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Authors: Robert Young Pelton

Licensed to Kill

BOOK: Licensed to Kill
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To the unheralded heroes of the War on Terror, the contractors who have sacrificed their lives in service to their client


I am a U.S. contractor. I look out for myself, the operators to my left and right, and no one else.

I will always take advantage of the fact that I can finally tell military officers to pound sand, and will do so at every opportunity.

I am my country's scapegoat, the “plausible deniability” warrior, and I love it.

Less than $700 dollars a day is unacceptable.

I am trained to eat things that would make a billy goat puke, but will refuse anything less than 60 dollars per diem because I am greedy.

I care not for ribbons and awards for valor.

I do this job for the opportunity to kill the enemies of my country, and to finally get that boat I've always wanted.

I will be in better shape than 99% of the active duty personnel, although this is not hard.

I will equip myself with the latest high speed gear, and will trick out my M4 until it weighs more than 24 lbs, not because it works better, but because it looks cool in the photographs.

I will carry more weapons, ammunition, and implements of death on my person than an infantry fire team, and when engaged I will lay waste to everything around me.

In any combat zone, I will always locate the swimming pool, beer, and women, because I can.

I will deploy on my terms, and if it ever gets too stupid,

I will simply find another company that pays me more.



A handsome, blond, youthful-looking man bounds into the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia. He is thirty-six-year-old Erik Prince, former Navy SEAL, sole owner of Blackwater USA, heir to the Prince family fortune, and perhaps the most controversial proponent of the privatization of security. Though Blackwater's headquarters are located on a seven-thousand-acre training facility in Moyock, North Carolina, it's convenient for Prince to maintain an office in Tysons Corner, since both the Pentagon and CIA are within easy driving distance.

The media has portrayed Erik as shadowy and elusive. He is not, but he has earned the reputation because he's declined numerous interview requests. With major lawsuits having been brought against Blackwater by families of deceased employees, there's a legal need to stay low profile. Yet, Erik's agreed to go on record with me. I can only speculate that my having spent a month running the deadly Baghdad Airport road with Blackwater's security teams, and my occasional encounters with Prince at closed social events, have convinced him of my sincere desire to understand what his world is all about.

In my decades of traversing war-torn regions, I've broken bread with a number of wealthy owners of private armies, but Erik is the first I've gotten to know in the posh setting of an upscale American hotel lounge. Sitting across from him, observing his energetic, optimistic demeanor, I conclude that not a single person in the crowded room would guess Prince's true profession. He interrupts his ever-vibrating cell phone only once, to take a call from “the boss”—his wife.

Erik has plenty of reasons for optimism, because in the past five years, his security start-up has grown from “shooting range and target manufacturer” to one of the world's most successful providers of security training and armed men. Blackwater's operations extend from New Orleans to Afghanistan and from Azerbaijan to Iraq. As of early 2006, Prince had eight hundred men on the ground in Iraq, three hundred in New Orleans, two hundred in Afghanistan, and hundreds more flying planes, running personal security details, guarding facilities, and training soldiers around the world. Erik is especially enthusiastic about his new Blackwater Academy, which will recruit, hire, and deploy the thousand-man army he's touting as his company's “next step.” The grueling eight-week program won't charge eager recruits who fail the course and will subsidize successful graduates by guaranteeing them a job with Blackwater. As of fall 2006, Blackwater is on track to train thirty-five thousand men over the next twelve months and has more than eighteen hundred people deployed in seven countries. Prince likes to think of Blackwater's relationship to the traditional military as something akin to FedEx's relationship to the U.S. Post Office—an efficient, privatized solution to sclerotic and wasteful government bureaucracy.

Amid the post-9/11 private security industry explosion, Prince has made the most of his business acumen. He doesn't cite as his hero a famous soldier, mercenary, or privateer, but rather a businessman: Alfred Sloan, the man who originally built GM into one of the world's largest and most profitable corporations. The Prince family empire started small—with Eric's father's company inventing the lighted vanity mirror on sun visors—and ballooned as the patriarch expanded into other endeavors. Erik is obviously a product of his upbringing: “My family's business was automotive supply—the most viciously competitive business in the world. My father was focused on quality, volume, and customer satisfaction. That's what we talked about around the dinner table.” By emphasizing these same values, Erik believes he can deliver a lighter, faster, smarter army, without the ponderous support infrastructure required by the conventional military.

As a result of the major push toward privatization of support services that began in the 1990s, the U.S. government has learned that employing the private sector to solve problems can be more cost-effective than building giant bureaucratic solutions. And, indeed, Erik often finds enthusiastic audiences at the CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon for his fixed-cost, solution-oriented presentations. At the same time, he's aware of the sometimes tepid public support for what can be viewed as an army of “mercenaries” solving the world's woes. Admittedly hawkish, family-values-stressing, and from a redder-than-red Republican background, Prince understands that not everyone shares his views. He recognizes that when it comes to Joe Everyman, he has some convincing to do.

Erik has a pitch prepared to combat the “mercenary” label and the frequently negative perceptions that spin off from it. He starts by reminding me that the American Revolution would have failed without private militias raised by wealthy landowners. Prince views Blackwater's role in international affairs as akin to that of Baron von Steuben, Kósciuszko, Rochambeau, and Lafayette—soldiers-of-fortune who helped the American irregulars fight the well-trained and -armed British Army. He also likes to point out that “contractors” hired by the U.S. military go back to the WWII-era Flying Tigers—a group of secretly funded Americans who flew under Claire Lee Chennault's corporation CAMCO. The Tigers shot down Japanese planes and targeted infrastructure for three times what regular aviators made, plus a bonus for every downed plane.

The examples Prince cites go far beyond the functions private security contractors have so far served in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and indicate the direction of Prince's ambition. “Security” traditionally means trained men guarding other people, places, or things, but Prince wants to offer more. As his next expansion step, Erik wants to augment the current UN (United Nations) peacekeeping arrangements with his own private military force. The UN, he says, is an organization that spends 70 percent of its $10-billion budget on peacekeeping missions—a task that has doubled over the last ten years. According to him, the peacekeeping arm of the UN is a broken, corrupt organization, “a racket used to fund undisciplined, poorly trained and equipped Third World armies.”

Prince has even hired Ambassador Cofer Black, formerly of the CIA and State Department, to tout the newest iteration of Blackwater's private army at rubber-chicken dinners for foreign representatives. In March 2006, Black told his audience at the Special Forces Operations Exhibition in Amman, Jordan, that his company could supply a brigade-sized force quickly and relatively cheaply. “The issue is who's going to let us play on their team,” he said, later clarifying that: “We would get the approval of the U.S. government for anything we did for our friends overseas.”

Erik has the capability to launch his own brigade of private soldiers, or what he likes to call “Relief with Teeth”—a seventeen-hundred-man privately trained and equipped army that would field its own air force of helicopters and cargo craft. Those with the money could also rent “fire support,” complete with a private gunship, intelligence gathering, aerial surveillance, armed helicopters, armored vehicles, remote-controlled blimps, and fast-attack aircraft with JDAMs (joint direct attack munition) or cluster bombs. There would be a construction, medical, supply, and combat group adhering to a ratio of about one Western professionally trained officer to ten TCNs, or third-country nationals—essentially, foreign grunts. Erik stipulates that his clients must be American allies and that Blackwater takes all the high-tech toys home when the contract ends. While Erik has developed this capability, he won't discuss whether he's found purchasers for his newest line of services.

In describing the model he'd use to organize his private force, Erik cites the classic command structure of past mercenary operations like the South African company Executive Outcomes (EO). Erik praises EO for mounting an effective intervention that ended bloody conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola. He doesn't mention that EO was not only banned by South African legislation, but also carries a stigma for the perception it was used by its owners and patrons as a tool to capture lucrative natural resources.

There is a vast difference in the moral and legal implications of Executive Outcomes's activities when compared to Blackwater's ambitions, though the two entities are located on the same private military continuum.

Most simply stated, mercenaries are soldiers-for-hire—and private military (or security) contractors are security-guards-for-hire. Mercenaries can be paid to overthrow heads of state, whereas security contractors have protected heads of state, diplomats, Saudi princes, military bases, shipping lanes targeted by piracy, petroleum operations, diamond and other mineral mines, NGO (nongovernmental organization) programs, and post-Katrina New Orleans. However, by far the largest market for security services (and the crucible for events that have essentially created the industry) is post-invasion Iraq. There, attempts to carry on reconstruction while bullets are flying have been largely dependent on the level of security that can be maintained. Security contractors have protected L. Paul Bremer and John Negroponte, CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) installations, commercial or government reconstruction projects, and oil pipelines. Contractor-protected security convoys have become ubiquitous as diplomats, business leaders, journalists (and the material that sustains them) are shuttled from place to place. Even a run to pick up kitchen equipment can inspire a firefight—as was the case when four Blackwater contractors were very publicly and brutally killed, desecrated, and hung from a Fallujah bridge in March 2004. That incident thrust the role of the private military contractor into the media spotlight, sparking a debate about the role of civilians in a war zone and the difference between security contractors and mercenaries.

while security contractors
firing back only if they or what they're guarding comes under attack, and only until they can make a safe retreat—at least, that's been the dividing line that's supposed to exist. But as entrepreneurs like Erik Prince push to open new markets for their security products, there will almost certainly be a blurring of that already less-than-distinct line. In fact, some critics argue that the line never existed.

I've spent much of my adult life following the activities of mercenaries and soldiers-for-hire. In 1975, I taped three Michelin road maps of Africa to the wall of my apartment and charted the progress of Colonel Callan and his ill-fated band of mercenaries across Angola. In the late 1990s, I met my first professional mercenary turned security contractor, Cobuss Claassens, who'd formerly been employed by Executive Outcomes. What I learned from Cobuss was that the difference between mercenaries and contractors depends on the person, not the job. The ultimate moral leash on these people is how they view themselves, not how the world views them. When I met my first security contractor, who was working on a CIA-paid covert hunt for bin Laden in the border region of Afghanistan, I recognized we could be on the cusp of a dramatic shift in the practice of modern warfare, or perhaps a return to a bygone era of privateers and bounty hunters.

Driven by a desire to understand this new phenomenon, I decided to traverse this closed world, from its most sordid end to its most respectable. What follows is a description of that journey. It is not intended to be entirely comprehensive—that is, an academic treatise on the complete range of issues raised by this newest development in warfare. For example, I have no interest in investigating the manipulation of the bidding process; the news media seems to be doing an adequate job exposing such abuses. However, I learned so much in my travels—about the men who choose this kind of career, the type of work they must do, the watershed events in their history, the big-picture problems the rapid growth of the industry has engendered, and what this might portend for the future—that it seemed imperative to share my newly acquired insight. In what follows, I try not to tell the reader what to think. Rather, I invite him or her to travel with me and experience a wide array of characters and scenarios. My only agenda is to guide readers to a new understanding of how in the future these individuals and corporations could be harnessed as a force for good or evil.

BOOK: Licensed to Kill
7.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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