Blackwater Worldwide

Blackwater Logo

The private security firm Blackwater is attempting to reconstruct its image, re-branding themselves Blackwater Worldwide this October. The US State Department’s largest security contractor had its operating license revoked by the Iraqi government this September after its involvement in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians. Yet they continue to operate there and are expanding operations even further. I’ll leave it to Jeremy Scahill to fill you in on the details:

Blackwater Bu$ine$$ (from The Nation)

Gunning down seventeen Iraqi civilians in an incident the military has labeled “criminal.” Multiple Congressional investigations. A federal grand jury. Allegations of illegal arms smuggling. Wrongful death lawsuits brought by families of dead employees and US soldiers. A federal lawsuit alleging war crimes. Charges of steroid use by trigger-happy mercenaries. Allegations of “significant tax evasion.” The US-installed government in Iraq labeling its forces “murderers.” With a new scandal breaking practically every day, one would think Blackwater security would be on the ropes, facing a corporate meltdown or even a total wipeout. But it seems that business for the company has never been better, as it continues to pull in major federal contracts. And its public demeanor grows bolder and cockier by the day.

Rather than hiding out and hoping for the scandals to fade, the Bush Administration’s preferred mercenary company has launched a major rebranding campaign, changing its name to Blackwater Worldwide and softening its logo: once a bear paw in the site of a sniper scope, it’s now a bear claw wrapped in two half ovals–sort of like the outline of a globe with a United Nations feel. Its website boasts of a corporate vision “guided by integrity, innovation, and a desire for a safer world.” Blackwater mercenaries are now referred to as “global stabilization professionals.” Blackwater’s 38-year-old owner, Erik Prince, was No. 11 in Details magazine’s “Power 50,” the men “who control your viewing patterns, your buying habits, your anxieties, your lust…. the people who have taken over the space in your head.”

In one of the company’s most bizarre recent actions, on December 1 Blackwater paratroopers staged a dramatic aerial landing, complete with Blackwater flags and parachutes–not in Baghdad or Kabul but in San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium during the halftime show at the San Diego State/BYU football game. The location was interesting, given that Blackwater is fighting fierce local opposition to its attempt to open a new camp–Blackwater West–on 824 acres in the small rural community of Potrero, just outside San Diego. Blackwater’s parachute squad plans to land at the Armed Forces Bowl in Texas this month and the Virginia Gold Cup in May. The company recently sponsored a NASCAR racer, and it has teamed up with gun manufacturer Sig Sauer to create a Blackwater Special Edition full-sized 9-millimeter pistol with the company logo on the grip. It comes with a Limited Lifetime Warranty. For $18, parents can purchase infant onesies with the company logo.

In recent weeks, Blackwater has indicated it might quit Iraq. “We see the security market diminishing,” Prince told the Wall Street Journal in October. Yet on December 3 Blackwater posted job listings for “security specialists” and snipers as a result of its State Department diplomatic security “contract expansion.” While its name may be mud in the human rights world, Blackwater has not only made big money in Iraq (about $1 billion in State Department contracts); it has secured a reputation as a company that keeps US officials alive by any means necessary. The dirty open secret in Washington is that Blackwater has done its job in Iraq, even if it has done so by valuing the lives of Iraqis much lower than those of US VIPs. That badass image will serve it well as it expands globally.

Prince promises that Blackwater “is going to be more of a full spectrum” operation. Amid the cornucopia of scandals, Blackwater is bidding for a share of a five-year, $15 billion contract with the Pentagon to “fight terrorists with drug-trade ties.” Perhaps the firm will join the mercenary giant DynCorp in Colombia or Bolivia or be sent into Mexico on a “training” mission. This “war on drugs” contract would put Blackwater in the arena with the godfathers of the war business, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

In addition to its robust business in law enforcement, military and homeland security training, Blackwater is branching out. Here are some of its current projects and initiatives:

§ Blackwater affiliate Greystone Ltd., registered offshore in Barbados, is an old-fashioned mercenary operation offering “personnel from the best militaries throughout the world” for hire by governments and private organizations. It also boasts of a “multi-national peacekeeping program,” with forces “specializing in crowd control and less than lethal techniques and military personnel for the less stable areas of operation.”

§ Prince’s Total Intelligence Solutions, headed by three CIA veterans (among them Blackwater’s number two, Cofer Black), puts CIA-type services on the open market for hire by corporations or governments.

§ Blackwater is launching an armored vehicle called the Grizzly, which the company characterizes as the most versatile in history. Blackwater intends to modify it to be legal for use on US highways.

§ Blackwater’s aviation division has some forty aircraft, including turboprop planes that can be used for unorthodox landings. It has ordered a Super Tucano paramilitary plane from Brazil, which can be used in counterinsurgency operations. In August the aviation division won a $92 million contract with the Pentagon to operate flights in Central Asia.

§ It recently flight-tested the unmanned Polar 400 airship, which may be marketed to the Department of Homeland Security for use in monitoring the US-Mexico border and to “military, law enforcement, and non-government customers.”

§ A fast-growing maritime division has a new, 184-foot vessel that has been fitted for potential paramilitary use.

Meanwhile, Blackwater is deep in the camp of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Cofer Black is Romney’s senior adviser on counterterrorism. At the recent CNN/YouTube debate, when Romney refused to call waterboarding torture, he said, “I’m not going to specify the specific means of what is and what is not torture so that the people that we capture will know what things we’re able to do and what things we’re not able to do. And I get that advice from Cofer Black, who is a person who was responsible for counterterrorism in the CIA for some thirty-five years.” That was an exaggeration of Black’s career at the CIA (he was there twenty-eight years and head of counterterrorism for only three), but a Romney presidency could make Blackwater’s business under Bush look like a church bake sale.

In short, Blackwater is moving ahead at full steam. Individual scandals clearly aren’t enough to slow it down. The company’s critics in the Democratic-controlled Congress must confront the root of the problem: the government is in the midst of its most radical privatization in history, and companies like Blackwater are becoming ever more deeply embedded in the war apparatus. Until this system is brought down, the world’s the limit for Blackwater Worldwide–and as its rebranding campaign shows, Blackwater knows it.

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Bolivia: Bechtel and the fight for public water

Back in 1999, the private construction contractor Bechtel took over control of the public water system in Bolivia’s third largest city, Cochabamba. The corporation then held a monopoly over this very basic human necessity and proceeded to raise rates by as much as 200 percent, far beyond what families could afford. The law even said that people had to obtain a permit to collect rainwater! (that means even rainwater was privatized!)

This is a country where indigenous farming communities previously had their own water rights, but their water sources were converted into property to be bought and sold by international corporations. When the company refused to lower rates, the people began to rise up and revolt against this injustice; they confronted Bechtel during five months of mobilization and managed to defeat them, breach the contract and change the law.

A 17-year-old boy named Victor Hugo Daza was killed in the protests along with four indigenous people from El Alto, while hundreds were injured. It was this popular uprising in Cochabamba that led to the election of their new president Evo Morales, the first ever indigenous head of state in Bolivia.

So Bechtel was thrown out of Bolivia, but months later they moved to do the exact same thing in Ecuador‘s largest city of Guayaquil. And in November 2001, they filed a lawsuit against Bolivia demanding $50 million, an amount which is just short of what the corporation makes in a day. The case will be decided behind closed doors in a secret trade court at the World Bank headquarters in Washington; it will tell whether the people of South America’s poorest country will have to pay $50 million to one of the world’s most wealthy corporations.

Recent Update: In 2006, Bechtel dropped their case against Bolivia.

Iran: Another Old Friend

Many in the United States are not aware of their own government’s history. It’s not that we are stupid; it’s just that we are misinformed and misled. Selective events are highlighted in our history books while others are ignored.

So in upcoming entries, I will make an effort to highlight some of those lesser-known events, as they prove to be quite revealing. Let’s begin with a country that has been on the lips of our leaders in recent months: Iran.

Back in World War II, Britain occupied Iran to protect an oil supply route to its Soviet ally and to make sure the oil did not fall under Nazi control. They forced the ruling monarch, Reza Shah, to cede power to his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (referred to as ‘the Shah’), who was thought to be more susceptible to Western influence.

Britain retained control of Iran’s oil after the war through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which you might know better these days as British Petroleum (BP). However, in 1951, under the democratic leadership of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry.

Britain would have none of it. They responded by pulling their oil technicians out of the country, imposing a worldwide embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil, and banning the export of goods to Iran. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP) even took their case against Iran’s oil nationalization to the World Court, but the court found in favor of Iran controlling its own oil.

British intelligence officials continued to persuade the United States that they shared an interest in maintaining Western control over Iranian oil. In 1953, the newly-elected Eisenhower administration approved the proposal for a joint operation to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh, to be known by the code name Operation Ajax.

CIA director Allen Dulles approved $1 million to be used “in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh.” Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA (grandson of Teddy) traveled secretly to Iran to coordinate plans with the Shah and the Iranian military, and by the night of August 19, 1953, the coup was complete. The parliamentary government had been overthrown and the Shah was installed as ruler.

Two days after the coup, CIA officials funneled $5 million to help the shah consolidate his power. Mossadegh was imprisoned for three years and then put under house arrest; other government officials were rounded up and killed or imprisoned. The shah continued his rule as a friend of the United States, but a growing enemy of the Iranian people.

His brutal secret police force, SAVAK, managed by the CIA, was designed to control all aspects of political life in Iran. It suppressed opposition to the Shah’s government and kept the people’s political knowledge as minimal as possible. Its interrogation office used horrific torture tools and techniques to break dissenters while its censorship office prohibited books and monitored students, journalists, unions, and academics throughout the country.

In 1979, after 26 years of brutal rule and Western favoritism, the Iranian people erupted into a revolution that formed an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The US came to be known as “The Great Satan,” and relations between our countries have become extremely tense.

We tried to stage another military coup in the early 80s, without success. Then we proceeded to support another friendly dictator (Saddam Hussein) during Iraq’s invasion of Iran, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Since then, the US has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, which it continues to escalate today.

In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made an admission rare to high-level government officials: “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower Administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons; but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”

Clear Channel

Broadcasting companies used to be constrained from owning too many radio stations; companies could own only two in any one market and no more than 28 nationwide. After all, radio airwaves are public property and should therefore serve in the public interest.

However, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed all the rules of media consolidation. Pushed through legislation by a GOP-controlled congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton, this law destroyed nearly all ownership restrictions on radio. These days, just a handful of companies control radio broadcasts in America’s largest markets.

The leading radio conglomerate by far is Clear Channel, which now owns over 1,200 stations nationwide and generates more than $3 billion in annual revenue. They own stations in 247 of the America’s 250 largest radio markets. Not only are they the world’s largest radio broadcaster, they are also the world’s largest concert promoter and billboard advertising firm…you’ve probably noticed their logo beneath hundreds of advertisements.

The company promotes a processed style of radio in which stations throughout the country play a standard selection of focus-group-approved songs. When it comes to talk radio, conservative pundits dominate their arsenal: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Dr. Laura, Neil Boortz, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly have some of the top-rated radio programs.

They have also mastered the art of voice tracking, which creates short, computer-assisted voice segments which the listener is meant to think is being locally produced. Identical content is often broadcast on up to of 75 stations nationwide from a central site, which allows the company to cut down on payroll for in-house DJs.

After September 11, company executives circulated a list of blacklisted songs (including John Lennon’s Imagine, Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, and the Elton John’s Rocket Man). For a complete list of banned songs, check here. They have also blacklisted bands that express public dissent towards the war or the president (first the Dixie Chicks, now Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Neil Young).

Clear Channel has also become one of the first media companies to sponsor pro-war rallies in cities around the country before and during the invasion of Iraq. This does not represent the objective stance that a responsible media provider should maintain in a truly democratic society.

What is a Corporation?

So just what are these corporate beings tightening their grip on world power? And how do they operate?

A corporation is defined as a legal entity which has a separate legal personality from its members; it is legally awarded the rights of an individual: to sue, to own property, to sign contracts. However, unlike an individual, these entities also possess three important legal characteristics:

  • transferable shares – ownership may change without affecting legal status
  • limited liability – shareholders’ potential losses for the corporation’s debts and obligations may not exceed their personal contribution paid for shares
  • perpetual lifetime – the assets and structure of the corporation exist beyond the lifetime of any of its shareholders.

Please read those once more and consider their meaning.

These corporations are legally considered to be people, with all the rights of citizens but few of the moral restrictions; plus, with a perpetual lifetime, they can go on forever. Their only concern is to increase profits for the owners, which often has adverse effects on the environment and the community.

The history books are full of incidents of corporate greed and exploitation. Corporations hurt workers of the community with layoffs, outsourcing, union-busting, and sweatshops abroad. They harm consumers with dangerous products, toxic waste, pollution, and synthetic chemicals. They wrong animals with habitat destruction, factory farming, and animal testing. And they damage the earth with carbon dioxide emissions, oil spills, water pollution, and nuclear waste.

In a globalized world of interconnected foreign markets, governments are rendered powerless in setting restrictions on these behemoths. In the meantime, these profit-hungry corporations spend enormous amounts of money on lobbying Congress and financing political campaigns to ensure their financial interests are met. As a result, they are continually bailed out by the US taxpayer with government subsidies that limit their risk and ensure profitability. The mechanism is essentially to socialize risk and cost to the taxpayer, while power and profit is privatized to the corporation.

Media Cheerleaders

It is always best to look at things objectively and honestly in order to understand the true nature of things. Doing so will allow us to approach our problems with the proper mindset. But how do we view our own country? It is not as simple as looking in the mirror. Instead, the window through which the mass of society views their country is the media: television, radio, newspapers, etc.

In the United States, the media is made up of a group of large, multinational, conglomerate corporations, including AOL Time Warner (CNN), CBS/Viacom, Disney (ABC), News Corp.(FOX), and General Electric (NBC). Together, just a handful of corporations own over 90% of US media outlets: television, newspapers, book publishers, magazines, radio, music, and film…nearly everything you see, hear, or read is a product of these corporations.

They function with the sole purpose of any other corporation: to maximize profits for the shareholder. Take it from former Disney CEO Michael Eisner: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

Wealthy business elites sit on the boards of these corporations, each with financial interests and business contacts in other corporations. For instance, GE and Westinghouse are enormous companies heavily involved in weapons manufacturing and nuclear power; they are owned by the same people as network TV stations NBC and CBS (respectively). There is a severe conflict of interest when the companies you trust for information are the exact same companies that are being awarded millions of dollars in contracts for manufacturing bombs and fighter jets to fight battles abroad.

For a real democracy to function properly, it is absolutely essential that its citizens are well-informed and that its leaders are ruthlessly held to account; in this respect, our media has failed. Most of the mass media serves as a diversion from issues that truly matter. Think of the last news program you happened to see; consider the time devoted to local stories, professional sports, or celebrity gossip.

Topics that fill the news hour are often trivial, blurring information and entertainment in order to boost ratings. The reporting on real issues is often a repetition of government press releases with little independent investigation. To ensure access to top-level government officials, journalists are pressured to accommodate the administration by reporting favorably and not asking tough questions.

Judith Miller’s front page articles in the New York Times relayed misinformation from government sources, and played a critical role in the lead-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq. She claimed: “My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” Funny, I thought the specific function of a journalist was to independently assess information, question their sources and evaluate material before reporting it.

Her critical journalistic mistakes have since led to the selling of a war that has already resulted in nearly 4,000 American deaths (more than occurred on 9-11) plus 30,000 wounded, a cost of over half a trillion dollars to US taxpayers, the deaths of approximately one million Iraqis, and the departure of another two million Iraqis.

On one end US taxpayers have financed the cost of the military invasion and occupation, but on the other we are also funding government contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq, awarded to private corporations with ties to the administration and the media.

So keep in mind that the bulk of information you see, hear, or read in our country has been processed through the filter of a corporate media. Do you think we can trust the benefactors of war to provide us with objective information?

Richard Nixon had it right when he wrote: “Short of changing human nature, therefore, the only way to achieve a practical, livable peace in a world of competing nations is to take the profit out of war.”

The Power of Money

We have seen that our political choices in this country are quite limited, but how did this occur? What are the forces that prevent the United States of America from becoming the model of democracy it claims to be?

The founders of our nation laid out a structure of government designed to preserve the power of wealthy landowners. As James Madison said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the new government must “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Control of political power in the new system was to be maintained by the “wealth of the nation,” for they understood the risk in losing their wealth for the benefit of society.

In the early years, only these white, wealthy landowners could elect their representative government. Over the next two centuries, the masses began to organize and exercise their Constitutional rights. Women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, and trade unions all struggled to increase the rights of the individual; they ended slavery and segregation, established minimum wage and the eight hour work day, and gave the majority of the population their first chance to vote. Despite these popular stuggles’ advance towards democracy, the wealthy classes remain in control of political power in our country.

The aristocrats of yesterday (those wealthy landowners) have been replaced by more powerful entities, known commonly as ‘corporations’. While they possess the legal rights of an individual person, corporations cannot be prosecuted as such and are only partially liable for debts. Their reach of power extends far beyond our borders, to the international markets of a globalized world, yet there is no set of international laws to keep them in check.

They use their influence to convince foreign politicians to privatize their country’s resources, auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder at the expense of the local community: public water in Bolivia, bananas in Guatemala, oil in Nigeria or Burma, just about everything in Indonesia, etc. Not only do these mega-corporations have a strong hold on world power, they have a stranglehold on US politicians and control our entire ‘democratic’ election process.

We have seen that our election choices are usually limited to two wealthy, business elites. The structure of this bipartisan system reinforces a sense of defeatism among the American people, making them feel as if their vote makes no difference or that they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. In fact, we have one of the lower voter turnouts in the world; only 50% of eligible voters make it to the polls, compared with some other countries where voting is compulsory.

In reality, the system of government in the United States is what is called a polyarchy, in which mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections managed by competing elites of the business or corporate sector. This sector is in control of nearly all power and money in our country: banks, investment firms, oil companies, insurance providers, pharmaceutical companies, the technology industry, advertising, and let’s not forget, the corporate media.

We are told of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” but is it the will of the people guiding this great country to a better future? For now it may the almighty dollar that has the grip of power in our country, but we citizens cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while our quality of life is being deteriorated.

As the Declaration of Indepedence reveals, when our government becomes destructive to the will of the people, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.” Our politicians and their corporate companions do not control the people; we control them, and we have an obligation to stand up and speak out when our government fails us. The crucial time has arrived for each one of us to pay close attention, get organized, and exercise our rights if we care to to see a better world for our children.