Blackwater scraps Philippines center, hits snags in California
Virginian Pilot (2007-04-13) Bill Sizemore
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By Bill Sizemore
, The Virginian Pilot
© April 13, 2007
Increasingly a magnet for controversy, Blackwater USA has encountered a bumpy road implementing its national and international expansion plans.
The Moyock, N.C.-based private military company's plans to open an Asian branch in the Philippines have been scrapped and one stateside proposal has drawn considerable heat.
"We are no longer pursuing a facility in the Philippines," Anne Tyrrell, a company spokeswoman, said this week.
The company's plans for a jungle survival skills training center on the site of the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay sparked calls for an investigation from a prominent member of the Philippines Senate last summer.
More recently, the head of a United Nations work group on mercenary activity expressed concern about recruitment methods used by Blackwater and similar companies in the Philippines.
Closer to home, Blackwater's drive to open a West Coast outpost has run into a buzzsaw of public opposition. More than half the registered voters of a tiny rural community east of San Diego, the proposed site of "Blackwater West," have signed a petition opposing the project.
A normally routine county planning meeting on the project last week drew dozens of chanting, sign-waving protesters. Attendees had to walk through a gauntlet of police officers and a metal detector.
It was just the latest in a series of brush fires Blackwater has been dealing with in recent months:
- An off-duty Blackwater contractor shot and killed an Iraqi security guard in Baghdad on Christmas Eve and was immediately flown home by the company. So far there is no word of any criminal charges being filed.
- In February, the company underwent a public grilling by a congressional committee about its security work in Iraq, including emotional testimony from relatives of four Blackwater contractors killed and mutilated in a convoy ambush in Fallujah in 2004.
- The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Blackwater, clearing the way for what could be a landmark lawsuit in a North Carolina state court over the Fallujah ambush. The victims' families are suing the company for wrongful death.
- Last month the Air Force dropped criminal charges against two officers involved in a road-rage incident with a Blackwater contractor in Afghanistan and launched an investigation into the possibility of witness tampering in the case.
In California, Blackwater proposes to build a western training center on an 800-acre chicken and cattle ranch near Potrero, a rural hamlet 45 miles east of San Diego near the Mexican border. The project will require a rezoning and an environmental impact report, a process that could take up to two years.
The company's plans for the property - a grassy valley and foraging ground for golden eagles - include firing ranges, a tactical driving track, training towers, an armory, a bunkhouse, a dining hall, an "urban simulation" training area, ship simulators, classroom buildings and a helipad.
The project won preliminary approval from the local planning board in December, but since then 320 residents have signed a petition opposing it. The town has 435 registered voters.
It will ultimately need the approval of the county planning commission and the board of supervisors, a process that could take up to two years.
Last week, more than 100 protesters showed up at an informational meeting on the project held by the county planning department. They were met by three dozen police and sheriff's deputies and had to go through a metal detector to get into the meeting.
A county spokeswoman said the unusual security procedures were prompted by "a threat." She declined to be more specific.
The display of firepower was puzzling, said Jan Hedlun, an opponent of the project who was recently elected to the Potrero planning board.
"No one in our group had any intention of causing any problems," she said. "We just had questions."
The Blackwater project appears to have brought together an unusual coalition of opponents - rural residents, environmentalists and peace activists.
"The more I learn, the more my concerns grow," Hedlun said. "This is an agricultural area adjacent to a national forest. I left the city for peace and quiet, and that is not what these people are. They are not peaceful, and they are not quiet."
Gordon Hammers, chairman of the planning board and a supporter of the project, said the opponents are spreading misinformation about Blackwater's intent.
"They're not going to be training mercenaries out here," Hammers said. "As the truth comes out, I think a lot of people who have been questioning the project will say, 'Well, maybe it's not so bad after all.'
"A lot of the people who are against this don't live in the community. They're outside Sierra Club people - this group, that group, ACLU. All the liberals have come out of the woodwork."
Tyrrell, the Blackwater spokeswoman, said only about 200 acres of the 800-acre site would be developed. Much of the rest, she said, would remain devoted to agricultural use.
She also said training courses at Blackwater West would be aimed only at military and law enforcement personnel. The company does not plan to use that site to train its security contractors for duty in combat zones, she said.
Meanwhile, Blackwater's new northern base in Illinois - where the company had no local regulatory hurdles to overcome - opened quietly this week, offering a variety of courses in firearms use, law enforcement and military tactics.
The 80-acre facility in Mount Carroll, 150 miles west of Chicago, is a miniature version of Blackwater's 7,000-acre spread in Moyock. It contains nine shooting ranges, a climbing/rappelling/shooting tower, a classroom building and pro shop.
Some area residents objected to the proposal, but because the property had been used previously for firearms training, no local zoning or other regulatory approval was needed.