When Goons Replace Legitimate Lawmen
By Jeremy Scahill
September 21, 2005
(Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of
The Nation Institute.)
The men from Blackwater USA arrived in New Orleans right after Katrina hit.
The company known for its private security work guarding senior US diplomats
in Iraq beat the federal government and most aid organizations to the scene
in another devastated Gulf. About 150 heavily armed Blackwater troops dressed
in full battle gear spread out into the chaos of New Orleans. Officially,
the company boasted of its forces "join[ing] the hurricane relief effort."
But its men on the ground told a different story.
Some patrolled the streets in SUVs with tinted windows and
the Blackwater logo splashed on the back; others sped around the French
Quarter in an unmarked car with no license plates. They congregated on the
corner of St. James and Bourbon in front of a bar called 711, where Blackwater
was establishing a makeshift headquarters. From the balcony above the bar,
several Blackwater guys cleared out what had apparently been someone's apartment.
They threw mattresses, clothes, shoes and other household items from the
balcony to the street below. They draped an American flag from the balcony's
railing. More than a dozen troops from the 82nd Airborne Division stood
in formation on the street watching the action.
Armed men shuffled in and out of the building as a handful
told stories of their past experiences in Iraq. "I worked the security
detail of both Bremer and Negroponte," said one of the Blackwater guys,
referring to the former head of the US occupation, L. Paul Bremer, and former
US Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte. Another complained, while talking
on his cell phone, that he was getting only $350 a day plus his per diem.
"When they told me New Orleans, I said, 'What country is that in?'"
he said. He wore his company ID around his neck in a case with the phrase
Operation Iraqi Freedom printed on it.
In an hourlong conversation I had with four Blackwater men, they characterized
their work in New Orleans as "securing neighborhoods" and "confronting
criminals." They all carried automatic assault weapons and had guns
strapped to their legs. Their flak jackets were covered with pouches for
When asked what authority they were operating under, one guy
said, "We're on contract with the Department of Homeland Security."
Then, pointing to one of his comrades, he said, "He was even deputized
by the governor of the state of Louisiana. We can make arrests and use lethal
force if we deem it necessary." The man then held up the gold Louisiana
law enforcement badge he wore around his neck. Blackwater spokesperson Anne
Duke also said the company has a letter from Louisiana officials authorizing
its forces to carry loaded weapons.
A History of Violence
"This vigilantism demonstrates the utter breakdown of the government,"
says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for
Constitutional Rights. "These private security forces have
behaved brutally, with impunity, in Iraq. To have them now on the streets
of New Orleans is frightening and possibly illegal."
Blackwater is not alone. As business leaders and government
officials talk openly of changing the demographics of what was one of the
most culturally vibrant of America's cities, mercenaries from companies
like DynCorp, Intercon, American
Security Group, Blackhawk, Wackenhut
and an Israeli company called Instinctive Shooting International
(ISI) are fanning out to guard private businesses and homes, as
well as government projects and institutions. Within two weeks of the hurricane,
the number of private security companies registered in Louisiana jumped
from 185 to 235. Some, like Blackwater, are under federal contract. Others
have been hired by the wealthy elite, like F. Patrick Quinn III,
who brought in private security to guard his $3 million private estate and
his luxury hotels, which are under consideration for a lucrative federal
contract to house FEMA workers.
A possibly deadly incident involving Quinn's hired guns underscores
the dangers of private forces policing American streets. On his second night
in New Orleans, Quinn's security chief, Michael Montgomery,
who said he worked for an Alabama company called Bodyguard and Tactical
Security (BATS), was with a heavily armed security detail en route
to pick up one of Quinn's associates and escort him through the chaotic
city. Montgomery told me they came under fire from "black gangbangers"
on an overpass near the poor Ninth Ward neighborhood. "At
the time, I was on the phone with my business partner," he recalls.
"I dropped the phone and returned fire."
Montgomery says he and his men were armed with AR-15s
[military assault rifle] and Glocks [automatic handguns] and that they unleashed
a barrage of bullets in the general direction of the alleged shooters on
the overpass. "After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and
the shooting stopped. That was it. Enough said."
Then, Montgomery says, "the Army showed up, yelling at
us and thinking we were the enemy. We explained to them that we were security.
I told them what had happened and they didn't even care. They just
left." Five minutes later, Montgomery says, Louisiana
state troopers arrived on the scene, inquired about the incident and then
asked him for directions on "how they could get out of the city."
Montgomery says that no one ever asked him for any details of the
incident and no report was ever made. "One thing about security,"
Montgomery says, "is that we all coordinate with each other--one family."
That co-ordination doesn't include the offices of the Secretaries of State
in Louisiana and Alabama, which have no record of a BATS company.
A few miles away from the French Quarter, another wealthy
New Orleans businessman, James Reiss, who serves in Mayor
Ray Nagin's administration as chairman of the city's Regional Transit Authority,
brought in some heavy guns to guard the elite gated community of Audubon
Place: Israeli mercenaries dressed in black and armed with M-16s.
Two Israelis patrolling the gates outside Audubon told me they had served
as professional soldiers in the Israeli military, and one boasted of having
participated in the invasion of Lebanon. "We have been fighting the
Palestinians all day, every day, our whole lives," one of them tells
me. "Here in New Orleans, we are not guarding from terrorists."
Then, tapping on his machine gun, he says, "Most Americans, when they
see these things, that's enough to scare them."
The men work for ISI, which describes its
employees as "veterans of the Israeli special task forces from the
following Israeli government bodies: Israel Defense Force (IDF), Israel
National Police Counter Terrorism units, Instructors of Israel National
Police Counter Terrorism units, General Security Service (GSS or 'Shin Beit'),
Other restricted intelligence agencies." The company was formed
in 1993. Its website profile says: "Our up-to-date services
meet the challenging needs for Homeland Security preparedness and overseas
combat procedures and readiness. ISI is currently an approved vendor by
the US Government to supply Homeland Security services."
Unlike ISI or BATS, Blackwater is operating under a federal
contract to provide 164 armed guards for FEMA reconstruction projects in
Louisiana. That contract was announced just days after Homeland Security
Department spokesperson Russ Knocke told the Washington Post he knew of
no federal plans to hire Blackwater or other private security firms. "We
believe we've got the right mix of personnel in law enforcement for the
federal government to meet the demands of public safety," he said.
Before the contract was announced, the Blackwater men told me, they were
already on contract with DHS and that they were sleeping in camps organized
by the federal agency.
One might ask, given the enormous presence in New Orleans
of National Guard, US Army, US Border Patrol, local police from around the
country and practically every other government agency with badges, why private
security companies are needed, particularly to guard federal projects. "It
strikes me...that that may not be the best use of money," said Illinois
Senator Barack Obama.
Blackwater's success in procuring federal contracts could
well be explained by major-league contributions and family connections to
the GOP. According to election records, Blackwater's CEO and co-founder,
billionaire Erik Prince, has given tens of thousands to Republicans,
including more than $80,000 to the Republican National Committee
the month before Bush's victory in 2000. This past June, he gave
$2,100 to Senator Rick Santorum's re-election campaign. He has
also given to House majority leader Tom DeLay and a slew
of other Republican candidates, including Bush/Cheney in 2004. As a young
man, Prince interned with President George H.W. Bush, though he complained
at the time that he "saw a lot of things I didn't agree with--homosexual
groups being invited in, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act, those
kind of bills. I think the Administration has been indifferent to a lot
of conservative concerns."
Prince, a staunch right-wing Christian, comes from a powerful
Michigan Republican family, and his father, Edgar, was
a close friend of former Republican presidential candidate and antichoice
leader Gary Bauer. In 1988 the elder Prince helped Bauer
start the Family Research Council. Erik Prince's sister, Betsy,
once chaired the Michigan Republican Party and is married to Dick
DeVos, whose father, billionaire Richard DeVos,
is co-founder of the major Republican benefactor Amway.
Dick DeVos is also a big-time contributor to the Republican Party and will
likely be the GOP candidate for Michigan governor in 2006. Another Blackwater
founder, president Gary Jackson, is also a major contributor to
After the killing of four Blackwater mercenaries in Falluja
in March 2004, Erik Prince hired the Alexander Strategy Group,
a PR firm with close ties to GOPers like DeLay. By mid-November the company
was reporting 600 percent growth. In February 2005 the company hired
Ambassador Cofer Black, former coordinator for counterterrorism
at the State Department and former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism
Center, as vice chairman. Just as the hurricane was hitting, Blackwater's
parent company, the Prince Group, named Joseph
Schmitz, who had just resigned as the Pentagon's Inspector General,
as the group's chief operating officer and general counsel.
While juicing up the firm's political connections, Prince
has been advocating greater use of private security in international operations,
arguing at a symposium at the National Defense Industrial Association earlier
this year that firms like his are more efficient than the military. In May
Blackwater's Jackson testified before Congress in an effort to gain lucrative
Homeland Security contracts to train 2,000 new Border Patrol agents, saying
Blackwater understands "the value to the government of one-stop shopping."
With President Bush using the Katrina disaster to try to repeal Posse Comitatus
(the ban on using US troops in domestic law enforcement) and Blackwater
and other security firms clearly initiating a push to install their paramilitaries
on US soil, the war is coming home in yet another ominous way. As one Blackwater
mercenary said, "This is a trend. You're going to see a lot more guys
like us in these situations."
All information posted on this web site is
the opinion of the author and is provided for educational purposes only.
It is not to be construed as medical advice. Only a licensed medical doctor
can legally offer medical advice in the United States. Consult the healer
of your choice for medical care and advice.