Blackwater: The Real 'Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy'?
Erik Prince of Blackwater Worldwide testifies on Oct. 2, 2007, during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Businessmen with ties to the G.O.P. and right-wing ideologies and pedigrees are not uncommon. What makes Erik Prince special is the confluence of his core beliefs—militarism, right-wing Christianity, and privatization—in his controversial mercenary business, Blackwater Worldwide. At the center of a heated scandal over abuses committed by private military contractors in Iraq and elsewhere, Blackwater has begun to expand its business into intelligence gathering and a host of other security-related services. Its success is helping fill the coffers of some of the country's most influential conservative political figures and prompting some observers to call it the "future of war."
When Hillary Clinton coined the phrase "vast right-wing conspiracy" during her husband's presidency, she was referring only to the attacks against her husband—not to a rapidly expanding business of mercenaries and private spies whose largesse is helping fill the coffers of some of the country's most influential right-wing politicians. But such a phrase comes to mind when one considers Blackwater Worldwide and its founder and C.E.O., Erik Prince. The company and its leader are tied together in a dizzying mix of right-wing ideologies ranging from privatization and enthusiasm for an unchecked free market, to aggressive nationalistic militarism, the Christian Right, and the broad executive power they rely on for patronage.
Although already at the center of a heated controversy over the use of private military forces in Iraq and elsewhere, Blackwater has begun to expand its business into the realm of intelligence, as ardent Blackwater-watcher and journalist Jeremy Scahill reported last month in the Nation. The zealous privatization agenda of military-tied programs and the creation of what Scahill called "a structure paralleling the U.S. national security apparatus" converge in the new "private spy" mission of Total Intelligence Solutions—Blackwater's espionage subsidiary (1). Total Intelligence promises to bring "CIA-style" intelligence work to the boardrooms of mega-corporations and executive offices of foreign governments—probably among the few entities that can afford the heavy price tags associated with Blackwater services. In exchange for its massive fees, Total Intelligence Solutions delivers, according to its website, "surveillance and countersurveillance, deployed intelligence collection, and rapid safeguarding of employees or other key assets" (2).
At the helm of Total Intelligence Solutions are two former C.I.A. heavyweights—Cofer Black, a former counterterrorism specialist, and Robert Richer, a former executive in the C.I.A.'s Directorate of Operations, where he ran clandestine activities in the Middle East and beyond (3). But the outfit, like all of Blackwater, is under the purview of its secretive founder and head honcho, Prince.
Conservative Origins and Connections
Prince was born into right-wing politics with an ideological bent. His father, Edgar Prince, was the head of a Michigan auto-parts company that, after his death in 1996, was sold for more than $1 billion. Edgar Prince, like his son after him, supported a bevy of right-wing causes, bankrolling the nation's most powerful Christian Right organizations and pouring money into the Republican Party.
The hard right surrounded young Prince nearly all his life. The area he grew up in Michigan was known for another massively rich corporate family with a record of funding right-wing causes and candidates: the DeVos family, which made its considerable fortune from its Amway empire (which, despite a Federal Trade Commission ruling stating otherwise, is still called a glorified pyramid scheme by detractors).
The ties between the two like-minded clans were solidified when Erik Prince's sister, Betsy, married into the family of the other local right-wing patrons. The DeVos family, she declared in 1997 in the Roll Call daily, "is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party." In his book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Scahill noted that Amway "would rise to become one of the greatest corporate contributors in the U.S. electoral process in the 1990s, mostly to Republican candidates and causes" (4).
Edgar Prince, who, according to Religious Right luminary and friend Gary Bauer, committed himself to Jesus Christ after a heart attack in the 1970's, set the standard for right wing philanthropy for the family (5). Edgar was instrumental in helping Bauer set up the Christian Right think tank and lobby group Family Research Council (F.R.C.). The Princes also have close ties to James Dobson, who was on the founding board of F.R.C. Dobson, a child psychologist and perhaps the most powerful figure of the Christian Right today, runs Focus on the Family, which has benefited from the Princes' lavish spending. Even after Edgar's death in 1995—at his funeral, both Bauer and Dobson eulogized him—the family held tight to the two organizations. Edgar's wife, Elsa, has served on both boards. She runs (and Erik serves as vice president for) the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, which gave at least $670,000 to F.R.C. and $500,00 to Focus on the Family from 2003 to 2006, according to Salon.com (6). F.R.C. and Focus on the Family both support President George W. Bush, giving him unmitigated support and receiving high levels of access in return.
As Scahill pointedly says in his book, "If there was one lesson Edgar Prince was poised to impart on his children, it was how to build and maintain an empire based on strict Christian values, right-wing politics, and free-market economics" (7).
In the last 20 years, Erik Prince has given more than $230,000 dollars to G.O.P. candidates and conservative political action committees (8). The list of candidates to whom he has donated reads like a who's who of the far right of Washington elites: George W. Bush, Pat Buchanan, Senator Tom Coburn (Republican of Oklahoma), former Senator Rick Santorum (Republican of Pennsylvania), the late Senator Jesse Helms (Republican of North Carolina), Representative Duncan Hunter (Republican of California), and former Representative Tom Delay (Republican of Texas). Through his Freiheit Foundation, he gave $500,000 to Prison Fellowship Ministries (9), which was founded by Nixon's chief counsel Chuck Colson, who spent time in prison for crimes related to the Watergate scandal and converted to Evangelical Christianity while behind bars. In 2000, Prince also gave $30,000 to the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank that pushed for the invasion of Iraq and, via a revolving door with government, has unprecedented access to the Bush administration (10).
But more than just money, Prince has also given his time to right-wing causes and came of age within and among them. He had initially gone to the Naval Academy to earn his undergraduate degree, but he transferred to Hillsdale College in Michigan, a Christian-oriented school that Newsweek called "an institution with an almost Ayn Rand-like faith in free markets" (11). Though Prince liked the Navy, one of his professors at Hillsdale said that Prince had found the academy "insufficiently tough and conservative," in the words of Newsweek (Prince denied the comments). Prince interned at both F.C.R. (becoming one of their first college interns) (12) and at the George H. W. Bush White House, where he did a six-month stint (13). His burgeoning right-wing worldview was revealed in an interview he gave about the experience at the White House shortly after leaving, telling the Grand Rapids Press that he saw things there he didn't agree with, such as gay groups being invited into the White House, a budget agreement that raised taxes, and the passage of the Clean Air Act, which regulated pollution and cost businesses money (14).
The Mercenary Business
But businessmen with ties to the G.O.P. and conservative ideologies and pedigrees are not uncommon. What makes Prince special is the confluence of his ideologies in his business—Blackwater.
The two most readily discernable right-wing ideologies behind Prince and Blackwater are clearly militarism and privatization; it is, after all, a private military company.
As far as privatization goes, Blackwater depends on government outfits like the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service (D.S.S.) to fall by the wayside so that the North Carolina-based mercenary outfit can pick up State contracts to do D.S.S.'s old job—guard American diplomats abroad. Protecting American interests, notably people in war zones, is how Blackwater built its business. As of late 2007, the company had lost none of its protected charges in either Iraq or Afghanistan, both places where they have a heavy presence (Blackwater's force in Iraq is two-thirds of what D.S.S. has in total around the globe) (15). But its services have not been without controversy.
Last September, Blackwater mercenaries gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians when a Blackwater-protected State convoy ran into traffic at Nisour Square in Baghdad. In a stark and troubling sign of Blackwater's usurpation of government responsibilities, it was reported that a Blackwater employee was allowed to write the initial State Department report on the incident, which—contradicting later reports, most notably the Iraqi government's—cited gunfire from the crowd as having set off the melee (16). An official with knowledge of the investigation subsequently told the New York Times that the incident had been characterized by chaos and confusion, including infighting between Blackwater employees when one of them did not heed a ceasefire call (17). Though the incident was neither the first nor last of reported Blackwater abuses, it was the first that garnered the attention of Congress. A hearing was called, and Prince, in line with Blackwater's previous statements, denied any wrongdoing. Absurdly, he even denied that Blackwater had shot and killed innocent civilians (18). None of the abuses, however, have been prosecuted either in Iraq—where American contractors enjoy immunity—or in the United States.
That immunity, however, is proving severely problematic as the Bush administration attempts to heal strained relations with it Iraqi allies, who remain outraged over the Nisour Square incident and other abuses committed by private security contractors. Contractor immunity, in fact, was one of the major holdups in United States-Iraqi negotiations for a controversial security agreement to replace the current United Nations mandate (19)
But given the hard-fought resistance to giving up contractor immunity—and the failure to prosecute alleged crimes upon return to the United States—some observers have begun to wonder if the private contractors haven't overtaken the American military in the Iraq pecking order. Pointing to a telling incident in which United States Army and Blackwater vehicles collided and Blackwater guards subsequently disarmed military personnel, researcher Madhavi Bhasin wrote, "The Iraqi Government has come to realize that the U.S. is attempting to run the Iraqi state through private contractors who cannot be held accountable for their misdeeds" (20).
Blackwater's tentacles into the world of right-wing ideology go well beyond the basics of militarism and privatization. Blackwater's chief operating officer Joseph Schmitz, for example, was involved in several controversies during his time as inspector general (I.G.) of the Defense Department. One of them, bizarrely, was his obsession with a Prussian Army officer who was a hero in the American Revolutionary War and whose motto—"Always Under the Protection of the Almighty"—Schmitz spent months working into a new logo for the I.G.'s office (21), with questionable disregard for the separation of church and state.
Schmitz, as the Pentagon's I.G., was responsible for defense contracts. His watch saw the largest increase in military contracting ever—certainly a boon to Blackwater's business. But in 2005, Schmitz resigned from the I.G. under pressure for malfeasance in his oversight—including questionably exonerating Iraq war architect Richard Perle for peddling his influence within the Pentagon (22). Though he may have lacked oversight, Schmitz was certainly not shortsighted. His Catholicism, ideological politics, and doling out of contracts to Blackwater surely helped his chances of getting a gig with Prince's outfit, which is where he landed the month after he resigned.
Another Blackwater figure with ideological underpinnings is Cofer Black, the head of Total Intelligence Solutions and former head of the C.I.A.'s Counterterrorism Center. While at the C.I.A. (where he worked until 2002), Black oversaw one of the Bush administration's forays into expanding the powers of the executive; many of those overreaches have been criticized for putting the executive branch above the law and beyond oversight. The program that Black was responsible for was no exception. According to Dana Priest of the Washington Post, under Black's watch the Counterterrorism Center ran the "extraordinary rendition" program in which suspects were kidnapped by the C.I.A., taken to secret "black sites," and interrogated with harsh methods that have given rise to accusations of torture (23). After 9/11, Black had famously told Congress that, "the gloves came off" (24). Perhaps, indeed, the gloves came off. And in addition to possibly conducting torture, those bare hands apparently also dialed up Blackwater—just two weeks after the attacks, Prince told Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, "The phone is ringing off the hook" (25).
A constant enemy of the aggressive economic right is taxation, and Blackwater Worldwide is no exception. In October 2007, Representative Henry Waxman (Democrat of California) sent a letter to Prince notifying him that there was evidence that "Blackwater may have engaged in significant tax evasion" (26). The question arose from Blackwater's classification of its armed guards as "independent contractors," for which the company is not responsible for taxes like Social Security and Medicare, "for which it is legally responsible." Waxman's letter noted that Blackwater's modus operandi was different than the two other military contractors doing private security for the State Department in Iraq, and that in at least one case, the Internal Revenue Service had deemed the independent contractor status as "without merit."
But that's not the only way Prince and Blackwater have apparently sought to shortchange the government, even as their cups runneth over with taxpayer money in the form of contracts. Scahill reports that Prince registered Greystone Limited, a new division of Blackwater, with the government in 2004. But unlike other Blackwater subsidiaries, Greystone was not incorporated in Virginia, North Carolina, or even the domestic tax haven of Delaware. Instead, wrote Scahill, "Greystone was registered offshore in the Caribbean island-nation of Barbados. It was duly classified by the U.S. government as a 'tax-exempt' 'corporate entity'" (27).
Though the offshore incorporation of Greystone happened in 2004, it was not until late 2007, just as the Nisour Square scandal broke, that Blackwater changed its name to reflect its global base and outreach, tweaking "Blackwater USA" to "Blackwater Worldwide"—a subtle change, but a meaningful one in light of Blackwater's increasing enterprises and growing scope. Bill Sizemore of the Virginian-Pilot reported that the name change coincided with significant expansions, citing Blackwater's desire for or recent foray into "a role providing private armed forces in support of international peacekeeping and nation-building operations," acquisition of "an oceangoing ship for training and potential paramilitary use," and a share of a federal "five-year federal counter narcotics contract that could be worth up to $15 billion" (28).
Sizemore also noted that Blackwater is expanding into the time-honored right-wing enterprise of traditional defense contractors—not training and private mercenary work, but rather weapons and equipment development, manufacturing, and sales. National Public Radio's Corey Flintoff reported last fall that Blackwater now provides everything "from bomb-sniffing dogs to drone reconnaissance aircraft" (29). Newsweek also reported that Blackwater "has a prototype of a spy blimp—an unmanned dirigible that could hover for days," and that Prince's "focus seems to be more on developing the latest high-tech gadgetry to sell to the government" (30).
'The Future of War'?
But Blackwater is going global in other new and troubling ways. Scahill devotes a whole chapter of his new book to "Blackwater's Man in Chile." This is the "real" vast right-wing conspiracy going international. Through extensive interviews with Blackwater's Latin-American recruiter himself, Scahill documents the relationship between Blackwater and Jose Miguel Pizarro Ovalle, the Chilean responsible for placing nearly 1,000 of his countrymen in Iraq under the employ of Blackwater. Pizarro is a passionate apologist for brutal right-wing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the general who in 1973 led a C.I.A.-, United States government-, and multinational corporation-backed coup d'état to overthrow Chile's democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.
In the congressional hearings last October, Prince tried to deflect accusations that his group is indeed a mercenary outfit. "People call us mercenaries," he told the committee. "We have Americans working for America protecting Americans," he said—omitting the fact that Blackwater employs non-Americans as well (31). A New York Times blog noted that Prince's answer is "in stark contrast to the Oxford English Dictionary definition: 'A professional soldier working for a foreign government.' But that's the second definition in The American Heritage Dictionary. Here's the first: 'Motivated solely by a desire for monetary or material gain'" (32).
That is the essence of the problem with Blackwater. Scahill, an undisputed expert on Blackwater who has been called before Congress to testify about the mercenary group, quotes Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights: "The increasing use of contractors, private forces or as some would say 'mercenaries' makes wars easier to begin and to fight—it just takes money and not the citizenry" (33). In a time when the Right misled the people of America into a war in Iraq that appears to be based on neoconservative ideology and aggressive nationalist economic interest in oil, this is a particularly potent criticism of Prince's right-wing principles. As Scahill writes, the saga of Prince and Blackwater is "the living embodiment of the changes wrought by the revolution in military affairs and the privatization agenda radically expanded by the Bush administration under the guise of the war on terror. But more fundamentally, it is a story about the future of war, democracy, and governance" (34).
From Political Research Associates' Right Web.
Ali Gharib is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter. He contributes to P.R.A.'s Right Web and is also a writer for the Inter Press Service.
1. Jeremy Scahill, "Blackwater's Private Spies," Nation, June 5, 2008.
2. Total Intelligence Solutions, "About Total Intelligence Solutions."
3. Jeremy Scahill, "Blackwater's Private Spies," Nation, June 5, 2008.
4. Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2008), pp. 71.
5. Ibid., pp. 69.
6. Ben Van Heuvelen, "The Bush Administration's Ties to Blackwater," Salon.com, October 2, 2007.
7. Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2008), pp. 66.
8. See, "Erik Prince's Federal Campaign Contribution Report," Newsmeat.com (as of July 16, 2008).
9. Mediamouse.org, Grand Rapids Independent Media, "The Far Right in West Michigan: Freiheit Foundation."
10. Grand Rapids Independent Media, "The Far Right in West Michigan: Freiheit Foundation." See 9 above for link.
11. Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball, "The Man Behind Blackwater," Newsweek, October 22, 2007.
12. Letter from Family Research Council president Gary Bauer, April 13, 1995, as cited by Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2008), pp. 76.
13. Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball, "The Man Behind Blackwater," Newsweek, October 22, 2007. See 11 above for link.
14. Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball, "The Man Behind Blackwater," Newsweek, October 22, 2007. See 11 above for link.
15. Jeremy Scahill, "The War Business is Doing Well," Star Tribune, June 19, 2008.
16. Jeremy Scahill, "Iraqis Sue Blackwater for Baghdad Killings," Nation, October 11, 2007.
17. James Glanz and Sabrina Tavernise, "Blackwater Shooting Scene Was Chaotic," The New York Times, September 28, 2007.
18. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), "Hearing on Private Security Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan," October 2, 2007, pp. 86.
19. Patrick Cockburn, "Security Firms Lose Immunity In Iraq Deal," The Independent, July 10, 2008.
20. Madhavi Bhasin, "Maliki and the Timetable: It's All About Blackwater," Informed Comment, July 11, 2008.
21. T. Christian Miller, "The Scrutinizer Finds Himself Under Scrutiny," Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2005.
22. Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2008), pp. 365 – 388.
23. Dana Priest, "Wrongful Imprisonment: Anatomy of a CIA Mistake," The Washington Post, December 4, 2005.
24. Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, "U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations," The Washington Post, December 26, 2002.
25. Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball, "The Man Behind Blackwater," Newsweek, October 22, 2007. See 11 above for link.
26. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), "Letter to Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince."
27. Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2008), pp. 59.
28. Bill Sizemore, "Blackwater, Prince Looking Ahead After Media Blitz," The Virginian-Pilot, October 19, 2007.
29. Corey Flintoff, "Blackwater's Prince Has GOP, Christian Group Ties," National Public Radio, September 25, 2007.
30. Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball, "The Man Behind Blackwater," Newsweek, October 22, 2007. See 11 above for link.
31. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), "Hearing on Private Security Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan," October 2, 2007, pp. 134. See 18 above for link.
32. Mike Nizza, "Blackwater Chief's Testimony, Minute-by-Minute," The Lede (blog), The New York Times, October 2, 2007.
33. Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2008), pp. 60.
34. Ibid., pp. 63.