Blackwater Critics Jump on Iraq Shootout
Associated Press (2007-09-17) Mike Baker
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By MIKE BAKER – 50 minutes ago
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — When a former Navy SEAL launched Blackwater USA in North Carolina's swamplands a decade ago, he envisioned a world-class training facility for those in the business of providing security.
But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the notoriously secretive company has found its niche in selling security directly. Blackwater has earned hundreds of millions of dollars fielding what critics contend is essentially a private army in Iraq and other hotspots, where it has often employed aggressive tactics that some call reckless and possibly criminal.
Those critics now include the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which said Monday it had revoked Blackwater's license to operate following a chaotic weekend shootout that Iraqi authorities say left eight civilians dead and 13 injured.
"The 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire," company spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said late Monday. "Blackwater regrets any loss of life, but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job to defend human life."
Robert Young Pelton, an independent military analyst who spent a month with a Blackwater team in Baghdad while researching his book, "Licensed to Kill," said Blackwater contractors No. 1 priority is keeping their high-value clients alive.
"The Blackwater guys are not fools," Pelton said. "If they were gunning down people it was because they felt it was the beginning of an ambush."
It wasn't immediately clear if the Iraqi action against Blackwater was temporary or permanent. But if Blackwater is forced to leave Iraq, where it has at least $800 million in government contracts, the privately held company based at a 7,000-acre compound in tiny Moyock stands to lose a huge piece of its burgeoning business.
Among Blackwater's clients in Iraq is the U.S. State Department, which hired the company to protect its staff as they travel through one of the world's most dangerous places.
"It's going to turn the world upside down," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, an independent military analyst and the co-chairman of WVC3 Group, a security consulting firm. "You can bet the U.S. embassy is doing backflips right now pressuring the Iraqis not to revoke their license."
Blackwater burst into the public light in 2004 when a mob of insurgents ambushed a company security detail in Fallujah. Four Blackwater guards were killed and their bodies burned, the remains of two strung from a bridge.
The U.S. military's unsuccessful assault on the city in retaliation for the guards' deaths left an estimated 27 Marines and an unknown number of civilians dead.
Blackwater officials acknowledged earlier this year that one of their off-duty workers shot and killed a security guard for an Iraqi vice president last Christmas Eve. Company officials have said they fired the employee after flying him out of the country and are cooperating with federal investigators.
"There have been so many innocent people they've killed over there, and they just keep doing it," said Katy Helvenston, the mother of Steve Helvenston, one of the Blackwater men killed in the ambush in Fallujah. "They have just a callous disregard for life."
Blackwater has recently emphasized its humanitarian efforts and vision for "a safer world" on its Web site and in company literature.
Still, the firm sticks to a policy of secrecy that extends from chief executive Erik Prince, a former SEAL who founded Blackwater in 1997.
Vice chairman Cofer Black, a former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center, declined to comment when reached at his Virginia home.
Blackwater is still in the business of security training. Civilians, law enforcement and military personnel can attend dozens of seminars at Blackwater headquarters, which includes a three-mile tactical driving course, a lake for maritime maneuvers and a private airfield. The company has also opened an 80-acre satellite campus in Mount Carroll, Ill., and is looking to open another training center east of San Diego.
As it has expanded its security operations, Blackwater has offered big salaries to lure experienced former soldiers, especially those with special forces and other advanced training. The company fields a force of about 1,000 across Iraq and has a database of more than 6,000 contractors it can tap to fulfill the requirements of its more than 50 security contracts worldwide.
"Under what law are these individuals operating, and do the Iraqis have the authority to prosecute people for the crimes they're accused of committing?" said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat and longtime Blackwater critic who is pushing Congress to regulate private security contractors. "It's a very murky area."
AP National Writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.
On the Net:
• Blackwater USA: http://www.blackwaterusa.com/