Notorious Blackwater firm awarded lucrative Afghan contracts


AMERICA:Blackwater, which renamed itself Xe, has long evaded accountability, and repeatedly taken the law into its own hands, writes LARA MARLOWE

IN THE week when President Barack Obama fired Gen Stanley McChrystal for the express purpose of preserving civilian command over the military, it was ironic, to say the least, to learn that the US government had awarded nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in contracts to a company that has long evaded accountability and transparency, and repeatedly taken the law into its own hands.

The state department is paying Xe (pronounced “zee” – an abbreviation for the inert, non-combustible gas Xenon) $120 million (€ 96.8 million) to guard new US consulates in Afghanistan. Xe is still widely known as Blackwater, but renamed itself in February 2009, in the hope people would forget its 2007 massacre of 17 civilians in Baghdad.

And, after announcing last year that it was cutting ties with Blackwater, the CIA will pay the world’s largest private army about $100 million for services in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Blackwater/Xe received more than $1.5 billion in US taxpayer money between 2001 and 2009. Erik Prince, its founder and chairman, a former Navy Seal and heir to an automotive parts fortune, was recruited as an “asset” by the agency in 2004, Vanity Fair magazine stated.

Prince is a fundamentalist Christian whom Vanity Fair describes as “clench-jawed and tightly wound” with a “sense of his own place in history [that] can border on the evangelical”. Prince named the youngest of his seven children Charles Donovan after William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder of the CIA.

A year ago, CIA director Leon Panetta told a congressional intelligence committee that Prince and Blackwater were involved in a “covert action programme” that was to have assassinated al-Qaeda operatives. Panetta said he stopped the programme when he learned of its existence. At least two aborted targets were civilians.

In August, the New York Times and Washington Post reported that the CIA had hired Blackwater/Xe to help it kill Jihadists. “At hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan . . . the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the CIA,” the New York Times said.

Meanwhile, Blackwater/Xe clocked up a shocking criminal record. Last August, two former Blackwater employees filed sworn affidavits in Virginia saying that Prince murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who co-operated with federal authorities investigating the company. This month, the justice department asked a federal appeals court to reinstate a case against five Blackwater mercenaries who opened fire, unprovoked, on civilians in Nisoor Square in Baghdad in 2007, killing 17 and wounding 30. (A judge had dismissed the case on a technicality last December.)

Prince denied a New York Times report that the company tried to bribe Iraqi officials to have charges dropped.

Last January, two Blackwater/Xe employees were charged with shooting dead two Afghan civilians in Kabul last May. In March, the Senate armed service committee revealed that the company had used a shell company and made false statements to gain contracts in Afghanistan. On April 16th, the justice department charged five high-ranking Xe officials with 15 offences, including attempted bribery of Jordanian officials, hiding weapons and obstructing justice in the investigation of the illegal possession of automatic weapons on the company’s 7,000-acre private military base in North Carolina.

That the state department and CIA have just awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to such a company is mind-boggling. Jeremy Scahill, the award-winning investigative journalist and best-selling author of Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, believes Erik Prince has trapped the Obama White House.

Prince knows a lot about “direct lethal actions, including the CIA assassination programme”, Scahill told MSNBC. The company has been “carrying out covert actions for the US government around the world, many of which this administration and the CIA do not want to be made public. So Prince has been engaging in something called graymail, where you essentially are nervous that they are going to come after you, so you basically say to them, ‘I will show them where some of those bodies are buried, and I will tell them who buried those bodies.’ The Obama administration is playing a very high stakes chess game right now with Blackwater.”

The contracts revealed this week are great advertising for Prince, who is trying to sell his private army. In a petulant interview with CNBC on Thursday, Prince said he “will be exiting the US government market completely” because he was fed up with “three-and-a-half years of an assault by some of the bureaucracy, a sort of proctology exam brought on by some in Congress”.

Several sources have told Scahill that Prince plans to move to the United Arab Emirates, already a tax-free haven for mercenaries and oil companies which has no US extradition treaty. “There’s a strong possibility that he could face indictment” on weapons smuggling or murder charges, Scahill says.