Tom read it at the funeral as a eulogy. When I returned to the States I ended up working in Pittsburgh, not far from the Zovko’s home in Cleveland. They opened their home to me. I spent Thanksgiving with their huge extended family who were all things we all want to be. Another time they took me to their Croatian Cultural Center to meet more wonderful friends. We dined out together quite often and I stayed in their home on many occasions. They are Croatian immigrants who came to America almost 40 years ago without a dime in their pocket or a word of English. Today, they are quite successful and live well in a gated waterfront high rise condo. Devout Catholics, their love of God and their extended family are beautiful to see. Donna, Jerry’s mother, is a wonderful woman whose inconsolable grief has remained unabated, even after a private audience with the Pope.
    Enter Katie Helvenston. I met Katie in the Zovko home as she held court for some journalists. A foul-mouthed trailer-trash type of a woman with a cigarette constantly dangling from her mouth, she yelled, screamed and cursed like a drunken sailor. I quietly retreated to another room. At dinner that night in the condo complex dining room, she had too much to drink and went on endlessly about how life had treated her badly and how unfair it was that her husband died early, leaving her alone to raise her son. Her rants went on and on about how she would finally get the money she was always entitled to, but was denied because of her husband’s death. Joe, Jerry’s dad, and I, retreated to the bar for some silence. Katie’s endless rants became a serious disruption to the wonderful Zovko family and ultimately poisoned Donna, who was looking for closure, any closure at all, about Jerry’s death. In May 05 I left Pittsburgh, after having told each member of the family that I simply could not stomach their friend Katie anymore. A sad ending to an already sad story.