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Contractor Claims Same Rights As Army Print
By TED ROELOFS - 2007 Newhouse News Service

MOYOCK, N.C. — Just down the road from a sign that warns of gunfire and low-flying planes, James Sanderlin talked about life near Blackwater USA.

"I hear the gunfire. Sometimes, I hear small planes and helicopters,'' said Sanderlin, 73, who was born and raised in this sparsely settled region of North Carolina.
He moved back nine years ago, just as Blackwater and its founder, Erik Prince, were staking their claim to a new world market.

Business has been very good.

The daily rumble of trucks past Sanderlin's house has displaced the country quiet. The trucks ferry in hundreds of tons of fill dirt as Blackwater expands to meet the demands of a troubled world.

On 7,000 acres of reclaimed swampland near the Virginia border, the security firm has dozens of gun ranges, an urban training compound and a mock high school inspired by Columbine.

Work abroad is even more lucrative: The company has sent thousands of armed contractors to Iraq and Afghanistan and reaped more than $800 million in federal contracts in the past five years.

Like many who live here, Sanderlin has no real complaints about Blackwater.

"We do need jobs, really,'' he said.

But Sanderlin would like to know more about Blackwater and its reclusive founder.

"They are very secretive. They keep a low profile,'' he said.

* * *

Prince, the son of Holland industrialist Edgar Prince, presides over what is arguably the world's largest private army. He and other Blackwater officials refused several requests to be interviewed.

Blackwater has sent thousands of armed contractors to places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and even New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The firm received a $21 million no-bid contract to guard L. Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, in Iraq.

Advocates say Blackwater and other security firms have a logical place in a modern, efficient military. Blackwater, the thinking goes, can execute tough and dangerous missions, often more nimbly than the military.

Critics warn of a slippery slope toward unchecked mercenary warfare.

Among those asking questions is U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who says it is one thing to pay a contractor to do laundry or serve pizza to the troops. It's another to send heavily armed men at $600 a day into a war zone with no clear rules of engagement.

"We have had virtually no oversight over the role of the private military or security contractors,'' said Schakowsky, who has introduced a bill requiring greater oversight and accountability for private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We know virtually nothing about them, who they hire, how much it has cost and how many have died. This should be public information for people to see. These are all taxpayer dollars,'' she said.

Former Defense Secretary William Cohen is concerned the disparity in pay for private contractors and that of soldiers could stir discord among troops.

"It can be quite harmful to our military when those who are serving look across the street and they can see former (troops) making four or five times more than they are. That can be deleterious.''

Cohen, a Republican who represented Maine in the Senate before heading the Defense Department during the Clinton administration, called the role of security contractors "very unclear and murky.''

At least 30 Blackwater contractors have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to media reports and an online database of contractor deaths. An Associated Press analysis found 800 civilians working under contract to the Pentagon have been killed and more than 3,300 hurt doing jobs that had been handled by the military in past wars.

Blackwater also faces a pair of lawsuits that could define the responsibility of contractors in a war zone.

The first grew from an ambush that made headlines around the world, when four Blackwater contractors were killed and mutilated in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. The families sued, alleging the firm sent these men into a virtual death trap without adequate protection.

* * *

Florida resident Katy Helvenston-Wettengel, 60, lost her son, Scott, in that ambush.

"Who do I blame? I blame Blackwater. They put him in that situation, knowing they were in harm's way,'' Helvenston-Wettengel said.

Eight months later, a Blackwater plane carrying three U.S. soldiers crashed into an Afghan mountain on a day of "unrestricted visibility,'' according to a weather report at takeoff. All six occupants died in the Nov. 27, 2004, crash.

The families of the soldiers sued, alleging Blackwater sent those men to their deaths in a poorly equipped and badly piloted plane.

A federal crash investigation faulted Blackwater subsidiary Presidential Airways and its contractor pilots for numerous safety failures and errors in judgment, including the pilots' decisions to fly into an unfamiliar valley and to fly without oxygen above 10,000 feet.

* * *

Blackwater is fighting these suits. Late last year, it hired former Whitewater special counsel Kenneth Starr to lead the appeal of the Fallujah case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Blackwater also countersued the firm that brought the Fallujah lawsuit, asking for $10 million in damages.

Blackwater's primary defense is that it is a virtual arm of the military and, as such, should enjoy the same immunity as the armed forces.

The outcome of those cases could dictate just how far Prince can take his dream for Blackwater.

Despite the controversy, many experts believe firms such as Blackwater are here to stay.

"They are hugely significant,'' said Deborah Avant, professor of political science at George Washington University and director of the Institute for Global and International Studies. She is the author of two books on the changing military and the role of private security firms.

"People in the Army have been saying for about 10 years that they could not go to war without contractors. It's more apparent in Iraq than in any conflict up to this time,'' Avant said.

* * *

A 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office estimated there were 180 private security companies in Iraq with more than 48,000 employees. The Pentagon puts the number of contractors of all types at 100,000. The ratio of contractors to troops in the Persian Gulf War was 1 1/2 to 60. In Iraq, according to GAO, it's one to three.

Avant said it is readily apparent why a strained military relies on these contractors.

"They can move quickly into an area. They have the ability to provide these specialized skill sets,'' she said. "One of the pluses they often tout is that it's politically easier.''

Another expert said the military had virtually no choice in Iraq, given troop levels going in and deteriorating ground conditions.

"Whether we like it or not, or whether the public understands it or not, the U.S. military is not currently staffed to perform the broad range of missions that the administration expects it to perform,'' said Steven Schooner, an Army Reserve officer and professor at the George Washington University Law School.

"When all is said and done, you can't fight without them.''

* * *

Several months into the invasion of Iraq, it was clear much of the territory outside Baghdad's bunkered Green Zone could be lethal.

And with troops tied down fighting a growing insurgency, the military turned to firms such as Blackwater. Its 2003 contract to guard Bremer was an important foot in the door. Many more would follow, as the company sent hundreds of heavily armed security contractors inside Iraq and Afghanistan.

As with contractors such as Halliburton or subsidiary KBR, much of this work was done without bids and is not available for public view or congressional oversight. By 2004, Blackwater had a contract to guard food supply convoys in Anbar province, a growing center of the insurgency.

The contract was part of a huge military support operation run by KBR, in which Blackwater was hired by ESS Support Services Worldwide through a hotel company. The paper trail was so confusing lawmakers were repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to confirm it.

* * *

Four Blackwater contractors in two SUVs were given the assignment of escorting trucks to pick up kitchen equipment near Fallujah, which already was simmering with violence in the spring of 2004.

On March 31, Scott Helvenston, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, and three ex-Army Rangers — Wesley Batalona of Hawaii, Mike Teague of Tennessee, and Jerry Zovko of Cleveland — headed for Fallujah.

As the convoy entered the city, it slowed for traffic. The Blackwater vehicles came under attack by insurgents who, local residents said, were waiting to assault any foreigners who might venture by.

A Time magazine account said three Blackwater employees were killed in the first moments while a fourth was badly wounded and beaten to death.

The vehicles were burned by a mob, and the bodies burned and mutilated. Two of the bodies were dragged by car two miles through the streets of Fallujah and hung from an iron bridge over the Euphrates River.

* * *

In their suit against Blackwater, the families contend contractors were denied armored vehicles, heavy weapons and a third contractor they said each vehicle should have had. The suit contends that, a week before the deaths, Blackwater fired a project manager who insisted the contractors use armored vehicles. Eliminating the armored vehicles saved Blackwater $1.5 million.

Prince has not spoken publicly about Fallujah.

In court papers, Blackwater argues it cannot be held liable because it has become an irreplaceable part of the military and, as such, cannot be sued.

The Supreme Court has thus far stayed out. Chief Justice John Roberts on Oct. 24 denied Blackwater's request to put the case on hold while it prepares further appeals. In February, the full Supreme Court declined a second appeal to take up the case.

How the lawsuits are resolved could have a sweeping effect on the future role of private contractors.

"It is an important and significant issue, whichever way it comes out,'' said George Washington University Law School's Schooner.

Florida resident Helvenston-Wettengel said money is the last thing she wants from her lawsuit against Blackwater over the Fallujah incident.

She wants answers.
 
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