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October 24, 2007

Blackwater USA

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The founder of Blackwater USA, Erik Prince, is famous for being media averse. However in the last year, especially since the Democratic Party achieved majority status in the United States Congress, Mr. Prince's name is slowly becoming a household word.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D. CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, began hearings on the role of Blackwater in national defense matters on February 7.

Blackwater and the role of other private military contractors, such as "DynCorp" and "Triple Canopy," have continued to come under increased scrutiny in recent months.

Congressman Waxman piled on Monday with fresh allegations that Blackwater "appears to be conducting a 'tax scheme' to avoid paying millions of dollars to the federal government in payroll taxes, Social Security and Medicare benefits," according to Fox News.

The same news account reported that Blackwater's Anne Tyrrell "dismissed Representative Waxman's claim as an unfounded attack on the company based on a complaint from a problem worker."

This comes on the heals of another publicly announced investigation as to whether or not Blackwater was involved in providing weapons to the Kurdistan Workers Party. Otherwise known as the "PKK," the Kurdistan nationalist faction has also been in the news recently for leading attacks inside Turkey from the Kurd territory in Iraq.

These are just the latest episodes in an era of public policy debates in which no one seems to be able to agree on the facts, much less arrive at a consensus as to how to go forward.

What can be ascertained is that originally "Blackwater Lodge and Training Center, Inc.," was incorporated in Delaware December 26, 1996.

It was founded by Mr. Prince and Gary Jackson, another former Navy SEAL. Mr. Prince was born June 6, 1969, in Holland, MI, and is the son the late Edgar Prince, who headed an auto parts and machinery manufacturer, "Prince Automotive."

He is a former officer in the Navy SEAL Team 8, which served from 1993 to 1996 in "Haiti, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, including Bosnia," according to a rare interview obtained by The Virginian-Pilot of Hampton Roads, VA.

In that interview Mr. Prince responded that he attended the U.S. Naval Academy for three semesters after graduating from high school. He wanted to be a navy pilot, only he discovered that he "didn't like the academy but loved the Navy. This is where I was first exposed to the SEAL teams."

He emailed in his Virginia Pilot interview that he subsequently graduated from Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI, in 1992 and "re-entered the Navy through Officer Candidate School and was commissioned a naval officer."

For those who enjoy traveling to North Carolina's Outer Banks for summer vacations, most likely you pass within miles of Blackwater's vast Moyock, NC, training facility purchased January 30, 1997 in Currituck and Camden counties, just below the Virginia state line.

For many, Blackwater first came to national attention on March 31, 2004, when four Blackwater contractors were killed and publicly mutilated in Fallujah, Iraq. Or perhaps it was after Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast of the United States on August 29, 2005, when Blackwater was contracted to provide security.

This past September 16th, an incident in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, in which a number of Iraqi civilians are alleged to have been killed by Blackwater associates, only dumped gasoline on the incendiary debate.

As a consequence of the incident, which continues to be investigated by a number of interested parties, the Iraqi government nimbly shook-off the effects of its summer vacation and demanded that Blackwater be relieved of its duties in six months.

According to the Associated Press, "Blackwater and two other contractors share a $571 million annual contract to protect diplomats and others in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and other countries. The Iraq share of the contract accounts for about $520 million, although not all goes to Blackwater."

A State Department probe into the September 16 incident is unlikely to result in a finding that will satisfy the Iraqi government or the number of critics accumulated over the past several years. The investigating panel is due to deliver its findings to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice soon, if it has not done so already.

Indeed, whispers in the hallways indicate that the State Department continues to think highly of Blackwater's overall performance, especially since no State Department officials have died while under its protection.

That said, it has been widely leaked that Dr. Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, would like to see the role of private military contractors, who work for a number of "U.S. governmental agencies," come under a "consolidated management" structure."

The State Department reported that Secretary Gates spoke with Secretary Rice about the concept in "a joint meeting last week in Moscow."

An Associated Press account notes that Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Secretary Gates thinks "it is worth exploring," but would not agree with questions from the press that characterized Secretary Gates as "advocating" the consolidation scheme.

Meanwhile what is known is that Blackwater's contract with the State Department ends in May 2008. There are conflicting leaks as to whether or not the company will continue to work for the State Department after its contract ends.

However, published statements by the State Department, supported by anecdotal accounts coming out of Iraq, indicate that replacing Blackwater is going to be difficult as "there are not enough department security agents to fill the gap."

Whatever happens, increased oversight is in order. Private military contractors are sure to be a continued dynamic in the future matrix of national defense.

Moreover, many agree with President George W. Bush when he said recently that ". I will tell you, though, that a firm like Blackwater provides a valuable service. They protect people's lives, and I appreciate the sacrifice and the service that the Blackwater employees have made."

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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