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Blackwater’s San Diego facility demands attention

Democratic Voices

Posted: July 2, 2008 5:06 p.m.
Updated: September 1, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Blackwater Worldwide, one of the largest private military contractors in the world has opened a base of operations in southern California under questionable circumstances.

This move makes many residents uncomfortable because of the company's highly controversial track record.

In addition to its role in the "global war on terror," Blackwater is also involved with the war on drugs and recently opened its own private CIA, called "Total Intelligence Solutions," marketing "CIA-type services" to Fortune 500 companies.

And now, with its operations in San Diego, Blackwater is attempting to position itself to cash in on the increasingly privatized border-patrol industry, according to Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist and author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army." Scahill‘s book is so well written and thoroughly documented that it has been used by Congress as a source document for congressional investigations into alleged criminal activities by the company while operating in Iraq.

With no public hearings, as the company skirted local city council approval, Blackwater Worldwide recently obtained a permit to operate a military training center in Otay Mesa, San Diego - very close to the Mexican border.

The company obtained this permit after failing to open a facility in Portero in east San Diego county. In the Portero case, the tiny southern California community caught wind of the project and mounted a successful David versus Goliath struggle which attracted worldwide attention.

Otay Mesa residents are hoping for a similar success story - however the battle against Blackwater will be fierce, as evidenced by a recent setback.

In a ruling this month, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff (a federal judge, appointed by President Bush's father), rejected legal arguments for more public hearings, saying the facility is entitled to continue operating with its existing permits. She granted an injunction to Blackwater Worldwide, allowing the facility to open for operations on June 5. Last week, Huff upheld her decision.

This latest fight staged by grassroots activists has just begun as Otay Mesa's local officials and community residents will appeal the Huff decision, saying the ruling raises fundamental issues of discretion and the right of the city council to make land-use decisions. Stay tuned.

But Blackwater's domestic controversy does not end there.

Several days ago Federal agents raided a Blackwater armory in Moyock, N.C., and seized 22 automatic weapons, including 17 AK-47s and 5 Bushmaster XM15 E2S automatic rifles.

Blackwater claims that these weapons are owned by the local Camden sheriff's office. It is illegal under federal law (with few minor exceptions) for anyone but government agencies, military or law enforcement to acquire and possess automatic weapons.

The raid is beginning to attract national attention for several reasons, including the fact that Camden County, with a population of 9,721, has experienced very little violent crime of any type, according to the Charlotte News-Observer. Many are asking who really owned these weapons and where was the need for a sheriff's office in a sleepy town like Camden to purchase automatic weapons. Stay tuned.

There has never been a public debate on the issue of the privatization of the Iraq conflict, the war on drugs, the border-patrol industry, or the prison facilities system. However, many private domestic and international corporations, including Blackwater, are landing lucrative U.S. government contracts in these areas.

Note: Privatization may creep into international peacekeeping efforts, too. It was recently disclosed in the Financial Times that Mia Farrow, the actress and activist, has asked Blackwater for help to stop the genocide taking place in Darfur.

Contracts with many of these private corporations are being "quietly" renewed with limited congressional or public oversight or input. For example, a U.S. military investigation recently labeled the Blackwater employees' gunning down of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square a "criminal event," and a federal grand jury in Washington is presently hearing evidence in the case. However, this fact did not stop the Bush administration from renewing Blackwater's Iraq contract for another year.

How did Blackwater employees in Iraq acquire this Teflon coating which shields them from prosecution? The credit for this belongs to Donald Rumsfeld. Just before he resigned from his post as U.S Secretary of Defense, he classified private contractors as an official part of the U.S. war machine. As a result, Blackwater has publicly declared that its forces are "above the law." Blackwater has resisted attempts to subject its private soldiers to the Pentagon's Uniform Code of Military Justice - insisting they are civilians - while simultaneously claiming immunity from civilian litigation in the U.S., saying its forces are part of the U.S. Total Force.

According to court records, between 2005 and September 2007, Blackwater security staff were involved in 195 shooting incidents; in more than 80% of those cases, Blackwater personnel fired first. 25 staff members have been fired for violations of Blackwater's drug and alcohol policy and 28 have been fired for weapons-related incidents.

In addition, in 2004, four Blackwater employees were killed in Fallujah, and their decapitated bodies were hung on a bridge on the Euphrates River.

Blackwater refused to share with the families the circumstances of their sons' deaths, telling them they'd need to sue to find out. The families did sue, and Blackwater's response was to countersue a whole set of families for $10 million.

San Diego activists are facing a difficult battle since Blackwater has some very politically powerful friends in California. The Department of Homeland Security hired a man named Chris Bertelli in November of 2005 to work in emergency preparedness in the Department of Homeland Security in California. (Note: Bertelli no longer works in this capacity). According to Scahill, Bertelli was one of the lobbyists for Blackwater who took the lead on trying to block the Pentagon or Congress from applying the Military Code of Justice (the court-martial system) to Blackwater and other contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In interviews conducted since his book was published, Scahill raises concerns about the "revolving door when you have Bertelli going from being a lobbyist with Blackwater to being in the Department of Homeland Security, and all of a sudden, Blackwater is talking about an expansion into California and talking about responding to earthquakes and other natural disasters in California."

Scahill summarized the major concerns of Blackwater opponents with the following statement: "Should our nation enter a period of instability following another terrorist attack on American soil, an economic collapse, or a series of environmental disasters (California wildfires, Katrina floods etc...), the tyranny that groups such as Blackwater impose on others (Iraqis for example) could become the tyranny they impose on us. The rise of this unchecked mercenary force ... could presage the final stage in the collapse of American democracy."

Cal Planakis is an independent civic journalist who lives in Santa Clarita. She is a member of the Democratic Alliance for Action of Santa Clarita. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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