Local peace activists opposing a new Illinois base for military contractor Blackwater applauded this week’s decision by the University of Illinois to sever its ties with the controversial company.
The “exchange of services” agreement was inappropriate on its own merits, aside from the possible conflict of interest – with the director of the university’s police institute working as a contractor for Blackwater – that led to the agreement’s cancellation, said Dan Kenney of the Clearwater Project.
The university’s police institute is “a public institution training public servants,” Kenney said. “Especially with a company like Blackwater, with its history of disregard for any kind of oversight, its complete lack of any transparency – any company that’s not willing to be transparent shouldn’t be involved in training public servants.”
The Clearwater Project unites local peace and justice groups across northern Illinois – like the DeKalb Interfaith Network for Peace and Justice, to which Kenney belongs, and umbrella coalitions for Fox Valley, Sauk Valley, and the western suburbs. Earlier this month they protested at Blackwater’s new facility in Mount Carroll, Illinois, which opened in April (video here).
Clearwater calls for “shut[ting] Blackwater down in Illinois and the U.S.”
Kenney disputed published statements by company spokespersons implying that the facility is solely for police training; he expects it to train military personnel and private mercenaries, as the company’s North Carolina base does.
Kenney visited Blackwater North in April to ask about courses. “I told them I’m a teacher, I have no law enforcement experience,” he said. “They showed me a whole range of courses I could take. I said I don’t own a submachine gun. They said I could rent one.”
The facility’s website shows six “open enrollment” courses in various types of weapons, and four “law enforcement and military” courses, covering survival and sniping. It lists eleven shooting ranges, including a “combat town range,” as well as a “climbing/rapelling/shooting tower.”
Prospered with privatization
Founded in 1997, Blackwater has prospered in the war in Iraq, waged under the political leadership of long-time proponents of military privatization. According to Jeremy Scahill, author of a book about Blackwater, speaking in Mount Carroll this spring (video here), the proportion of U.S. military personnel to private contractors in the first Gulf War was 60 to 1; in the current conflict, it’s close to 1-to-1, with 130,000 private personnel providing security and support services traditionally conducted by the military.
Blackwater gained prominence when its personnel replaced U.S. Marines in protecting State Department staff; later the grisly murder of four Blackwater operatives in Falluja opened a new chapter in the war.
The families of the Blackwater employees killed in Falluja have sued the company for wrongful death, charging Blackwater with attempting to save money by sending them on a mission with inadequate staffing and weapons and unarmored vehicles. Blackwater has argued that subjecting its management to legal challenge would undermine the military effort. In February the Supreme Court rejected a Blackwater motion and sent the trial to state court.
After two years of congressional investigations into the matter were stymied, it was revealed in February that Blackwater was in Falluja providing security for a Kuwaiti subcontractor for military supercontractor KBR; Blackwater billed the subcontractor $2.3 million for its services, and KBR billed the military $19.6 million to cover the bill – a $17 million markup.
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, House oversight committee chair, says the cost of private security contrators is “significantly higher” than direct costs would be for the military.
Obama, Schakowsky Demand Accountability
In February, Senator Barack Obama introduced legislation to address issues of lack of accountability for military contractors like Blackwater, aimed at “bringing contractors under the rule of law.” Such contractors are “operating with unclear lines of authority, out-of-control costs and virtually no oversight by Congress,” he told Scahill, writing for the Nation. “This black hole of accountability increases the danger to our troops and American civilians serving as contractors.”
Also in February, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky introduced legislation requiring broad disclosure of the role of contractors, including their casualties and criminal cases and disciplinary actions they face – information she has sought without success.
“For too long, the Bush Administration has relied on guns-for-hire to carry out inherently governmental functions,” said Schakowsky. “Contractors have operated under a veil of secrecy, without a public debate about the nature and scope of their operations.”