Battle Lines Drawn: Residents of rural Potrero fight to halt Blackwater’s proposed military training camp

By Miriam Raftery, The East County Californian

Part 1

Published in the East County Californian, March 8, 2007

This week: Residents say Potrero’s rural character is at stake if Blackwater USA’s proposed plan for a military-style training camp is approved. Next week: Planning board and County Board of Supervisors face a fight by local residents to block Blackwater’s proposal. March 22: Blackwater faces fire from congressional scrutiny for its Iraq War contracts.

Overview

Blackwater USA, a privately-run military, law enforcement and civilian personnel training company, has proposed an 824-acre training camp in unincorporated Potrero, on property situated in the Cleveland National Forest. Residents claim the project will destroy the community’s rural character, and that the Potrero Planning Board and the County Board of Supervisors have fast-tracked the project with little community input. Blackwater USA contends shrinking facilities justify the project and that the Potrero site will not house bombs, artillery or mercenaries.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three part-series on Blackwater USA’s proposed military-style training camp in rural Potrero. In part one, community members voice noise, traffic and fire safety, and environmental concerns, while Blackwater contends the site is appropriate for its facility, and will not negatively impact the area. Part two, which will run next week, documents residents’ fight with local governing boards to block the proposed project. Part three, which will run March 22, will note congressional scrutiny Blackwater has faced for its Iraq War contracts.

Dana Raum and her husband purchased property in Potrero three years ago because the small rural hamlet was peaceful and beautiful. Now Raum, who is building a home near the site of a proposed military-style training camp, has grave concerns regarding the project.

Situated in the Cleveland National Forest on a former chicken ranch the property includes a protected agricultural preserve on the rim of the Hauser Wilderness area in San Diego’s East County.

Blackwater USA has proposed an 824-acre training camp on the site. At stake, residents say, is the rural character of a community that traces its roots to the 19th century – or the future expansion of one of the world’s most powerful corporations.

“I believe we are being railroaded into this disaster,” Baum said.

Battle lines have been drawn over the controversial project. More than 300 residents – which is more than half the town’s registered voters and over a third of the entire population of 850 – joined by environmentalists and citizens’ groups, have signed a “Save Potrero” petition opposing the project. Many say that planners have fast-tracked the project without adequate public input.

A Feb. 22 commentary by Don Bauder in the San Diego Weekly Reader said Potrero residents are being “ambushed,” and that “the attackers are county bureaucrats marching alongside Blackwater USA, the private military contractor that is getting so much bad press while being labeled one of the biggest mercenary firms in the Iraq War.”

A source close to the “Save Potrero” effort said residents are even looking into recalling members of the Potrero Planning Board who voted in favor of the project.

Potrero’s Planning Board voted 7-0 in favor of the project in December, with two members absent. The Board declined to reconsider its vote in January, despite substantial community opposition. Raum said she was not notified of the December hearing.

The proposal is now under consideration by the County Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU), but may ultimately be decided by the County Board of Supervisors.

Scope of the project

Headquartered in Moyock, North Carolina, Blackwater operates a 6,000-acre base where it provides military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping and stability operations to the U.S. government, private companies and in some cases, foreign governments. The company has profited substantially from U.S. government contracts in Iraq. Blackwater and other private contractors have also attracted scrutiny of Congressional inquiries in recent weeks.

The Potrero project would include firing ranges utilizing automatic and semi-automatic weapons, as well as an emergency vehicle operator’s course 3,280 feet in length – longer than ten football fields, according to a Blackwater West Training Facility project description on file with the County DPLU.

Bunkhouses and commando-type training facilities including ship simulators, law enforcement and rescue safety training towers and a helicopter pad would also be included.

Blackwater Vice President Brian Bonfiglio said the Potrero project would be significantly smaller than the Moyock facility. The secluded Potrero location, protected by 600-foot-high canyon walls, was chosen after requests to commanders at Miramar and Camp Pendleton military bases were rejected due to lack of space and concerns over traffic and environmental issues, including air quality, Bonfiglio said.

“We propose law enforcement and military training, because the facilities in this area are shrinking,” he said. “The college is shutting down the training facility that law enforcement has used at Miramar.”

The project would be strictly a “training facility, not an operations facility,” said Bonfiglio, who noted that U.S. Border Patrol agents could also be trained at the site. Blackwater has also offered a law enforcement sub-station on site, he added.

A Blackwater executive recently testified before Congress seeking to expand privatization of training for Border Patrol forces, also touting a blimp that could be used to monitor border activities. Bonfiglio denied that a blimp would be stationed at the Potrero site. He also said the helicopter pad would be used only for emergencies and could benefit the community in case of a medical or other emergency situation. He also denied that a new Blackwater armored personnel carrier called the “Grizzly” would be used at Potrero.

Asked if explosives would be used at the camp, he replied, “No bombs. No tanks, no heavy artillery.”

However, multiple records on file with the County indicate “hazards” could include “explosives” to be stored in an “armory” on site.

Residents in Moyock, North Carolina have complained of “loud booms” and “regular rattle of machine gun fire,” according to Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” a book slated to hit store shelves March 19.

Scahill said Potrero residents should not trust Blackwater. Blackwater originally told Moyock residents that it would be running a “sportsman’s paradise” that would primarily be used as a shooting range, Scahill said.

“What it’s become is now the world’s largest private military base,” he added.

The Moyock facility now includes SWAT training, paratrooper landings, an aviation division with more than 20 aircraft, full takeoff and landing strips under construction, a mock high school (modeled to train for school disasters), and a man-made lake used for amphibious landing training.

Scahill said the Moyock site is the world’s premier private training facility for commandos. “We’ve seen every manner of U.S. special forces come through that compound for training,” Scahill said. “Gun enthusiasts come through.”

Blackwater has also “brought Chilean mercenaries, some trained under Pinochet” to Moyock for evaluation, Scahill said. Many, but not all, Blackwater trainees are former U.S. military personnel.

“A lot of their men on the ground are highly trained, patriotic Americans, some of whom are looking to extend their national services through other means,” Scahill noted. Others, he said, are in it for the profit.

Traffic and fire safety

Standing outside the Potrero General Store, opened in 1883, a Potrero resident noted the small town’s road conditions.

“This road was built for a buggy and a horse,” said Jesse, who asked that his last name not be published. Residents have voiced concerns over excess traffic the proposed project would create on Potrero Road and Round Potrero Road, which measures just 20 feet wide in places. Blackwater proposes to bus in local trainees and shuttle others from the airport. The company said its vehicles would be no larger than trucks that previously traveled to a chicken ranch the property used to house.

Carl Meyer, a farmer and former Potrero Planning Board member, provided documents from the DPLU indicating Blackwater sought to have standards changed to avoid widening roads or providing secondary access routes.

Fire safety is another concern residents have. A summary of Blackwater West Project’s team meeting on September 26, 2006 indicated that Jim Hunt “has provided strong support for defend-in-place” and noted in a draft Fire protection plan that secondary access alternatives “are likely more dangerous than defend in place.”

Bonfiglio said Blackwater has proposed a defend-in-place strategy to local fire authorities and that the company offered to provide a “safe haven for the community” at its facility in the event of a wildfire. The company plans to have water storage tanks, buildings built to County standards for shelter-in-place, and grass/foliage trimmed to meet codes, he said.

But critics warn that the county’s shelter-in-place plan could prove a death sentence in the event of a firestorm similar to the 2003 Cedar Fire, which killed 12 people in nearby Wildcat Canyon.

“This strategy has, to my knowledge, never been put to the test on a large scale during a major wild land fire,” said Joseph W. Mitchell of M-bar Technologies and Consulting in Ramona, in response to the County’s shelter in place proposal. “There are reasons to believe that it could lead to civilian and firefighter deaths and injuries as currently envisioned.”

Citizens on an online land-use forum, Ranter’s Roost, criticized the Blackwater defend-in-place proposal, which one Ranter called “cremate in place.” A Web site called Liar! Liar! County’s on Fire (www.llc.com), has been set up to alert people countywide about dangers of the proposed defend-in-place strategy.

Environmental Issues

“I was born fighting,” said Army veteran and environmentalist Duncan McFetridge, who is leading citizens’ efforts to block Blackwater’s plan. “This is a contest. Blackwater is very good at what they do – and Save Our Forests and Ranchlands (SOFAR) is good at what we do, too.”

Formidable competitors, Mc Fetridge and SOFAR have successfully blocked other major proposed developments, including an RV park in nearby Descanso, where he cited University of California at Davis tracking data on mountain lions as evidence that destroying meadowlands would decimate cougar populations.

Blackwater’s project also lies in a sensitive meadowland frequented by deer and mountain lion, he said.

“Our forest is under threat,” said Mc Fetridge, citing dramatic shrinkage of national forest lands in recent years. “Meadowlands are the biological heart of our forest. We cannot lose our meadowlands without losing our forest.”

In addition to nesting eagles and mountain lions, the property contains threatened plant and butterfly species, according to environmental documents on file with the county.

Oddly, county records indicate that Blackwater’s proposed site does not contain wetlands. However, an on-site visit appeared to have been made during dry summer months.

Other concerns of residents include potential well water contamination and air pollution.

“There is a woman there who has a facility for chemically sensitive individuals. It’s been there for years, founded on government grants. The reason they came out here to begin with was that Potrero was one of the last bastions of clean air,” said Jan Hedlun, a newly elected member of the Potrero Planning board who opposes the Blackwater project.

Asked about residents’ concerns, Bonfiglio countered, “There has been no NOP [Notification of Preparation]. No technical studies have been approved yet…There are people concerned about habitat and open space, but they are doing it based on no science, no information.”

Concerns over potential air pollution are “jumping the gun” he said.

An October 23, 2006 Internal Working Draft titled “Blackwater West Project Issues/Action Items” obtained by The East County Californian, however, identified several potential “fatal flaws” in the Potrero project, including primary access/public vs. private road, traffic concerns, and golden eagle nests.

Part 2

Overview

Blackwater USA, a privately-run military, law enforcement and civilian personnel training company, has proposed an 824-acre training camp in unincorporated Potrero, on property situated in the Cleveland National Forest. Residents claim the project will destroy the community’s rural character, and that the Potrero Planning Board and the County Board of Supervisors have fast-tracked the project with little community input. Blackwater USA contends shrinking facilities justify the project and that the Potrero site will not house bombs, artillery or mercenaries.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three part-series on Blackwater USA’s proposed military-style training camp in rural Potrero. In part one, which ran last week, community members voice noise, traffic and fire safety, and environmental concerns, while Blackwater contends the site is appropriate for its facility, and will not negatively impact the area. Part two documents residents’ fight with local governing boards to block the proposed project. Part three, which will run next week, will note congressional scrutiny Blackwater has faced for its Iraq War contracts.

PLANNERS, COUNTY CRITICIZED FOR FAST-TRACKING PROJECT, RESTRICTING PUBLIC INPUT

Potrero residents, including a former Potrero Planning Board member and a newly elected member of the Board, have voiced concern that the Blackwater project is being “fast-tracked” through the County Department of Planning & Land Use (DPLU) process under new streamlined procedures.

A letter to Alyssa Maxson at the DPLU from John Cowdery, president/CEO of Jones & stokes Associates, observes that an expedited review “has been a priority communicated to us by the client and the County,” adding that “The project applicant and we as its selected company/firm have agreed to participate as the pilot project for the County’s Business Process Reengineering.”

A spokesperson for Supervisor Dianne Jacob denied that Blackwater has received any special treatment. “That would be illegal,” said the employee, who declined to be named. The employee noted that the streamlining procedures were created after ample public input and were in response to complaints that projects from home remodels to major housing developments were taking four years for approval. The goal is to reduce approval time on major projects to 22 months. Jacob’s representative suggested that it would be inappropriate for Jacob to speak with media regarding the Blackwater project, as she may vote on it eventually (Supervisors are supposed to remain neutral prior to hearings) and referred our call to Chandra Waller, director of the DPLU. Waller did not return calls.

A whistleblower alerted the East County Californian to a revolving door relationship involving the DPLU and Blackwater, raising conflict of interest questions. Lori Spar was listed with the California Bar Association as an attorney with the law firm of Stephenson Worley et al, a San Diego law firm representing Blackwater, on July 31, 2006. Now Spar has surfaced as a land use/environmental planner for the DPLU. “She walked into our March 1st, 2007 Save Potrero meeting, representing the County,” said Meyer.

Claudia Anzures, chief deputy at the County Counsel’s office, said there is no law to prohibit a planner from being assigned to a project promoted by a company the employee once represented. However, she said she had spoken with Spar and been assured that Spar did not actually work on the project in question.

A July 31, 2006 memo from Bonfiglio sent to “attorney Lori Spar” and others, however, invited Spar to an August 3rd meeting at Nasland Engineering for an agenda that included a “potential fatal flaw discussion” of the Blackwater West project in Potrero.

Bauder’s article indicates members of the DPLU met privately with Blackwater officials as early as May 2005, but that Potrero citizens did not learn of the project until October 12th. Many residents told the East County Californian that they did not hear of it until much later, after the December vote by their local planning board.

Jan Hedlun was elected in November to serve on Potrero’s planning board. “I am a lamb in a lion’s den,” Hedlun said. “It appears the county really wants this. They’re pushing this through quicker than anything I’ve ever heard in my entire life, and I don’t know why.”

Meyer concurs that the project is being rushed through the planning process. He criticized Potrero planning board members for being “pro-development about anything out here. They ignore the public will on all subject matters,” he said, adding that several members were appointed, not elected.

According to Hedlun, she was not informed that she had won election or that she was entitled to vote at the December meeting. She called other planning board members, but did not call chair Gordon Hammer, whose wife was seriously ill at the time. Hammer published an article generally favorable to the project in the Potrero Hotline, which he owns, but declined to allow Hedlun to publish a critical editorial. According to Hedlun, Hammer sought to restrict her piece to one column and refused to allow inclusion of letters obtained by Potrero resident Tina Brown from residents of Moyock.

Hedlun later published her article in the Backcountry Messenger. That article featured quotes from Moyock residents complaining of traffic, noise and more with regard to Blackwater. “They don’t play by the rules,” Sherry Motes of Moyock warned. “They are a very powerful enemy.”

Moyock resident Juanita Krause told of skulls and crossbones posted across from her subdivision’s development after a complaint was made to Blackwater. She observed that Blackwater’s project had grown from small firing ranges to “a whole city…Once their foot’s in the door, there’s no stopping them.”

SUPPORTERS OF THE PROJECT

Potrero Planning Board Chair Gordon Hammer defended his support for the project.

“I think it’s good for the community,” he said. “It provides jobs. I think that it will improve the general economy of the community and as a result, improve property values.” Hammer contended that arguments against the project “have absolutely no rhyme or reason” and are based on misunderstanding of the project’s scope.

He cited Blackwater projections that the company hopes to employ 50 to 60 people, of whom he predicted at least 70% will be residents of the Potrero area, a community with poverty rates higher than the national average.

Hammer denied taking any contributions from Blackwater, its lobbyists or principles.

Blackwater has hired high-powered lobbyist Nicole Clay, who has previously represented the San Diego Padres, Chargers, and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, to make its case to lawmakers.

Potrero encompasses portions of both Congressman Bob Filner’s and Duncan Hunter’s districts. Neither office returned calls for this article. One Potrero resident said he has been in communication with Filner’s office, and that the Representative had expressed concerns and urged citizens to attend meetings on the issue.

states that “Congressman Hunter’s office has been fairly engaged,” with the project team, specifically citing Blackwater lobbyist Nikki (Nicole) Clay. (Note: This is a partial sentence. Part of the article may be missing...)

If Hunter is involved in pushing Blackwater’s Potrero project behind closed doors, it would not be the first time the Congressman has wielded influence to allow shooting in a protected preserve. Hunter has repeatedly attempted to open up a portion of Channel Islands National Park for hunting and military usage. Now a Republican presidential candidate, Hunter is also a strong advocate of border security and may be supportive of Blackwater’s efforts to secure border patrol training contracts.

Hunter met with and accepted donations from Blackwater top executives in 2004, shortly after the Fallujah ambush. Soon after, Blackwater obtained one of the war’s most lucrative contracts – a $300,000 project to guard senior U.S. officials in Iraq. (See “Who is Blackwater?” for details).

CITIZENS RALLY OPPOSITION

According to Meyer, sentiment in Potrero is overwhelmingly against the project, with only around 35 residents favoring it. Bonfiglio contends that since 300 people signed the “Save Potrero” petition, the remaining 550 residents likely support the project.

A visit to the Potrero Post Office and General Store found residents almost unanimously opposed to the project, with one woman who had no opinion yet. At the town hall forum in Descanso, questions from the audience overwhelmingly expressed concerns about Blackwater’s plans, with only one couple voicing apparent support.

Meyer plans to deliver petitions signed by over half the town’s registered voters to Rep. Hunter and to Rep. Bob Filner. We also plan to send a petition to Henry Waxman,” said Meyer, citing the Demoratic Committee chair holding oversight hearings into activities of Blackwater and other contractors.

Other groups are joining the battle.

“I will work hard to block this deal,” said Raymond Lutz, head of Citizens Oversight Panels, a grassroots watchdog organization. “Blackwater is well known as one of the most egregious violators of human rights in the Iraq War…We don’t need a `black-ops’ training camp in San Diego...I want the troops out of Iraq--and that includes black-ops mercenaries from Blackwater.”

Bob Davis, a member of the San Diego Peace & Justice Coalition, predicted civil disobedience may be called for to halt the project.

Scahill offers hope to beleaguered Potrero residents. “Blackwater’s original plan actually got defeated in North Carolina,” he recalled, noting that the company had to move its planned facility to another county after local citizens rallied to oppose the project. “People were concerned about having militias there.”

Blackwater objects to the term mercenary and insists that no mercenaries will be trained at its Potrero camp.

But Potrero resident June Archer remains concerned. “They’re like terrorists, really,” she said. “What if one goes nuts with the guns and our kids?”

Ultimately, the decision whether or to allow Blackwater into the community will hinge not on opinions about the company’s involvement in the Iraq War, McFetridge believes. “This battle will be won or lost on land use issues,” he said, adding that he does not believe Blackwater can overcome legal hurdles to overturn zoning ordinances to gain approval of its project.

He called for more groups to join in opposing Blackwater’s plans. “We win when we shine a light on the process,” he concluded. “The more meetings we have, the more truth we get out.”

BATTLE LINES DRAWN (part III)

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three part-series on Blackwater USA’s proposed military-style training camp in rural Potrero. Parts one and two documented Potrero residents’ concerns and their battle with local governing boards to block the proposal.

It is a question on the mind of nearly every resident in rural Potrero.

“Who is this new neighbor who is coming to Potrero?” asked Duncan McFetridge, speaking at a town hall meeting in nearby Descanso this month.

McFetridge, an Army veteran and environmental leader of Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, is spearheading opposition to Blackwater USA’s proposal to build a private military-style training camp in Potrero.

He spoke recently at a showing of “Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers,” a documentary film by Robert Greenwald. The film raises serious concerns about America’s use of private contractors in Iraq – including Blackwater.

Blackwater’s Web site describes the company as “the most comprehensive professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping and stability operations in the world.” At its headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina, the company maintains a 6,000-acre base where it claims to have trained over 50,000 military, law enforcement and civilian personnel.

Blackwater personnel have provided security for U.S. ambassador Paul Bremer in Iraq, patrolled streets in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and provided weapons/tactical training for members of foreign governments deemed friendly to the U.S., among other assignments. Recently, the company has sought to market its “peacekeeping” services to halt genocide in war-torn Darfur.

But award-winning journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” paints a darker picture. A blurb for his book, which was slated to hit bookstores March 21, describes Blackwater USA as “the powerful private army that the U.S. government has made its Praetorian Guard for the `global war on terror.’”

Blackwater has the world's largest private military base, a fleet of 20 aircraft, and 20,000 soldiers at the ready, according to Scahill, who added, “Run by a multimillionaire Christian conservative who bankrolls President Bush and his allies, its forces are capable of overthrowing governments, and yet most people have never heard of Blackwater.”

Founded in 1996 to provide support to military and law enforcement, Blackwater now consists of nine companies, including divisions specializing in training, target systems, security consulting, canines, air (AWS), airships, armored vehicles, maritime, and construction. Most recently, the company announced plans to branch into private intelligence services.

A spotlight was placed on Blackwater in March 2004, when grisly images of four of its employees who were killed, burned and hanged off a bridge in Iraq were broadcast around the world. The event sparked a major escalation in the war. In retaliation for the killing of Blackwater employees by insurgents, the U.S. military launched the siege of Fallujah, resulting in deaths of thousands of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers as well as displacement of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

The killers of Blackwater’s employees were never apprehended. But serious questions have arisen about Blackwater’s own potential culpability — and the accountability of private contractors in Iraq.

Family members of the slain employees filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater, accusing the company of cutting corners to save money and failing to provide armored vehicles and other protections for its employees. In Iraq for Sale, the mother of slain Blackwater employee Scott Halveston called for accountability and said of the company, “Right now they are getting away with murder.”

Fallujah was a no-go zone for the U.S. military at the time, because it was considered so volatile. “Why did these Blackwater guys end up in the most dangerous city in the world in an unarmored vehicle, short tow men — and they didn’t have a heavy saw machine gun?” Scahill asked. “They were sitting ducks.”

The men were sent to pick up kitchen supplies, he added. “The families of these men all believed that their loved ones were going over to Iraq to protect Paul Bremer — and what they died for were pots and pans in the service of a private contractor.”

Blackwater has denied wrongdoing and filed a countersuit against an attorney representing the families, alleging that the lawsuit breached a contract signed by the employees. The firm has retained Ken Starr, who led impeachment investigations against President Bill Clinton.

After attempts to have the case thrown out of state court failed, Blackwater Security LLC appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied a request to hear Blackwater’s case. The family’s lawsuit will be heard in a North Carolina state court. (Blackwater declined to comment on pending litigation for this article.)

After the Fallujah massacre, Blackwater hired the Alexander Strategy Group (ASG) to lobby on its behalf. ASG was founded by the Chief of Staff of Tom De Lay, who resigned as House majority leader after he was indicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges. ASG closed its doors in 2006 following disclosure of its ties to De Lay and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the targets of state and federal investigations.

According to “Iraq for Sale,” after the Fallujah killings, ASG lobbyists “went to Washington and stopped any investigation from taking place.” According to the News Observer, in the days after the Fallujah slayings, Blackwater founder/owner Erik Prince held private meetings with De Lay and with top Republican committee leaders – including Congressman Duncan Hunter, then chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Hunter took campaign contributions from Prince and from Blackwater USA president Gary Jackson. After investigation into its Iraq activities were squelched, Blackwater landed in June 2004 one of the most lucrative contracts of the Iraq War – a $300 million deal to provide diplomatic protection for senior officials in Iraq and elsewhere. Before then, Blackwater’s contracts were limited to $21 million to guard U.S. ambassador Paul Bremer and other comparatively modest contracts.

“This is a company that absolutely made a killing off the Fallujah contracts,” said Scahill, who learned of the lucrative deal through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Under the Bush administration, use of private contractors for tasks formerly done by the U.S. military has expanded to unprecedented levels. According to a CNN report, an estimated 100,000 private contractors are now in Iraq, including tens of thousands of mercenaries. Proponents of outsourcing jobs such as security, meal preparation and water purification to private contractors have argued that such actions would save taxpayers money and free up U.S. military personnel for combat or other critical duties.

Congressional oversight hearings conducted by the U.S. Oversight and Government Reform Committee chaired by Democrat Henry Waxman revealed massive contracting fraud and waste in Iraq. Although Blackwater previously denied doing security work under contract for a Halliburton subsidiary, the hearings confirmed that Blackwater performed security work that the Army was supposed to do. Work was performed under a four-company tier with Halliburton at the top—and each intermediary padding the bill paid by taxpayers. The Army has demanded that Halliburton repay $20 million in overcharges. Further evidence alleged that Blackwater was engaged in over-billing and double-billing the government on other contracts.

Blackwater refused to answer press questions about the alleged murder of an Iraq guard providing security for Iraq’s vice president. But under oath before Congress, a Blackwater spokesperson admitted that the company removed an off-duty employee from Iraq immediately after the employee was accused of shooting and killing an Iraqi guard before criminal charges could be filed. Upon learning of the incident, Rep. Dennis Kucinich concluded that private contractors in Iraq could literally “get away with murder.”

A former CIA officer spoke to The East County Californian about concerns over the Bush administration’s use of Blackwater and other private contractors in Iraq and elsewhere.

“The government finds it expeditious to subcontract mercenary work out to avoid this kind of oversight that normally should attend military expenditures and routine military operations,” said the ex-intelligence officer, who asked that his identity not be disclosed. “It is also a very effective means to obscure the true costs of something like Iraq, because you have military-type operations being paid for out of separate obligations and budgets from the standard military operations. There is also the question of whether these kinds of contractors are engaged in activities proscribed for conventional armed forces governed by oversight, statues and regulations.” Regulatory authority over contracted paramilitary activity is “probably grossly inadequate,” he added.

The ex-CIA agent also expressed misgivings over “mercenaries in Iraq paid many multiples of what our regular military are paid,” noting that in instances of alleged wrongdoing, contractors are whisked out of the country to avoid prosecution. “In the meantime, our young military are put in an impossible situation and then hung out to dry,” the source added.

Blackwater objects to use of the term ‘mercenary’ to describe its employees. The company’s website states that “Blackwater is committed to the foot soldiers – the men and women who stand on the frontlines of the global war on terror and who believe in a peaceful future for their communities and nations.”

Brian Bonfiglio, vice president of Blackwater West, told The East County Californian that there will be no mercenaries at the Potrero facility, which he said would be used only for training law enforcement and military personnel – not for operational activities. “No bombs, no mercenaries, no heavy artillery,” he emphasized.

Bonfiglio takes issue with the characterization by Scahill and others of Blackwater as a private mercenary army.

“I’m not a mercenary and I don’t represent a mercenary company. You read the bad,” he noted, adding that positive actions performed by Blackwater employees go unreported. “A helicopter that was owned by Blackwater plucked people off the rooftops of Katrina. The private army was a thought process by the CEO of the company to go into Rwanda and stop 15 year old boys and girls from getting their hands chopped off.”

A recent Wall Street Journal article makes a case for using private mercenaries as peacekeeping forces, noting, “Many also worry about abuses committed by mercenaries, who in some cases have tried to plunder or even take over small states. But the record of privateers compares favorably with that of U.N. peacekeeping forces, which have been distinguished more by their propensity for committing sex crimes than by any success in keeping the peace.” To address potential abuses, the article concludes, “private fighters could be hired under a contract that would hold them liable for war crimes in the International Criminal Court or some other jurisdiction. That would make them more accountable than U.N. forces, which operate with almost complete impunity.”

But the CIA expert remained skeptical of a potential agenda among organizers of private security and military businesses.

“Once you set up a resource of people for hire who are literally `armed and dangerous’,” he observed, “I fear the potential for something negative at the highest bidder.” Military forces should be under close supervision and regulation by the people through elected representatives, he added. “Armed Islamic militias in Iraq illustrate the kind of problem we don’t need here.”

Asked if he harbors concerns about Blackwater USA setting up a West Coast training camp in Potrero, the veteran intelligence officer concluded, “Does it worry me? You bet.”

-- Raymond Lutz - 28 Mar 2007

Media Form edit

Title Battle Lines Drawn: Residents of rural Potrero fight to halt Blackwater’s proposed military training camp
Publisher East County Californian
Author Miriam Raftery
Pub Date 2007-03-08
Media Link
Note Three part article published march 8, 15, 22
Keywords Blackwater
Media Type Article
Book ISBN
Topic revision: r3 - 2008-05-07, RaymondLutz
 

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