Blackwater: Lawyers, guns and Money
wired.com (2007-04-06) Nathan Hodge
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More Info: Blackwater
by Nathan Hodge
MOYOCK, N.C.—First rule of Blackwater is: You do not talk to the clients.
Back in October, I travelled to Camden County, North Carolina for the unveiling of Blackwater HK International Training Services, a joint venture that offers high-end firearms training courses developed by private security firm Blackwater and gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch.
It was a rare glimpse inside the Blackwater's 7,000-acre training facility. Perhaps like no other private security firm, Blackwater projects a certain mystique; and even when the gates were open to a visiting group of reporters, an atmosphere of high secrecy surrounded the place. Chris Taylor, Blackwater's vice president for strategic initiatives, greeted our group in the lobby of the company's vast new headquarters building, which bears an odd resemblance to a Cabela's retail outlet.
"We're glad you're here," he says. "It will help dispel the myths about Blackwater ." But first, the ground rules. Number one: no unauthorized photography. Blackwater trains military and law enforcement personnel, many of whom serve in harm's way; the company, Taylor stressed, respected the need to protect their identities. Blackwater seemed to be counting on a cooperative audience.
Our small press delegation was composed largely of professional gun reviewers, defense trade reporters and a writer/photographer team from the Washington Times. Still, we began the morning by signing a sheaf of waivers – agreements that presumably would release Blackwater and HK from liability in the event of an accidental firearms discharge. A Blackwater camera operator would tag along on the morning excursion.
After a safety orientation, we headed out to the range. It's hard to understate how massive the Moyock facility is. The place has 34 shooting ranges, three driving tracks and an airfield. It boasts several " shoot houses" (for indoor shooting drills), a maritime training facility (for hostile boarding practice) and a breaching facility (for breaking down doors), as well as a full armory.
It's like a military base – without the golf course. And more construction was underway. Earth movers and dumptrucks rumbled around the property, where a new runway and hangars were being built. Blackwater was even building a chapel: the company has its own staff chaplain.
It's all part of the decade-old company's phenomenal growth.
Since September 11, 2001, Blackwater has seen a surge in demand for its services, including a major State Department security contract . In that respect, the Blackwater/HK training venture was a classic exercise in "cross-branding." By joining with Heckler & Koch, Blackwater leveraged the name recognition of a firearms manufacturer that provides high-end weapons to military and law enforcement customers around the globe.
That marketing message was driven home on the shooting range, where Heckler & Koch instructors give a live fire demonstration of the HK hardware, including the HK45 , a .45 caliber pistol developed as a possible candidate for the Joint Combat Pistol (a recently suspended U.S. military competition) and the 4.6mm MP 7 A 1
Personal Defense Weapon, a compact, concealable weapon that packs nearly the same punch as a assault rifle. It was impressive, though one of the gun writers complained he couldn't get a good three-round burst out of the rapid-fire weapon.
For the experts, the real stars of the show were the HK416 and HK417 rifle and carbine systems. Heckler & Koch developed the HK416 as an "off-the-shelf" alternative to the 5.56mm M16 rifle and M4 carbine in service with the U.S. military (The HK417, a prototype chambered for the NATO 7.62 cartridge, was also on display). Visitors handled the weapons with appreciation: They eliminate a major design flaw in the M16/M4 family, a direct gas impingement system that makes the rifles require constant cleaning and lubrication.
One of the HK instructors put on a show, immersing the HK416 in a container of water, then covering it with sand. After grabbing the rifle out of the sandbox, he gave it a quick shake and then fires off a magazine on full auto. It's like a lethal version of a vacuum cleaner demonstration, and much more convincing.
The training venture was about more than just HK weapons: there was also the merchandise. Blackwater and HK are marketing brand-name apparel stitched with the logos of each company, and the junketeers went home with some excellent swag, including a fleece embroidered with the Blackwater HK International Training Services logo. Their gift bag also included Blackwater ball cap, an HK pen, and – for the men at least – a pair of cufflinks with the Blackwater bear paw logo. It's more than just trade shows tchotchkes.
Blackwater also has a separate line of business marketing its own brand name tactical gear. This includes load bearing vests, magazine pouches and slings. It's very much the style of the US contractor: accoutred with the latest in high-speed tactical equipment. It's exactly the image Blackwater wants to present; a company on the " Fast 50" list with a proud and recognizable brand and a long list of government customers.
The company's prominence, however, cuts both ways: For anti-war activists, Blackwater now ranks up with Halliburton subsidiary KBR in the rogue's gallery of war profiteers. Left-leaning websites vilify Blackwater founder Erik Prince and his family for their Republican party ties.
Litigation is also a sensitive topic. Blackwater first made major headlines in 2004, when four of its contractors were killed in a gruesome ambush in Fallujah, and the company has been tied up in a wrongful death suit with the families of the four men. An aircraft accident in Afghanistan also prompted a lawsuit.
In that respect, Blackwater has done itself few favors when it comes to managing its image, whether it was hiring the Alexander Strategy Group (a casualty of the Abramoff lobbying scandal) to shape its message in Washington, retaining Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to help make its case before the Supreme Court, or simply putting Bush/Cheney '04 bumper stickers on its vans. While it may be a sound business move to avoid comment on litigation, it presents an image that is vulnerable to caricature: secretive, militaristic, pro-Republican.
So what will happen with Blackwater's expansive vision? Much may come down to politics. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) recently singled out Blackwater in an oversight hearing on Iraq contracting practices. During that hearing -- which featured testimony from families of Fallujah ambush victims -- a company attorney confirmed that one of its contract employees had shot and killed an Iraqi security guard in the protected International Zone. The company whisked the contractor out of the country; no charges against the shooter have been made public.The killing could make an interesting test case for new laws governing contractors on the battlefield.
The legal environment is shifting rapidly for companies like Blackwater, and a recent change in law – quietly inserted into a defense authorization bill by Sen. Lindsey Graham ( R-S.C.) – would place contractors operating in places like Iraq under military jurisdiction. It may also help close the legal loophole that allowed contractors, previously exempt from Iraqi law, to escape prosecution for wrongdoing.
Such cases may prompt the military toward a broader re-think of its dependence on the private sector in conflict zones. (A recent case in point: Two Air Force lieutenant colonels faced prosecution after a "road rage" incident in Kabul that involved a Blackwater contractor.) So while Blackwater was opening itself up a little, company leaders have been keen to stay on message.
As Taylor said in welcoming us: "Today is about HK and Blackwater. This is not a free-for-all; this is not an opportunity to ask questions about litigation or the future of Blackwater."
[Photos courtesy Nathan Hodge]