I walked deeper into the French Quarter down Bourbon Street, and sure enough, I found a handful of Blackwater guys sort of congregating on a corner. I went up and started talking to them. I was with a female colleague, and they were very interested in her chest. While they were staring at her chest, I was asking questions of them. I said, “So what are you guys doing down here?”
They said, “We’re going to help.”
I said, “Who sent you down here?”
They said, “Our boss.”
I thought to myself, unless your boss is the president of the United States, the governor of the state of Louisiana, or the chief of police of New Orleans, something is really fishy here.
I started pressing them as to who they were working for, and they hemmed and hawed. One of them had a name tag that said “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and he was talking about his explosion-proof BMW that he had over in Iraq and how this is a vacation for him and he wants to get back to where the real action is and there is not enough real action here in New Orleans, whatever that meant.
I found that disturbing. As we talked, I pressed them, saying, “But who authorized you to have M4s and be riding around in unmarked vehicles?”
I said, “Were you hired by the state of Louisiana?”
He was kind of looking at his friends. Then I heard a guy on his cell phone in the background, saying, “You don’t want to work for Blackwater down here. They’re only paying $350 a day.”
$350 a day for these guys to be down there? Then another guy said something about a Department of Homeland Security camp that they were staying at outside of New Orleans. I said, “Are you working for the Department of Homeland Security?” At that point the guy said, “Way above my pay grade.” I kept asking and wasn’t getting anywhere finding out what they were doing. I asked what their ultimate mission was, and they said, “We’re here to confront criminals and stop looters.”
But they wouldn’t tell me who they’re working for.
It turns out I was able to get Blackwater’s contract with the Bush administration. When the Bush administration sent the National Guard over to Iraq and Afghanistan, they turned around and hired a politically-connected private mercenary army to deploy on the streets of a U.S. city. I got Blackwater’s contract with the Department of Homeland Security Federal Protective Service. Blackwater billed taxpayers $950 per man per day, and they didn’t have just a couple dozen guys. At one point they had 600, stretching from Texas through Mississippi and the Gulf. They were pulling in $240,000 a day.
Blackwater gave back to the hurricane Katrina effort. It held a fundraiser in November, 2005. Paul Bremer was the keynote speaker. The event raised $138,000 which was given to the Red Cross. I don’t even know if the Red Cross has arrived in New Orleans yet.
Blackwater was not only working for the Bush administration in New Orleans engaged in these security operations of confronting criminals and stopping looters, but they also worked for private business owners. In fact, in many ways, it was sort of the Baghdad on the Bayou. All these war contractors descended on the place. The same guys who were connected in Iraq were now connected instantly in New Orleans and Mississippi and Texas.
Blackwater USA, part of the Prince Group and one of the largest private military contractors in the world, has proposed “Blackwater West” to be built in a valley just north of the small town of Potrero, in East San Diego County. The facility will comprise 824 acres, and includes a portion of the Cleveland National Forest. The valley is one of a chain of valleys starting in Descanso, part of the original two-million acre preserve originally designated by Teddy Roosevelt. Since then, it has been reduced to 650K acres, and swiss-cheesed with private ownership. This valley has been used as a chicken ranch.
(The Nation) May 2006 – When Scott Helvenston set off for the Middle East, his family thought he was going to be working on Blackwater’s high-profile job of guarding the head of the US occupation, Paul Bremer. At $21 million, it represented the company’s biggest contract in Iraq. As it turned out, Helvenston was slated to carry out a far less glamorous task. John Potter had recently teamed Blackwater up with a Kuwaiti business called Regency Hotel and Hospital Company, and together the firms won a security contract with Eurest Support Services (ESS), guarding convoys transporting kitchen equipment to the US military. Blackwater and Regency had essentially wrestled the ESS contract from another security firm, Control Risk Group, and were eager to win more lucrative contracts from ESS in its other division servicing construction projects in Iraq.
The original contract between Blackwater/Regency and ESS, obtained by The Nation, recognized that “the current threat in the Iraqi theater of operations” would remain “consistent and dangerous,” and called for a minimum of three men in each vehicle on security missions “with a minimum of two armored vehicles to support ESS movements.” [Emphasis added.]
But on March 12, 2004, Blackwater and Regency signed a subcontract, which specified security provisions identical to the original except for one word: “armored.” Blackwater deleted it from the contract.
Before Helvenston, Teague, Zovko and Batalona were ever sent into Falluja, the omission of the word “armored” was brought to the attention of Blackwater management by John Potter, according to the families’ lawyers. They say Blackwater refused to redraft the contract. Potter persisted, insisting that his men be provided with armored vehicles. This would have resulted in Blackwater losing profits and would also have delayed the start of the ESS job. According to the suit, Blackwater was gung-ho to start in order to impress ESS and win further contracts. So on March 24 the company removed Potter as program manager, replacing him with McQuown, who, according to the families’ lawyers, was far more willing than Potter to overlook security considerations in the interest of profits. It was this corporate greed, combined with McQuown’s animosity toward Scott Helvenston, which began at the training in North Carolina, that the families allege played a significant role in the deaths of Helvenston and the other three contractors.
The night before he left, Helvenston sent an e-mail to the “Owner, President and Upper Management” of Blackwater, subject: “extreme unprofessionalism.” In this e-mail, obtained by The Nation, he complained that the behavior of McQuown (referred to as “Justin Shrek” in the e-mail) was “very manipulative, duplicitive [sic], immature and unprofessional.” He describes how his original team leader tried to appeal to Shrek not to reassign him, but, Helvenston wrote, “I think [the team leader] felt that there was a hidden agenda. ‘Lets see if we can screw with Scott.'” Those were some of the last words Helvenston would ever write.
Blackwater knowingly refused to provide guaranteed safeguards, among them: They would have armored vehicles; there would be three men in each vehicle–a driver, a navigator and a rear gunner; and the rear gunner would be armed with a heavy automatic weapon, such as a “SAW Mach 46,” which can fire up to 850 rounds per minute, allowing the gunner to fight off any attacks from the rear. “None of that was true,” says attorney Callahan. Instead, each vehicle had only two men and far less powerful “Mach 4” guns, which they had not even had a chance to test out. “Without the big gun, without the third man, without the armored vehicle, they were sitting ducks,” says Callahan.
The men entered Falluja with Helvenston and Teague in one vehicle and Zovko and Batalona in the other. “Since the team was driving without a rear-gunner and did not have armored vehicles, the insurgents were able to literally walk up behind the vehicles and shoot all four men with small arms at close range,” the suit alleges. “Their bodies were pulled into the streets, burned and their charred remains were beaten and dismembered.” The men, it goes on, “would be alive today” had Blackwater not forced them–under threat of being fired–to go unprepared on that mission.
FAMILY OF VICTIMS FILE A LAWSUIT AGAINST BLACKWATER
Blackwater is represented by multiple law firms. Its lead counsel is Greenberg Traurig, the influential DC law firm that once employed lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The lawyers for the families charge that Blackwater has continued its practice of stonewalling.
Attorney Marc Miles says that shortly after the suit was filed, he asked the court in North Carolina for an “expedited order” to depose John Potter. The deposition was set for January 28, 2005, and Miles was to fly to Alaska, where the Potters were living. But three days before the deposition, Miles says, “Blackwater hired Potter up, flew him to Washington where it’s my understanding he met with Blackwater representatives and their lawyers. [Blackwater] then flew him to Jordan for ultimate deployment in the Middle East,” Miles says. “Obviously they concealed a material witness by hiring him and sending him out of the country.”