Blackwater Down: Fresh From Iraq, Private Security Forces Roam the Streets of an American City With Impunity

In this week's cover story in The Nation, Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill reports on how mercenaries from private security firms like Blackwater USA and BATS are patrolling the streets in New Orleans. [includes rush transcript]

In his article in The Nation, Jeremy Scahill writes:

"As business leaders and government officials talk openly of changing the demographics of what was one of the most culturally vibrant of America's cities, mercenaries from companies like DynCorp, Intercon, American Security Group, Blackhawk, Wackenhut and an Israeli company called Instinctive Shooting International (ISI) are fanning out to guard private businesses and homes, as well as government projects and institutions. Within two weeks of the hurricane, the number of private security companies registered in Louisiana jumped from 185 to 235. Some, like Blackwater, are under federal contract. Others have been hired by the wealthy elite"

  • Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! correspondent.
    - Read Jeremy Scahill's article: "Blackwater Down"


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AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, can you talk about the security scene that is enforcing what Naomi Klein has just described to us?

JEREMY SCAHILL: One of the things that I think is really important to point out is that the very forces that Naomi’s talking about that are now trying to implement these sort of austerity measures in some ways and then these policies that target the poor. The forces that are implementing these policies are being backed up now by the very forces that we see operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. You have the U.S. military, of course and the National Guard and there’s an enormous number – It seems like everyone with a badge and gun is now descending on New Orleans. But you also have these private security companies like Blackwater. We have talked extensively about the role of Blackwater in New Orleans here on Democracy Now!.

I think we have to view this in the context of what we have seen for decades, in U.S. foreign policy and that is the hidden hand of the free market and the corporate elite, and then the iron fist of military force. So, these measures are being backed up by these private security firms. One of the people who’s brought in private security companies is a powerful businessman by the name of James Reese. He lives in the wealthy, elite, gated community of Audubon Place. They have the only privately owned street in the city of New Orleans. Well, he brought in a company called Instinctive Shooting International, which is an Israeli firm, and it's actually owned and operated by a guy who lives in New Jersey and has had contracts to train New York City police officers, but he is an Israeli martial arts expert.

This is part of a bigger trend of outsourcing the training of homeland security to Israeli firms. He brought in these Israeli paramilitaries one of whom bragged to me about having been involved with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. They're standing there in front of the Audubon Place community. I went up and talked to them, and one of the guys said to me, we fight the Palestinians all day every day of our lives, and then tapping on his M-16, he said, most Americans, when they see this, they get scared. It’s enough to scare them away. But a lot of Americans, I think, would be shocked to know there are Israeli paramilitaries patrolling the streets of a U.S. city.

But what's more significant is who James Reese is, the man who brought them in. He serves in Mayor Ray Nagin's administration. He also runs a powerful business lobby, and Naomi has talked about him as well. He also was quoted openly in the Wall Street Journal saying he doesn't want black people or poor people to return to New Orleans. These kinds of sentiments are then being backed up by these military and paramilitary forces. Blackwater is also a very interesting case. They got a lucrative $400,000 contract from the federal government to provide security for FEMA reconstruction projects.

The head of Blackwater, the founder, is a man named Eric Prince. He is a mega-billionaire from Michigan. His father was a close friend of Gary Bauer. His father helped to found the Family Research Council. His sister, Betsy, is married to Dick DeVos, who is going to be the gubernatorial candidate of the Republican Party in the state of Michigan. He, Dick DeVos, is the son of Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway, the greatest benefactor in the history of the Republican Party, the man who largely funded the Republican revolution in 1994, this Christian fundamentalist corporation, Amway. So he comes from a powerful Michigan family. He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party. He started this firm Blackwater Security. He himself is a former navy S.E.A.L. He staffs it with people he describes as patriots, although, it’s interesting, they have been doing recruiting in Chile, hiring men who were trained under Augusto Pinochet's regime. So these forces are now – there are about two hundred of them – in New Orleans right now. One hundred and sixty-four of them are on a no-bid federal contract with FEMA to provide protection for these sites. This is part of a bigger push by these paramilitary firms to gain contracts here in the United States. For instance, Blackwater seized on the fact that four of their employees were killed in Fallujah in March of 2004. Eric Prince viewed this as a profit moment. So, what he did is hired –

AMY GOODMAN: This is that horrible moment –

JEREMY SCAHILL: Where we saw the charred bodies. They were hanged, and it resulted in the massive U.S. onslaught against Fallujah that resulted in tens of thousands of people having to flee the city, scores of people being killed, innocent civilians. Of course, now Fallujah has become an international symbol of resistance against the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Well after these four Blackwater mercenaries were killed in Fallujah and then their bodies mutilated and hung from a bridge, Eric Prince hired the Alexander Group which is a powerful Republican lobby firm tied to House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, and then hired a former C.I.A. Department of – C.I.A., State department official, named Coffer Black, to help promote their cause in Washington. I

In fact, just as the hurricane was hitting, another high-level person from the Pentagon was hired by the Prince Group, the parent company of Blackwater, Joseph Schmitz. He had just resigned as the Inspector General of the Pentagon. He himself was involved with numerous scandals. So he is then brought on board, and then they get this contract. What's interesting is that when I spoke to the Blackwater mercenaries in New Orleans, they said clearly, we're here on a Department of Homeland Security contract.

That was denied by the Department of Homeland Security. One them showed me a badge, said he had been deputized by the Governor of the State of Louisiana. That was then denied. Well, after this report came out, and it went all over the web, and we talked about it on Democracy Now!, the response was tremendous.

Blackwater was then under siege from reporters confronting them with this, and they were forced to admit and so was the federal government, that in fact, Blackwater was on the Department of Homeland Security contract and that, in fact, they did operate with a letter from the Governor of the State of Louisiana, authorizing them to carry loaded weapons. So they're patrolling in unmarked cars around the streets, and they said that they were confronting criminals and stopping looters.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You actually interviewed some who claimed to have been involved in shootouts and to have actually shot people?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, and this is something that really underscores the danger of having these kinds of private security forces on the streets. I was – I walked down to a hotel on the corner of Bourbon and Canal in the French Quarter called the Astor Crown Plaza. It's a five star hotel operated by one of the wealthiest businesspeople in the state of Louisiana, a man named F. Patrick Quinn III. He is married to Republican State Senator, Julie Quinn. They are a powerful Louisiana Republican family. He is the owner of the largest hotel chain in the state of Louisiana, and is a powerhouse hotel owner in the South, in general.

I was talking to his head of security, a guy named Michael Montgomery. He told me he was with a company based in Alabama called Body Guard and Tactical Security. Actually, Juan, when I was talking to him, he – I said that I was from New York, and he said, “Oh, I was in New York once.” I said, “Oh, yeah?” He said, “I was there for the New York Daily News strike,” and I naively thought somehow that he was an employee, that he had been an employee of the Daily News and I said, “My colleague and friend, Juan Gonzalez, was one of the leaders of that strike. He goes, “Oh, I know Juan Gonzalez. I spiked his car.” I said, what do you mean? He goes, “I was working security there, and we spiked about forty Daily News employees’ cars at La Guardia airport. He said he put sugar in the gas tanks of the car. So that was my introduction to the guy. So we start talking, and then I asked him, well –

JUAN GONZALEZ: So you solved the riddle of that big repair bill I had back in 1990.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, what's interesting, Juan, is you could send it to the BATS Company, Bodyguard And Tactical Security, except they don't exist. I talked to the Secretary of State offices in Alabama and Louisiana. There's no company called BATS registered. They were wearing uniforms that said Bodyguard and Tactical Security. So as I talked to him, this representative from the phantom company hired by a powerful Republican businessman, married to a Republican State Senator, a major donor to the Republican party and the Bush-Cheney campaign, operator of a five star hotel, that’s, he said, under consideration for lucrative FEMA contract to house their workers, it's interesting, because the hotel remains pretty much empty. There are no FEMA workers coming in there.

But as I talked to this man who said that he had spiked your car, he told me a very scary story, that I think is the source for potential litigation against these private security firms. Michael Montgomery, the head of BATS, said that on the second night he was in New Orleans he was going to pick up one of Mr. Quinn's associates. They got stopped in the ninth ward. He said they came under fire from a group of people on an overpass that he described as black gang bangers. He said, “At the time I was on the phone with my business partner.” I said, “What did you do then?” He said, “I dropped the phone and opened fire.” I said, “With what kind of weapons?” – “AR-15 assault rifles and Glock 9's.” Fired up at the people he described as black gang bangers on this bridge. I said, “Then what happened? Did you kill them?” He said, “Well, let's just put it this way, I heard a lot of moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped. Enough said.”

Well then he said that the Army came and responded to the incident, surrounded them and thought that “we were the enemy.” That's how he said it. He said, “I then explained to the Army soldiers that we were security. They didn't care. They didn't file a report. They left.” Five minutes later, Louisiana State Troopers come. They ask what happened. He explains the story to them. They then ask him, “How do we get out of the city.”

So this is the climate of impunity. This man – and as Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights points out, how do we know that he was fired upon? How do we know what that incident was? Why wouldn't law enforcement file any kind of report on a shootout in which this guy is openly bragging to having shot up a bunch of people he described as black gang bangers on an overpass?

So if I, as an investigative journalist, cannot track down this company, what if you were one of the people who was shot and wounded by this guy? What if you are the family member of someone who was killed by him and you cannot trace down this company? In fact, the Louisiana agency that governs and licenses private security firms, when I talked to them, they were furious, and they say that they are going to be serving papers on him today to cease and desist operating as a security officer in the State of Louisiana.

What's key is that he was hired by Patrick Quinn. Patrick Quinn is liable for the torts of his employees. So if this man, in fact, did shoot up a bunch of people, Patrick Quinn, this wealthy, powerful businessman is also responsible for it. What's interesting is that Patrick Quinn, bringing in an apparently unlicensed company to provide security, is that while you have shelters teeming with people desperate for work, Patrick Quinn is bringing in Mexican workers from Texas to clean out his hotel, and because of Davis-Bacon, they don’t have to pay them – because of the wipe out of the Davis-Bacon Act, they don't have to pay them livable wages. So that’s why they don't want to go in and hire, for instance, African-American men and women to come and clean the hotel, because that gives them jobs and keeps them in the community. Instead, you bring in cheap labor from Texas, Mexicans piled on the back of a truck.

AMY GOODMAN: Soon after you did your piece, Jeremy, on Blackwater, when you first got down to New Orleans, and we posted it on the website, we started to get letters and email. There's an email petition of Blackwater employees. Describe it.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, the Blackwater employees and families have initiated a petition against me. What's interesting is that they don't take issue with any of the facts that I have reported. They take issue with the fact that I quote one of the Blackwater employees complaining that he's only getting paid $350 because normally, they get $1,000 or more –


JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, a day. They say they're just trying to provide for their families and put food on the table. These guys are making $1,000-plus a day in Iraq and have all sorts of tax breaks. Well, now they're complaining of only getting $350 a day.

The letter, this petition goes on to talk about how they're like any computer programmer or any auto worker. What's interesting is – I don't know about you, but I have never met an auto worker who makes $1,000 a day.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, you can describe how this security scene that Jeremy is describing on the streets of New Orleans fits in to your assessment of purging the poor?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, Amy, I think what it really underscores is the violence of the economic project itself. I mean, what we are talking about is a wrenching process of uprooting hundreds of thousands of people, who are deeply rooted culturally, historically, economically, in the city of New Orleans. New Orleans is a city with a rich radical history, and people aren’t going to accept this without a fight. That's why the radical gentrifiers of New Orleans are arriving with their own private armies.

You know, I was talking about this with Jeremy yesterday. It's almost like a kind of yuppy sci-fi version of old-school colonial warfare. It's like the military industrial complex has been replaced by the mercenary condominium complex. Because, what we are talking about here, the characters that Jeremy is describing like Quinn and Reese, these are the key land developers in New Orleans. They are the ones who are hiring these mercenaries to be the muscle behind the projects. So, I think that that is really the message.

But there's something else at play. You hear these names like Blackwater and then on the contracting side, the people getting the job to rebuild New Orleans are Bechtel, Halliburton, Fluor. These are the same companies that are in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they arrived very, very quickly, and the reason they arrived so quickly is because reconstruction now is a standing multi-billion dollar industry, global industry. Whenever there is a war or natural disaster, they move in instantly, often with pre-signed contracts.

You know, we were all in New Orleans, and I think, you know, that city needs a lot of things. It needs pumps. It needs affordable housing. It needs water, and it needs electricity, but I didn't see any shortage of law enforcement. As Jeremy said, you know, everybody with a badge and gun is there. So, the presence of these privatized police forces, I think is more ideological than it is anything else. Ideology is really driving the reconstruction project, and if you listen to what's being said by groups like the Republican Study Committee, they're very clear about this.

They talk in the language of experimentation. They talk, like Ted said, “Bringing free market ideas to the disaster zone is white hot right now.” Treasury secretary, John Snow, said, you know, “This is a time for all sorts of experiments.” It's almost like they're putting on lab coats and seeing this area of massive humanitarian devastation as a place where they can vindicate their ideology. Their ideology, you know, suffered a pretty serious blow by the disaster itself.

I mean, there was talk in the first couple of days after the levees broke, that this was going to be for neoconservativism what the fall of the Berlin wall was for communism. That this was itself this incredibly graphic, damning event for the ideology of privatization, and Harry Belafonte, the other night, you know, he had a great quote at the fund-raiser organized by Wynton Marsalis where he said “This was the result of a political authority that subcontracts its responsibility to the private sector and abdicates responsibility altogether,” but of course what Jeremy is describing is a radical abdication, further abdication in response to the disaster.

What I saw when I was in New Orleans was really the emergence of an absolutely unmasked corporate military state. Now, I know these sound like buzz words, but I'll give you an example. One of the images that's really stuck in my mind is the conversion of a huge Wal-Mart into a military base in downtown New Orleans. They call it Camp Wal-Mart. So here you have – and we even hear people suggesting that Wal-Mart should replace FEMA at running disaster response.

Another example of this is: There's a building in Baton Rouge, which is the Capital Annex, which is attached to the state legislature. It's where a lot of the government offices are located. Well, after the flood, the state – the Capital Annex building was opened up to many of the business groups that we have been discussing.

So, now, you have in that building, a complete merger of government interests. You have got the Mayor's office working out of that building. You have the state legislature working out of that building, but you also have James Reese's business association. You also have Greater New Orleans, Inc., which is a private lobby group representing everyone from Shell and Chevron to Coca-Cola, in that building. Then you have the Association of Conventions and Tourism, which is another private business group in that building.

Every morning – I was told this by the Assistant Secretary of Economic Development for Louisiana, he said, every morning there's an 8:30 meeting where seven to ten people from government and business sit down and plan the reconstruction of New Orleans. So, it is literally the merger – completely unmasked – of corporate and state interests. There's no distinction. No, they're not inviting the Teacher's Union to be at these meetings. They're not inviting housing rights activists to be at the meetings. You even see this in the repopulation plans for this city.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Naomi, if I can just interrupt, because we have to cut this segment off, I'd like to ask Jeremy, any final remarks?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Senator Barak Obama has questioned giving this $400,000 contract to the Blackwater security firm. I think that's a question that people need to be posing to their officials, because Congress could move swiftly to cut the welfare chain off for these private security firms, and it's something concrete that people can do right now as we look at the reconstruction of New Orleans, is to insure that as people do try to come back and rebuild their communities, that they don't have to face down the very paramilitary thugs that are killing people in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, Naomi Klein, thanks so much for being with us. This is Democracy Now!