Dispatches on wars, the military-industrial complex and national security.
The Senate Armed Services Committee announced that it will receive a closed-door briefing from Gen. Stanley McChrystal Thursday "on operations in Afghanistan." Will the senators ask McChrystal about the allegations that after Special Operations Forces killed five Afghan civilians they tried to cover up the deaths and blame it on the Taliban? Remember that's the one where JSOC Commander, Vice. Admiral William McRaven, gave the family of the dead Afghans two sheep as a condolence offering. Or about the International Committee of the Red Cross's confirmation today that there is a secret "black" facility hidden at the publicly-known prison at Bagram? (NOTE: The BBC has been reporting extensively on allegations of abuse of nine prisoners at Tor Jail ("Black Jail"). Jeff Kaye has a good summary at FireDogLake and raises interesting points about potential involvement of SERE psychologists in the alleged abuse.)
McChrystal's closed-door brief comes as the Mayor of Kabul, Hamid Karzai, gets the BFF welcome in Washington DC where he is on tour for the week. As ABC News' Kirit Radia reports:
"Ambassador Eikenberry accompanied [Karzai] on a US Air Force flight to the US and Ambassador Holbrooke went to Andrews Air Force Base to welcome him in person. Last night Karzai dined with Clinton and tonight he’ll have dinner with Biden, but not before Clinton fetes him one last time with a reception in his honor at the State Department. Tomorrow, Karzai will meet all day at the White House and hold a joint press conference with President Obama. On Thursday, Karzai and Clinton will hold a moderated public discussion at the United States Institute of Peace."
Rumors are flying, particularly in the right wing blogosphere, that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been taken into custody. That's primarily because Andrew Breitbart is promoting an "exclusive" story on both his BigGovernment and BigJournalism websites by novelist Brad Thor, which proclaims: "Mullah Omar Captured!"
"Through key intelligence sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I have just learned that reclusive Taliban leader and top Osama bin Laden ally, Mullah Omar has been taken into custody," Thor wrote:
"At the end of March, US Military Intelligence was informed by US operatives working in the Af/Pak theater on behalf of the D.O.D. that Omar had been detained by Pakistani authorities. One would assume that this would be passed up the chain and that the Secretary of Defense would have been alerted immediately. From what I am hearing, that may not have been the case.
"When this explosive information was quietly confirmed to United States Intelligence ten days ago by Pakistani authorities, it appeared to take the Defense Department by surprise. No one, though, is going to be more surprised than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It seems even with confirmation from the Pakistanis themselves, she was never brought up to speed."
There are all sorts of reasons to be skeptical of Thor's story, not the least of which is the source. It is a bit hard to believe that such a major development would have been leaked to a right-wing novelist with a name out of a Nordic porno, who is a regular contributor to Glenn Beck's show, for publication on Andrew Breitbart's web sites. You would think that it would leak to some establishment media the way the approval of the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki was to The New York Times and the Washington Post.
This is not the first time in recent months rumors of Omar's capture have surfaced (see here). I wouldn't even be bothering to look into this now if I had not heard some parallel buzz about these rumors from military sources I actually trust. No one is confirming anything at all, but I am told there are some pretty unenthusiastic denials making their way through the special forces world. Hence, this post.
As for Thor, he has spent time with US special forces in Afghanistan--he claims they were a "black-ops team"-- and may very well keep up some relationships with those men. You can see a picture of an armed and bearded Thor playing special forces operative here. This would be the only way Thor has this story remotely right: If, by chance, he happens to know people on the ground who are in a very small, compartmentalized loop on this.
The corporate media have not touched this report (perhaps rightly so), though Marc Ambinder notes that "Official sources cast doubt on the claim," adding that "these sources are advising extreme skepticism in a way that suggests Omar is not in U.S. or Pakistani custody."
The right-wing/conservative blogosphere, while universally hoping Thor's story is correct, has been lukewarm in believing its veracity. At the National Review Online, Greg Pollowitz writes, "I’m not sure this one’s going to pan out. I hope it does, of course."
Cdr Salamander proclaims, "Hold off from cracking open the bottle ... but as the initial report is coming from Brad Thor ... at least put one on ice as we wait for more info."
Over on RedState, Dan McLaughin writes: "If Thor’s sources pan out, this is excellent news, and a moment for real vindication for everyone - from the military brass to Republican leaders and conservative commentators to, yes, President Obama - who argued for pressing on for victory in Afghanistan and not abandoning the region to the Taliban."
At The Captain's Journal, Herschel Smith states bluntly, "This sounds too bizarre to be believed as is. There has to be more to it than the information wasn’t passed up the chain of command," adding: "This has the distinct possibility of being a ruse or a mistake. I lost track of the number of times that Baitullah Mehsud was allegedly killed. Now Hakimullah Mehsud has been killed – but wait, no he hasn’t and there is evidence of his being alive. This is why I don’t usually cover HVT killings. In general I don’t think that they are very effective, and quite often the information is wrong. I think I’ll just wait before breaking out the champagne."
"I’m skeptical," Allahpundit wrote, concluding, "The left will rub [Andrew Breitbart's] face in a pile of shinola if it doesn’t pan out and he knows it only too well."
I'm not sure how many of you caught the segment last Friday on the Dylan Ratigan show on MSNBC featuring Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, a 25 year army veteran and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Task Force STRATUS IVY and Georgetown University professor Christine Fair of the Center for Peace and Security Studies (CPASS). The two were discussing the alleged failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and potential connections to the Taliban in Pakistan. In the discussion, Lt. Col. Shaffer raised the issue of US drone strikes against Pakistan, which Shahzad reportedly has said were part of his motivation for the attempted bombing. "The Taliban are more motivated than ever to come at us," said Shaffer, saying that "the Predator program is having the same effect in Afghanistan two years ago in killing innocents" that it is now having in Pakistan.
Professor Fair, who has also worked for the RAND Corporation and as a political officer to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in Kabul, acted dumbfounded at the idea that the US drone strikes kill any civilians. "I take extreme exception top the way my colleague characterized the drones," Fair said. "Actually the drones are not killing innocent civilians. Many of those reports are coming from deeply unreliable and dubious Pakistani press reports, which no one takes credibly on any other issue except for some reason on this issue. There've actually been a number of surveys on the ground, in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. The residents of FATA generally welcome the drone strikes because they know actually who's being killed. They're very much aware and who's being killed and who's not."
Here is video of the segment:
Some estimates, most of which are indeed Pakistani sources, suggest that the vast majority of Pakistanis killed are civilians. In an Op-Ed for The New York Times last year, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, called for a moratorium on the strikes, saying they had "killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent." They relied on "Pakistani sources," which are apparently offensive to Professor Fair. But Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation recently did a meticulous review of the strikes, citing the following methodology:
"Our analysis of the drone campaign is based only on accounts from reliable media organizations with substantial reporting capabilities in Pakistan. We restricted our analysis to reports in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, accounts by major news services and networks--the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC--and reports in the leading English-language newspapers in Pakistan--The Daily Times, Dawn, and The News--as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network."
Bergen and Tiedemann concluded that "the real total of civilian deaths since 2006 appears to be in the range of 250 to 320, or between 31 and 33 percent." They concluded that under President Obama, who has used the drones with much greater frequency than Bush, "about a quarter [of drone-inflicted deaths] appear to have been civilians."
I expect that Professor Fair, if confronted on this, will have to retract her definitive statement "the drones are not killing innocent civilians." It just simply is false.
HOLLAND, MI—Erik Prince, owner of Blackwater, received a standing ovation in his hometown Wednesday and was praised by supporters for "put[ting] God first" after delivering a 30 minute speech that media outlets were banned from recording. As Prince spoke, about 80 people protested outside the DeVos Fieldhouse in Holland. As the local paper, The Holland Sentinel, reported, Prince told the crowd of 700 that the "worth of a warrior is not best defined by his deeds, but by his enemies" and "described his own enemies as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and 'noisy leftists.'" He called critics of Blackwater "tapeworms."
During his speech, in front of the Tulip Time Festival luncheon, Prince also delved head first into Tea Party mode. "The greatest threat to our freedom and prosperity is not al-Qaida, the Taliban, Iran or even China," he said. "It's an idea, the idea that we can spend our way out of our problems without tightening our belt and paring down the very bloated government."
Prince appeared to stray completely away from the stories he told earlier this year at a private event, a recording of which was obtained by The Nation, where he claimed Blackwater forces had "call[ed] in NATO air strikes," suggested sending armed contractors into Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, expressed disdain for the Geneva Convention and called those who fight the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan "barbarians" who had "crawled out of the sewer." He did, according to reporters at the event, beam "with pride when he said that Blackwater continues to train 'security personnel' from countries like Egypt and Pakistan."
A few hours after Prince spoke, I gave a talk at the Holland 7 Movie Theater (in a theater right next to the new Nightmare on Elm Street movie). So many people showed up that the theater had to open an additional theater to seat everyone. Organizers said it was the biggest gathering for a progressive event they could ever remember in Holland. Overwhelmingly people in the crowd expressed their opposition to Blackwater and Prince being honored at Tulip Time, though one angry man did go on a rant about how I had not been "vetted" and am funded by billionaire George Soros, which, of course, I am not. I was especially amused by the presence of Erik Prince's uncle, who sat in the overflow room.
My colleagues Amy Goodman, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar from Democracy Now! filed a federal lawsuit today against "the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments and officers, the municipalities, the Ramsey County Sheriff and unidentified Secret Service personnel," stemming from their assault at the Republican National Convention in 2008.
I was with Amy on the floor of the RNC when we received word that Nicole had been assaulted and arrested. She was pummeled by police batons as she shouted that she was a journalist. Her real crime was filming the protests. Nicole’s camera captured her arrest and assault by the officers.
NICOLE SALAZAR: Watch out! Watch out! Press!
POLICE OFFICER: Get out of here! Move!
NICOLE SALAZAR: Where are we supposed to go? Where are we supposed to go?
POLICE OFFICER: Get out of here!
NICOLE SALAZAR: Dude, I can’t see! Ow! Press! Press! Press!
POLICE OFFICER: Get down! Get down on your face! On your face!
NICOLE SALAZAR: I’m on my face!
POLICE OFFICER: Get down on your face!
NICOLE SALAZAR: Ow! Press! Press!
When Sharif tried to intervene and tell law enforcement she was a journalist, they assaulted and arrested him too. I took photos of the injuries Sharif sustained that day. Amy, who dashed from the floor of the RNC to try to get Sharif and Nicole released was then arrested herself.
“We shouldn’t have to get a record to put things on the record," said Amy today This is not only a violation of freedom of the press but a violation of the public’s right to know. When journalists are arrested, that has a chilling effect on the functioning of a democratic society.”
According to the press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is co-counsel in the case:
Goodman v. St. Paul seeks compensation and an injunction against law enforcement’s unjustified encroachment on First Amendment rights, including freedom of the press and the independence of the media. Attorneys say the government cannot limit journalists’ right to cover matters of public concern by requiring that they present a particular perspective; for instance, the government cannot require journalists to “embed” with state authorities. Goodman further asserts that the government cannot, in the name of security, limit the flow of information by acting unwarrantedly against journalists who report on speech protected by the First Amendment, such as dissent, and the public acts of law enforcement.
“The media are the eyes and ears of the American people—that is why there are laws to protect them,” said CCR attorney Anjana Samant. “Law enforcement and Secret Service agents are not exempt from those laws in their dealings with un-embedded journalists who are documenting peaceful protestors or law enforcement’s use of force and violence against those protestors.”
“The protests on the streets outside the convention center are just as important to the democratic process as the official party proceedings inside,” said journalist and plaintiff Sharif Abdel Kouddous. “Journalists should not have to risk being arrested, brutalized or intimidated by the police in order to perform their duties, exercise their First Amendment rights and facilitate the rights of others to freedom of speech and assembly.”
“The video of my arrest and of Amy’s mobilized an overwhelming public response,” said journalist Nicole Salazar. “The public has both an interest and a right to know how law enforcement officials are acting on their behalf. We should ask ourselves what kind of accountability exists when there is no coverage of police brutality and intimidation."
Reports are emerging suggesting that secret US military intelligence aircraft were used to find and locate Faisal Shahzad, the man accused of attempting to set off a crude car bomb in Times Square. The CBS affiliate in New York reported today: "In the end, it was secret Army intelligence planes that did him in. Armed with his cell phone number, they circled the skies over the New York area, intercepting a call to Emirates Airlines reservations, before scrambling to catch him at John F. Kennedy International Airport." The post at 5:34 PM was titled "Army Intelligence Planes Led To Suspect's Arrest." But then at 6:21 PM, the article's title was changed to "Total Time Of Investigation: 53 Hours, 20 Minutes: Faisal Shahzad In Custody After Nearly Fleeing United States." As Rayne observed on FireDogLake, the paragraph about the Army planes was deleted from the CBS story. Screenshot of the original post here.
A US Special Operations Force source told me that the planes were likely RC-12s equipped with a Guardrail Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) system that, as the plane flies overland "sucks up" digital and electronic communications. "Think of them as manned drones. They're drones, but they have men sitting in them piloting them and they can be networked together," said the source. "You have many of them--four, five, six of them--and they all act as a node and they scrape up everything, anything that's electronic and feed it back." The source added: "It sucks up everything. We've got these things in Jalalabad [Afghanistan]. We routinely fly these things over Khandahar. When I say everything, I mean BlueTooth would be effected, even the wave length that PlayStation controllers are on. They suck up everything. That's the point."
Guardrail has been used for years by the US military. In recent years, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has also used the "Constant Hawk" and "Highlighter" aerial sensor platforms. All of these programs have recently undergone a series of upgrades.
So were US special forces involved with Shahzad's arrest?
"My conjecture at the moment is that immediately after this went down and they knew that he was on the loose, parts of the domestic counter-terrorism operations that they had set up during the Bush administration were reactivated," says the Special Forces source. "They're compartmentalized. So they kicked into high gear and were supporting law enforcement. In some cases, law enforcement may not have even known that some of the signals intelligence was coming from covert military units."
If true, that could mean that secretive programs such as "Power Geyser" or "Granite Shadow," remain in effect. These were the unclassified names for reportedly classified, compartmentalized programs under the Bush administration that allegedly gave US military special forces sweeping authority to operate on US soil in cases involving WMD incidents or terror attacks.
"They sidestep Posse Comitatus," said the source.
The Joint Special Operations Command, which was run by Gen. Stanley McChrystal from 2003-2008, is reportedly allowed to operate on US soil. That's a result of Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD-25), an executive order drafted by President Clinton on May 3, 1994. The complete text remains classified, however, "The full text of PDD-25 is reported to exempt the Joint Special Operations Command from the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 18USC Sec.1385, PL86-70, Sec. 17[d]. which makes it illegal for military and law enforcement to exercise jointly," according to GlobalSecurity.org.
Among the questions raised by the apparently central role of US special forces in the arrest of Faisal Shahzad is this: To what extent are US Special Forces permitted to operate on US soil under President Obama?
Also, Why did CBS scrub the initial mention of the involvement of Army Intelligence aircraft from its story?
UPDATE: The big story today is how the FBI team tracking Faisal Shahzad in Connecticut allegedly lost track of him. According to reports, Shahzad actually made it onto the Emirates aircraft scheduled to fly to Dubai. As The New York Times reported:
"Though Mr. Shahzad was stopped before he could fly away, there were at least two significant lapses in the security response of the government and the airline that allowed him to come close to making his escape, officials of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies said on Tuesday.
First, an F.B.I. surveillance team that had found Mr. Shahzad in Connecticut lost track of him — it is not clear for how long — before he drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the officials said."
This is all entirely plausible. But what if that is not the entire story? At this point, this is just a thought, a possibility to ponder: It could be that the Feds lost track of Shahzad, but that other US forces, namely US military special operations forces (perhaps JSOC), were tracking him and waiting to see if he made any calls, met with any contacts, took any action while he was still a free man.
Consider the confidence of Attorney General Eric Holder, who said bluntly: "I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him." Those could be the words of a man trying to downplay what could have been a major FBI failure that, in part, would have played badly for Holder. Or they could be the honest words of a man who knew it was all being taken care of and how.
The official timeline of events released by the White House contains some interesting details that suggest US military special forces involvement. On Sunday at 3pm, according to the timeline, "Nicholas Rasmussen, Senior Director for Combating Terrorism Strategy, convenes an interagency meeting on this incident in the White House Situation Room." Rasmussen is a shadow figure. He cut his teeth in the Bush administration after 9/11 where he worked on the "dark side" as a director of the National Security Council's office of combating terrorism, putting him in regular proximity to Special Access Programs and other activites of which we dare not speak. To give context to Rasmussen's current job, one of his predecessors was Vice Admiral William McRaven, the current head of JSOC. "McRaven has managed to bridge both the civilian and military worlds," reported Newsweek. "While working at the National Security Council after 9/11, he was principal author of the White House strategy for combating terrorism."
If the hunt for Shahzad was being run through the National Security Council, which it was, the commander of the Joint Task Force would report to the NSC, which would in turn report to either John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism or National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and then they would report to the President. From the White House timeline, Brennan seemed to be serving that function. And remember, Brennan also comes from the dark side.
The point of all of this being that the story may not be as simple as the FBI losing Shahzad. One cog in the wheel may not have necessarily known what another was doing at any given time. It could be that there were forces at play in this operation whose involvement may not be a part of the story the White House wants divulged. Just a thought.
In the secretly recorded speech Blackwater founder Erik Prince delivered recently, which was obtained by The Nation, Prince addressed a wide range of issues, many of which were addressed in my initial post on this. I will continue to post other excerpts over the next day.
During his speech, Prince addressed the court-martial of a US Navy SEAL accused of punching an Iraqi alleged to be the mastermind of the brutal 2004 ambush and killing of four Blackwater operatives in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Tuesday, a jury was convened at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia in the case of Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe. The 24-year old SEAL pleaded not guilty of assaulting Ahmed Hashim Abed, the accused Iraqi. Two other SEALS, charged with covering up the assault, were acquitted in trials last month in Iraq.
In the speech, Prince was asked by an audience member about the prosecution of the Navy SEALs and the impact the court-martial could have on morale of troops in the field. "The same thing that happens when you put your hand near a hot wood stove," Prince said. "It makes you pause because I have many friends that did amazing things to defend their country, taking terrorists off the streets, capturing them so they can't plot to kill us any more. And for them to have to spend half their time and paying out of their own pocket for lawyers to defend themselves against work their country asked them, needed them to do is bad."
Prince, himself a former Navy SEAL, also revealed an allegation that does not appear to have been published before, namely that the Iraqi suspect had broken free from his cuffs while being transported. "He was in a helicopter," Prince said, "and he slipped out of his restraints and was free on that helicopter and that SEAL did the right thing and punched him and restrained him. It was not an interrogation situation, it was a prisoner restraint issue. And that's a case of, I believe, too many lawyers being out there. Unfortunately some senior officer along the way didn't put a reality check on it and just stop the whole thing."
The families of the four Blackwater men killed in Fallujah sued Blackwater, alleging that the company had cut corners and sent the men into Fallujah without adequate weapons, vehicles and preparation. The case was moved to private arbitration. Some of the family members of the Blackwater men killed in Fallujah, including Katy Helvenston-Wettengel and Donna Zovko, mothers of two of the men, have offered their public support for McCabe and the other Navy SEALs.
Erik Prince, the reclusive owner of the Blackwater empire, rarely gives public speeches and when he does he attempts to ban journalists from attending and forbids recording or videotaping of his remarks. On May 5, that is exactly what Prince is trying to do when he speaks at DeVos Fieldhouse as the keynote speaker for the "Tulip Time Festival" in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. He told the event's organizers no news reporting could be done on his speech and they consented to the ban. Journalists and media associations in Michigan are protesting this attempt to bar reporting on his remarks.
Despite Prince's attempts to shield his speeches from public scrutiny, The Nation magazine has obtained an audio recording of a recent, private speech delivered by Prince to a friendly audience. The speech, which Prince attempted to keep from public consumption, provides a stunning glimpse into his views and future plans and reveals details of previously undisclosed activities of Blackwater. The people of the United States have a right to media coverage of events featuring the owner of a company that generates 90% of its revenue from the United States government.
In the speech, Prince proposed that the US government deploy armed private contractors to fight "terrorists" in Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and Saudi Arabia, specifically to target Iranian influence. He expressed disdain for the Geneva Convention and described Blackwater's secretive operations at four Forward Operating Bases he controls in Afghanistan. He called those fighting the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan "barbarians" who "crawled out of the sewer." Prince also revealed details of a July 2009 operation he claims Blackwater forces coordinated in Afghanistan to take down a narcotrafficking facility, saying that Blackwater "call[ed] in multiple air strikes," blowing up the facility. Prince boasted that his forces had carried out the "largest hashish bust in counter-narcotics history." He characterized the work of some NATO countries' forces in Afghanistan as ineffectual, suggesting that some coalition nations "should just pack it in and go home." Prince spoke of Blackwater working in Pakistan, which appears to contradict the official, public Blackwater and US government line that Blackwater is not in Pakistan.
Prince also claimed that a Blackwater operative took down the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W Bush in Baghdad and criticized the Secret Service for being "flat-footed." He bragged that Blackwater forces "beat the Louisiana National Guard to the scene" during Katrina and claimed that lawsuits, "tens of millions of dollars in lawyer bills" and political attacks prevented him from deploying a humanitarian ship that could have responded to the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunami that hit Indonesia.
Several times during the speech, Prince appeared to demean Afghans his company is training in Afghanistan, saying Blackwater had to teach them "Intro to Toilet Use" and to do jumping jacks. At the same time, he bragged that US generals told him the Afghans Blackwater trains "are the most effective fighting force in Afghanistan." Prince also revealed that he is writing a book, scheduled to be released this fall.
The speech was delivered January 14 at the University of Michigan in front of an audience of entrepreneurs, ROTC commanders and cadets, businesspeople and military veterans. The speech was titled "Overcoming Adversity: Leadership at the Tip of the Spear" and was sponsored by the Young Presidents' Association (YPO), a business networking association primarily made up of corporate executives. "Ripped from the headlines and described by Vanity Fair magazine, as a Tycoon, Contractor, Soldier and Spy, Erik Prince brings all that and more to our exclusive YPO speaking engagement," read the event's program, also obtained by The Nation. It proclaimed that Prince's speech was an "amazing don't miss opportunity from a man who has 'been there and done that' with a group of Cadets and Midshipmen who are months away from serving on the 'tip of the spear.'" Here are some of the highlights from Erik Prince's speech:
Send the Mercs into Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria
Prince painted a global picture in which Iran is "at the absolute dead center... of badness." The Iranians, he said, "want that nuke so that it is again a Persian Gulf and they very much have an attitude of when Darius ran most of the Middle East back in 1000 BC. That's very much what the Iranians are after." [NOTE: Darius of Persia actually ruled from 522 BC-486 BC]. Iran, Prince charged, has a "master plan to stir up and organize a Shia revolt through the whole region." Prince proposed that armed private soldiers from companies like Blackwater be deployed in countries throughout the region to target Iranian influence, specifically in Yemen, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. "The Iranians have a very sinister hand in these places," Prince said. "You're not going to solve it by putting a lot of uniformed soldiers in all these countries. It's way too politically sensitive. The private sector can operate there with a very, very small, very light footprint." In addition to concerns of political expediency, Prince suggested that using private contractors to conduct such operations would be cost-effective. "The overall defense budget is going to have to be cut and they're going to look for ways, they're going to have to have ways to become more efficient," he said. "And there's a lot of ways that the private sector can operate with a much smaller, much lighter footprint."
Prince also proposed using private armed contractors in the oil-rich African nation of Nigeria. Prince said that guerilla groups in the country are dramatically slowing oil production and extraction and stealing oil. "There's more than a half million barrels a day stolen there, which is stolen and organized by very large criminal syndicates. There's even some evidence it's going to fund terrorist organizations," Prince alleged. "These guerilla groups attack the pipeline, attack the pump house to knock it offline, which makes the pressure of the pipeline go soft. they cut that pipeline and they weld in their own patch with their own valves and they back a barge up into it. Ten thousand barrels at a time, take that oil, drive that 10,000 barrels out to sea and at $80 a barrel, that's $800,000. That's not a bad take for organized crime." Prince made no mention of the nonviolent indigenous opposition to oil extraction and pollution, nor did he mention the notorious human rights abuses connected to multinational oil corporations in Nigeria that have sparked much of the resistance.
Blackwater and the Geneva Convention
Prince scornfully dismissed the debate on whether armed individuals working for Blackwater could be classified as "unlawful combatants" who are ineligible for protection under the Geneva Convention. "You know, people ask me that all the time, 'Aren't you concerned that you folks aren't covered under the Geneva Convention in [operating] in the likes of Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan? And I say, 'Absolutely not,' because these people, they crawled out of the sewer and they have a 1200 AD mentality. They're barbarians. They don't know where Geneva is, let alone that there was a convention there."
It is significant that Prince mentioned his company operating in Pakistan given that Blackwater, the US government and the Pakistan government have all denied Blackwater works in Pakistan.
Taking Down the Iraqi Shoe Thrower for the 'Flat-Footed' Secret Service
Prince noted several high-profile attacks on world leaders in the past year, specifically a woman pushing the Pope at Christmas mass and the attack on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, saying there has been a pattern of "some pretty questionable security lately." He then proceeded to describe the feats of his Blackwater forces in protecting dignitaries and diplomats, claiming that one of his men took down the Iraqi journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who threw his shoes at President Bush in Baghdad in December 2008. Prince referred to al-Zaidi as the "shoe bomber:"
"A little known fact, you know when the shoe bomber in Iraq was throwing his shoes at President Bush, in December 08, we provided diplomatic security, but we had no responsibility for the president's security--that's always the Secret Service that does that. We happened to have a guy in the back of the room and he saw that first shoe go and he drew his weapon, got a sight picture, saw that it was only a shoe, he re-holstered, went forward and took that guy down while the Secret Service was still standing there flat-footed. I have a picture of that--I'm publishing a book, so watch for that later this fall--in which you'll see all the reporters looking, there's my guy taking the shoe thrower down. He didn't shoot him, he just tackled him, even though the guy was committing assault and battery on the president of the United States. I asked a friend of mine who used to run the Secret Service if they had a written report of that and he said the debrief was so bad they did not put it in writing."
While the Secret Service was widely criticized at the time for its apparent inaction during the incident, video of the event clearly showed another Iraqi journalist, not security guards, initially pulling al-Zaidi to the floor. Almost instantly thereafter, al-Zaidi was swarmed by a gang of various, unidentified security agents.
Blackwater's Forward Operating Bases
Prince went into detail about his company's operations in Afghanistan. Blackwater has been in the country since at least April 2002, when the company was hired by the CIA on a covert contract to provide the Agency with security. Since then, Blackwater has won hundreds of millions of dollars in security, counter-narcotics and training contracts for the State Department, Defense Department and the CIA. The company protects US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and other senior US officials, guards CIA personnel and trains the Afghan border police. "We built four bases and we staffed them and we run them," Prince said, referring to them as Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). He described them as being in the north, south, east and west of Afghanistan. "Spin Boldak in the south, which is the major drug trans-shipment area, in the east at a place called FOB Lonestar, which is right at the foothills of Tora Bora mountain. In fact if you ski off Tora Bora mountain, you can ski down to our firebase," Prince said, adding that Blackwater also has a base near Herat and another location. FOB Lonestar is approximately 15 miles from the Pakistan border. "Who else has built a [Forward Operating Base] along the main infiltration route for the Taliban and the last known location for Osama bin Laden?" Prince said earlier this year.
Blackwater's War on Drugs
Prince described a Narcotics Interdiction Unit Blackwater started in Afghanistan five years ago that remains active. "It is about a 200 person strike force to go after the big narcotics traffickers, the big cache sites," Prince said. "That unit's had great success. They've taken more than $3.5 billion worth of heroin out of circulation. We're not going after the farmers, but we're going after the traffickers." He described an operation in July 2009 where Blackwater forces actually called in NATO air strikes on a target during a mission:
"A year ago, July, they did the largest hashish bust in counter-narcotics history, down in the south-east. They went down, they hit five targets that our intel guys put together and they wound up with about 12,000 pounds of heroin. While they were down there, they said, 'You know, these other three sites look good, we should go check them out.' Sure enough they did and they found a cache--262,000 kilograms of hash, which equates to more than a billion dollars street value. And it was an industrialized hash operation, it was much of the hash crop in Helmand province. It was palletized, they'd dug ditches out in the desert, covered it with tarps and the bags of powder were big bags with a brand name on it for the hash brand, palletized, ready to go into containers down to Karachi [Pakistan] and then out to Europe or elsewhere in the world. That raid alone took about $60 million out of the Taliban's coffers. So, those were good days. When the guys found it, they didn't have enough ammo, enough explosives, to blow it, they couldn't burn it all, so they had to call in multiple air strikes. Of course, you know, each of the NATO countries that came and did the air strikes took credit for finding and destroying the cache."
December 30, 2009 CIA Bombing in Khost
Prince also addressed the deadly suicide bombing on December 30 at the CIA station at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. Eight CIA personnel, including two Blackwater operatives, were killed in the bombing, which was carried out by a Jordanian double-agent. Prince was asked by an audience member about the "failure" to prevent that attack. The questioner did not mention that Blackwater was responsible for the security of the CIA officials that day, nor did Prince discuss Blackwater's role that day. Here is what Prince said:
"You know what? It is a tragedy that those guys were killed but if you put it in perspective, the CIA has lost extremely few people since 9/11. We've lost two or three in Afghanistan, before that two or three in Iraq and, I believe, one guy in Somalia--a landmine. So when you compare what Bill Donovan and the OSS did to the Germans and the Japanese, the Italians during World War II--and they lost hundreds and hundreds of people doing very difficult, very dangerous work--it is a tragedy when you lose people, but it is a cost of doing that work. It is essential, you've got to take risks. In that case, they had what appeared to be a very hot asset who had very relevant, very actionable intelligence and he turned out to be a bad guy... That's what the intelligence business is, you can't be assured success all the time. You've got to be willing to take risks. Those are calculated risks but sometimes it goes badly. I hope the Agency doesn't draw back and say, 'Oh, we have to retrench and not do that anymore,' all the rest. No. We need you to double down, go after them harder. That is a cost of doing business. They are there to kill us."
Prince to Some NATO Countries in Afghanistan: 'Go Home'
Prince spoke disparagingly of some unnamed NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan, saying they do not have the will for the fight. "Some of them do and a lot of them don't," he said. "It is such a patchwork of different international commitments as to what some can do and what some can't. A lot of them should just pack it in and go home." Canada, however, received praise from Prince. "The Canadians have lost per capita more than America has in Afghanistan. They are fighting and they are doing it and so if you see a Canadian thank them for that. The politicians at home take heavies for doing that," Prince said. He did not mention the fact that his company was hired by the Canadian government to train its forces.
Prince also described how his private air force (which he recently sold) bailed out a US military unit in trouble in Afghanistan. According to Prince, the unit was fighting the Taliban and was running out of ammo and needed an emergency re-supply. "Because of, probably some procedure written by a lawyer back in Washington, the Air Force was not permitted to drop in an uncertified drop zone... even to the unit that was running out of ammo," Prince said. "So they called and asked if our guys would do it and, of course, they said, 'Yes.' And the cool part of the story is the Army guys put their DZ mark in the drop zone, a big orange panel, on the hood of their hummer and our guys put the first bundle on the hood of that hummer. We don't always get that close, but that time a little too close."
Blackwater: Teaching Afghans to Use Toilets
Prince said his forces train 1300 Afghans every six weeks and described his pride in attending "graduations" of Blackwater-trained Afghans, saying that in six weeks they radically transform the trainees. "You take these officers, these Afghans and it's the first time in their life they've ever been part of something that's first class, that works. The instructors know what they're talking about, they're fed, the water works, there's ammunition for their guns. Everything works," Prince said. "The first few days of training, we have to do 'Intro to Toilet Use' because a lot of these guys have never even seen a flushed toilet before." Prince boasted: "We manage to take folks with a tribal mentality and, just like the Marine Corps does more effectively than anyone else, they take kids from disparate lifestyles across the United States and you throw them into Parris Island and you make them Marines. We try that same mentality there by pushing these guys very hard and, it's funny, I wish I had video to show you of the hilarious jumping jacks. If you take someone that's 25 years old and they've never done a jumping jack in their life--some of the convoluted motions they do it's comical. But the transformation from day one to the end of that program, they're very proud and they're very capable." Prince said that when he was in Afghanistan late last year, "I met with a bunch of generals and they said the Afghans that we train are the most effective fighting force in Afghanistan."
Prince also discussed the Afghan women he says work with Blackwater. "Some of the women we've had, it's amazing," Prince said. "They come in in the morning and they have the burqa on and they transition to their cammies (camouflage uniforms) and I think they enjoy the baton work," he said, adding, "They've been hand-cuffing a little too much on the men."
Hurricane Katrina and Humanitarian Mercenaries
Erik Prince spoke at length about Blackwater's deployment in 2005 in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, bragging that his forces "rescued 128 people, sent thousands of meals in there and it worked." Prince boasted of his company's rapid response, saying, "We surged 145 guys in 36 hours from our facility five states away and we beat the Louisiana National Guard to the scene." What Prince failed to mention was that at the time of the disaster, at least 35% of the Louisiana National Guard was deployed in Iraq. One National Guard soldier in New Orleans at the time spoke to Reuters, saying, "They (the Bush administration) care more about Iraq and Afghanistan than here... We are doing the best we can with the resources we have, but almost all of our guys are in Iraq." Much of the National Guard's equipment was in Iraq at the time, including high water vehicles, Humvees, refuelers and generators.
Prince also said that he had a plan to create a massive humanitarian vessel that, with the generous support of major corporations, could have responded to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis across the globe. "I thought, man, the military has perfected how to move men and equipment into combat, why can't we do that for the humanitarian side?" Prince said. The ship Prince wanted to use for these missions was an 800 foot container vessel capable of shipping "1700 containers, which would have lined up six and a half miles of humanitarian assistance with another 250 vehicles" onboard. "We could have gotten almost all those boxes donated. It would have been boxes that would have had generator sets from Caterpillar, grain from ADM [Archer Daniels Midland], anti-biotics from pharmaceutical companies, all the stuff you need to do massive humanitarian assistance," Prince said, adding that it "would have had turnkey fuel support, food, surgical, portable surgical hospitals, beds cots, blankets, all the above." Prince says he was going to do the work for free, "on spec," but "instead we got attacked politically and ended up paying tens of millions of dollars in lawyer bills the last few years. It's an unfortunate misuse of resources because a boat like that sure would have been handy for the Haitian people right now."
Outing Erik Prince
Prince also addressed what he described as his outing as a CIA asset working on sensitive US government programs. He has previously blamed Congressional Democrats and the news media for naming him as working on the US assassination program. The US intelligence apparatus "depends heavily on Americans that are not employed by the government to facilitate greater success and access for the intelligence community," Prince said. "It's unprecedented to have people outed by name, especially ones that were running highly classified programs. And as much as the left got animated about Valerie Plame, outing people by name for other very very sensitive programs was unprecedented and definitely threw me under the bus."
Blackwater and DynCorp, the two leading mercenary firms servicing the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have both undertaken steps toward significant structural changes over the past month. In the case of DynCorp, the ownership of the whole business seems to be changing hands, while Blackwater is dumping its private air force.
Cerberus Capital Management, one of the largest private equity firms in the US announced April 12 it was buying DynCorp, the massive, publicly traded company, which is akin to the Wal-Mart of the private security industry, for $1 billion in cash. Cerberus counts among its big wigs former vice president Dan Quayle, who often represents the company internationally. DynCorp has had its share of scandals over the years, including whistleblower allegations that personnel have engaged in organized sex-slave trading with girls as young as 12 and allegations its personnel have assaulted journalists. It has been rebuked by the State Department for its "aggressive behavior" in interactions with European diplomats, NATO forces and journalists in Afghanistan. A 2007 US government audit of DynCorp's work in Iraq found that the State Department "does not know specifically what it received for most of the $1.2 billion in expenditures under its DynCorp contract for the Iraqi Police Training Program." More recently, the company was in the news facing allegations its training of the Afghan National Police was shoddy, including allegations its trainees didn't know how to adjust the sights on their AK-47s. If the Cerberus deal goes through, it will mean that the publicly-traded DynCorp will go private, meaning that it will be infinitely more difficult to get information on the company.
Cerberus seems to have had a dream of owning its own mercenary business for at least a few years. In April 2008, the company was reportedly looking to buy Blackwater. The deal apparently fell through because of concerns over Blackwater's reputation.
For over a year, Blackwater has tried to act like it is under new ownership. It isn't. Erik Prince remains its sole owner. The company has tried to change its name, creating alter egos such as Xe Services and US Training Center. It even went so far as to create an apparent shell company, Paravant, in an effort to trick the government into giving it more contracts in Afghanistan, according to Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin. Paravant is also the "company" whose personnel reportedly signed out hundreds of weapons in Iraq under the name of the popular South Park character Eric Cartman. In January, two Paravant operatives were arrested by the FBI on charges they murdered Afghan civilians.
While Prince technically stepped down as CEO and many of his original cronies have fled or been relieved of their duties (five, including former Blackwater president Gary Jackson, are facing federal weapons charges), Blackwater is still Blackwater and Prince is very much running the show. But in a sign that Prince may be shifting away from his dream of building a parallel structure to the US military--complete with an army, navy and air force--Prince sold his aviation division, made up of Presidential Airways and Aviation Worldwide Services, for $200 million to AAR Corp.
Prince's private little air force had roughly 60 planes, many of which were used for US government and military operations in Afghanistan and Central Asia and Africa. For years, the aviation division has found itself in the legal crosshairs. The families of US servicemen killed in Afghanistan in the crash of Blackwater flight 61 sued the company, saying Blackwater's pilots were reckless, the flight had inadequate equipment and that they should not have flown. AAR seems to have gotten an incredible deal, financially speaking, predicting that it will generate about $175 million of revenue for the company annually. This, coupled with the fact that Blackwater does not seem to be bidding on the new round of massive State Department private security contracts, could be the first real sign that Blackwater is phasing out of, at least, the public, US government-funded mercenary business. Prince's private CIA, Total Intelligence Solutions, works for many corporations and foreign governments. Sources have also told me that recently Prince transfered some of his Other Government Agency (read:CIA and JSOC) business to companies outside, but trusted by, Prince's Blackwater empire. Prince, who reportedly ran--and participated in--covert actions for the CIA and JSOC around the world, said recently he wanted to be like Indiana Jones and become a school teacher and perhaps coach wrestling.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, the leading Congressional critic of the mercenary industry, said she was concerned that if DynCorp goes totally private it could hinder oversight activities of its operations going forward. The company remains deeply embedded in US operations, particularly in Afghanistan. DynCorp is bidding on a new massive State Department security contract and beat back protests from Blackwater making it eligible to bid on a lucrative training program in Afghanistan. The company also operates in Pakistan. Schakowsky said the company has a "fairly long history of misconduct."
"We have a hard enough time doing any kind of effective oversight over companies like this," Schakowsky told Reuters. "This just makes it harder."
The Obama administration has continued the Bush-era reliance on private contractors to sustain the US occupation of Iraq and the US operations in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Obama has surpassed Bush’s reliance on contractors with current contractor levels surpassing 100,000 Defense Department contractors deployed. In Iraq, Obama has maintained the long-standing ratio of one contractor to every US soldier.
General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan/Pakistan, said recently that he believes the US has “created in ourselves a dependency on contractors that is greater than it ought to be.” He added: “I think it doesn’t save money. I actually think it would be better to reduce the number of contractors involved, increase the number of military if necessary.”
Despite such proclamations, the pattern of dependence on contractors is continuing unabated—and not just within the Department of Defense.
On April 20, the US State Department posted a solicitation for armed private security contractors to deploy in “critical or higher than critical threat areas” globally under its Worldwide Protective Services program. Among the firms that have held these contracts are Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy and Armor Group. ArmorGroup was exposed last year by whistleblowers for a range of misconduct at the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Among the actions revealed by the Project on Government Oversight were hazing rituals involving nudity and heavy drinking that at times included personnel urinating on each other. The whistleblowers alleged that ArmorGroup personnel created a general atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Last December, following POGO’s revelations, the State Department said it was phasing out ArmorGroup.
In its solicitation for contract bids, the State Department says it will hire as many as six “qualified US firms” for “anticipated and unanticipated personal protective, static guard, and emergency response” functions. The contracts are slated to last one year with the potential for four, year-long options.
To qualify for the contracts, security companies must have a total annual value of at least $15 million in security contracts and must possess a valid “Final Secret Facility Security Clearance.” After the contracts are awarded, the State Department says that it will then sponsor the contractor for “Top Secret Facility Clearance.” In addition, bidding companies must have at least two years of experience operating in “austere and hostile environments overseas” such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq and experience in “operating long term personal protective security details for executive level dignitaries.” The solicitation indicates that the work will include “a static guard and emergency response team requirement in Baghdad, Iraq, a static guard and emergency response team requirement in Kabul, Afghanistan, and a personal protective security service requirement in Jerusalem.”
Among the companies listed as “interested vendors” to bid on the contracts are the predictable list of industry giants: L-3 Services, SAIC, USIS, Northrop Grumman, and DynCorp. Blackwater, which has been a prime contractor under the WPS program since the beginning of the Iraq invasion, does not appear to be bidding on the contract. If that remains the case, it could represent the end of an era in the mercenary business. In a sea of heavy-hitters, two lesser-known firms in particular that have expressed interest in the contracts jump out: Instinctive Shooting International and Evergreen International Aviation.
Hiring Instinctive Shooting International for any type of armed contract in a Muslim country, particularly to operate in Jerusalem with a stamp of US government legitimacy, should be cause for serious concern and Congressional inquiry. Instinctive Shooting International (ISI) was founded by Hanan Yadin, a former member of the Israel National Counter-Terrorism Agency and a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces. According to his bio [PDF], Hanan “received advanced training at the Israeli Anti-Terror Academy and served as an instructor at the Israeli Military Intelligence Academy. As part of a Special Ops unit he executed high-risk missions against terrorist’s cells. Hanan is an expert marksman and has completed advanced training in crisis response, Krav Maga (the Israeli unarmed fighting system), urban warfare and tactical operations.”
I encountered ISI operatives, all former Israeli soldiers, manning an armed check-point in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, in 2005, its website described ISI’s personnel as “veterans of the Israeli special task forces from the following Israeli government bodies: Israel Defense Force (IDF), Israel National Police Counter Terrorism units, Instructors of Israel National Police Counter Terrorism units, General Security Service (GSS or ‘Shin Beit’), Other restricted intelligence agencies.”
Today the website has changed dramatically. Its main graphic is of US soldiers wearing American flag patches, wielding automatic weapons in what appears to be Iraq. “After 9/11, ISI was able to bring to bear all of its resources, expertise and experience to work with U.S. military and government agencies in gaining a deeper understanding of radical Islam and provide proven tactical techniques to improve counter-terror operations,” according to the website. This would hardly be ISI’s first US government contract. It has received many training and security contracts since its founding in 1993. According to the company, it is currently under a five-year contract with the US Army that began in November 2009.
Evergreen has had long-standing ties to the CIA. “In 1980 an Evergreen plane flew the recently deposed Shah of Iran from Panama to Egypt, hours before the Panamanian government was due to receive an extradition request from the new government in Tehran,” according to SourceWatch. “Giving rides to dictators is something of a specialty for the company - it also allowed El Salvador’s President Duarte to use its helicopter, which was officially in the country to help repair power lines. And according to a series of articles in The Oregonian in 1988, Evergreen’s owner and founder Delford M. Smith ‘…acknowledged one agreement under which his companies provide occasional jobs and cover to foreign nationals the CIA wants taken out of other countries or brought into the United States.’”
Evergreen is perhaps best known more recently for offering—unsolicited—its security services to Oregon county clerks ahead of the 2008 elections. “During this crucial election Evergreen Defense and Security Services has recognized the potential conflict that could occur on November 4,” an email from company president Evergreen president Tom Wiggins to election officials stated. “Never has there been a more heated battle in the race for president and voters seem more involved and determined to achieve their respective goals. EDSS proposes to post sentries at each voting center on November 4 to assure that disputes among citizens do not get out of control. All guards will be unarmed but capable of stopping any violence that may occur, and detaining troublemakers until law enforcement help arrives.” The offer was suspect on several fronts, not the least of which being that Oregon has no polling places and votes by mail.
According to State Department documents, among the projects up for bidding are:
—Private security teams in Jerusalem. The solicitation calls for 46 personnel, including 36 “security specialists” and team/shift leaders for armed details.
—Embassy guards and an Emergency Response Team in Kabul. The solicitation calls for 219 personnel, including a 142-member embassy guard force and 49 “emergency response” personnel.
—Embassy guards and an Emergency Response Team in Baghdad, Iraq. The solicitation calls for 551 personnel, including 357 “armed guards” and an Emergency Response Team consisting of 30 protective security specialists and four “designated defense marksmen.”
The US embassy in Iraq, according to the documents, requires the greatest number of contractors. This is likely because the embassy there is the largest of any embassy of any nation in history.
The State Department has a conference for prospective bidders scheduled for April 27-28 in Arlington, Virginia. Attendance is mandatory for interested companies.