On the Bill Maher show this past weekend, Jeremy Scahill appeared via satellite to talk about his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.I used to think about Blackwater mainly the way I think about Halliburton or other corrupt government contractors tied to President Bush–basically inept and wasteful–which is bad enough.
After seeing Scahill’s segment, I’m newly awakened to the terrifying reality of this unaccountable archconservative evangelical private mercenary army operating today within the borders of the U.S., and representing our nation in trouble spots all over the world. It’s also got its tentacles into the U.S. military budget, impacting morale and draining resources from badly needed reforms and improvements to the official military.
In addition, Blackwater has smelled the cash available in the ill-conceived U.S. drug-war, and may now be assuming roles alongside and even superceding the efforts of the jackboots at the DEA. That’s all we need, another private constituency like the prison industry addicted to the fat profits earned from the sadistic and shameful treatment of drug “offenders” in this country.
Blackwater has made numerous blunders that we’re aware of, as far back as the Fallujah battle, the 2004 crash of a plane with U.S. military servicemen onboard into a sheer rock wall in Afghanistan, and the September 2007 shooting of 17 unarmed Iraqi citizens. There are doubtless many other incidents which have not been reported, or have been covered up, including killings which have been tied to reprisals against U.S. troops in Iraq–where people view Blackwater personnel as simply a part of the U.S. military.
Read, and be very afraid:
MAHER: …All right, let’s bring on our satellite guest. He is an investigative reporter for The Nation magazine, whose recent book is Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Jeremy Scahill. Jeremy, how you doin’? [applause]
JEREMY SCAHILL [via satellite]: Good. Good to be with you, Bill.
MAHER: So, the term “Blackwater” always sounds to me like it’s a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band. [laughter] All right. Next question. [laughter]
SCAHILL: No, no, no. You know what’s funny – what’s funny about – about the term “Blackwater” is a lot of people think it’s this Navy SEAL terms or a covert ops terms. It’s actually named for the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina where Blackwater’s 7,500-acre, private military base is situated. So it’s sort of a tip of the hat to the dark waters of the swamp.
MAHER: I have to tell you, your book is so scary and so illuminating. Even what I read in the paper didn’t really touch what you have educated me about this group, because I knew that we had private security contractors in Iraq. I didn’t realize that they were really some sort of a parallel national security apparatus with their own air force, their own tanks, their own intelligence agency. Could these people stage a coup?
SCAHILL: Well, it’s an interesting question. I mean, Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, says that he wants to do for the U.S. national security apparatus what Federal Express did for the Post Office. And, in fact, he’s built up a sort of parallel structure. He has his own private intelligence company called “Total Intelligence Solutions” which is headed by a CIA veteran named Cofer Black.
He has an aviation division, 20,000 troops that he can call on at a moment’s notice. They have a maritime division. Now, they just a big – part of a big $15 billion contract to operate in the so-called “war on drugs.” They have operations in nine countries around the world. They, of course, deployed in Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of the flooding there.
So, certainly this is raising very serious civil liberties questions at home, as Blackwater expands well into California now. They’re trying to open up a new base just above the Mexican border in a little town called Potrero, California.
MAHER: And, if they did stage a coup and took over from the Bush Administration, how would we know? [laughter] [applause]
SCAHILL: Well, you know it would be…
MAHER: What telltale signs could you, as an expert – no, I’m kidding.
SCAHILL: Well, the Blackwater – the Blackwater pro shop would be situated on WhiteHouse.gov, and, you, too, could buy “Blackheart” the Blackwater teddy bear. [laughter]
MAHER: Yeah, they do have a teddy bear.
SCAHILL: Putting the “mercy” back in “mercenary.” [laughter]
MAHER: You know military people, I mean, people who are actually in the army that we don’t pay. Isn’t Blackwater a terrible insult to them? Because it seems like they do the same jobs, or better jobs, at 12 times the pay.
SCAHILL: Right. I mean, the reality is – the reality is right now that in Iraq you have kids that joined up with the Pennsylvania National Guard to fight floods; they find themselves in the middle of Baquba, pulling in $40,000 a year. They’re wearing the American flag on their shoulder. And then the Blackwater mercenaries whiz by. They have better vehicles. They actually have body armor that’s not from the Vietnam era, and they’re pulling in $600-$650 a day to be in the exact same war zone. And so, I think a lot of soldiers resent them.
And we’ve been hearing recently from senior military folks that it’s really hurting morale of the troops. And, some senior military commanders have actually said that Blackwater is hurting the U.S. counter-insurgency effort in Iraq, because they commit crimes, they shoot up a bunch of Iraqis; the Iraqis then attack the U.S. military in response, because they seem them all as part of the occupation. Not, well, there’s these mercenaries and then there’s the soldiers. They see them all as the Americans.
MAHER: And I remember a lot of times when Bin Laden would release a tape or something, he would refer to the Americans, the Zionists and “the crusaders.”
MAHER: Which, apparently, is a bad word to them, since there was Crusades.
SCAHILL: Right, I mean—
MAHER: [overlapping] But, this guy, Erik Prince, the head of Blackwater, he’s kind of a crusader, isn’t he? I mean, he’s a Christian – would you call him a “Christian supremist”?
SCAHILL: I would call him a “Christian supremacist.” I mean, the reality is that we’re in the midst of a—
MAHER: [overlapping] And what is that?
SCAHILL: [overlapping]—we’re in the midst of a war right now that President Bush himself has described as a “crusade.” Erik Prince comes from a powerhouse, conservative Christian family that bankrolled the rise of the religious right in this country, groups like Family Research Council, of Gary Bauer, Focus on the Family. I mean, Erik Prince is deeply connected to Chuck Colson, the first person to go to jail for Watergate, who has now remade himself as an evangelical minister and an advisor to President Bush.
I mean, one of Blackwater’s senior executives is an active member of the Knights of Malta, which is a Christian militia dating back to the Crusades. Erik Prince himself has served on the board of evangelical Christian missionary organizations with a conversion agenda. I mean, to have these kinds of forces operating, armed and dangerous, in a Muslim country, I think, is very disturbing.
MAHER: A conversion agenda. I remember, after 9/11, Ann Coulter said her solution to the problem was, go over to the Middle East, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.
SCAHILL: Right, let’s look at the—
MAHER: [overlapping] Do you think that’s what they really want to do? Blackwater?
SCAHILL: Well, I mean, look, Erik Prince, who is the sole owner of Blackwater, gave $500,000 to Chuck Colson through his personal foundation to run a faith-based prison in Sugarland, Texas, the former district of then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Chuck Colson said that the night before Muhammad wrote the Koran, he had one too many tamales. [a smattering of laughter]
MAHER: I’m not going to touch that, because I want to live to see tomorrow. [laughter] Thank you very much, Jeremy. [applause] I appreciate your work here. I mean, your work, what you do, and being here on our show.
SCAHILL: My pleasure.
It’s clear that the arch-conservative evangelicals have found a major inroad into our government. And worse, this private army operates all over the country in separate bases, supported at taxpayer expense but without a properly accountable chain of command. It’s also become another self-sustaining special interest group complete with highly paid lobbyists, supporting their paymasters’ feeding at the public trough in times of spiraling deficits.
The rise of Blackwater dashes any near-term hopes for transparency and political oversight of U.S. combat operations. That the kinds of gross incompetencies they have demonstrated have been tolerated and even rewarded is a tragic hallmark of Bush Administration mismanagement. Blackwater’s presence on the scene worsens the impact and implications of the already disastrous Iraq debacle–itself the result of a cynically created culture of corruption and cronyism, which represents an increasingly powerful cancer on the future of American democracy.
Blackwater must be opposed at every turn, exposed, and dismantled. Let’s hope it’s not too late.
Update: In 2009, Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services. But the threat remains the same. And we’ve all gotten to know the Prince/DeVos family even better during the Trump Administration, since Erik Prince’ sister Betsy DeVos was Trump’s Secretary of Education. Without going any deeper down that rabbit hole, it’s clear Christianity has decimated our democracy on multiple fronts. It’s a rout at this point. The military, education, the Supreme Court? All now seriously compromised by Christian fascism. –Sean Prophet, August 2022