StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118055085413750.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jon McGinty’, ‘DeKalb teacher and co-founder of Clearwater, Dan Kenny, speaks to an audience about Blackwater North during a recent Coffee Talk at the JustGoods Store.‘);
The privatization of the U.S. military has come home to roost in northern Illinois. As of April 9, Blackwater USA, one of the worlds largest private military training and security organizations, with headquarters in Noyoc, N.C., has opened a new facility in Jo Daviess county, about 8 miles northwest of Mt. Carroll, Ill. Their arrival has prompted local and area residents to create an opposing organization named Clearwater, a working group within the Illinois Coalition for Peace and Justice.
The 80-acre complex called Blackwater North is on an existing shooting range in the middle of rural farmland. According to director Patrick Sergott, as quoted on their web site (www.blackwaterusa.com), they are merely giving a much-needed facelift to a 25-year-old facility.
But thats hardly the case, according to DeKalb teacher and co-founder of Clearwater, Dan Kenney. Posing as a prospective customer, Kenney visited the site during his spring break in April. He was given a guided tour of the complex by deputy director Eric Davis, and even allowed to take photographs.
I saw several bulldozers moving dirt around to create new shooting ranges, says Kenney. They have also built a three-story training tower and several other buildings, including a pro shop where you can buy guns and ammunition.
When Kenney asked Davis what training courses were open to the general public, Davis indicated that such courses included submachine gun training, as well as the more traditional pistol, rifle and shotgun courses. While Sergotts statements on the web site describe Blackwater Norths clients as personnel from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, their overview also says they are currently training select military and other government groups from U.S.-friendly nations at Blackwater and abroad.
Blackwater USA has gained a notorious reputation from events in Iraq, where several hundred of their employees provide high-level security services for diplomats and other contractors, often with little oversight or transparency. They have received hundreds of millions of dollars in State Department contracts since the war began, many awarded without competitive bidding. The aggressive behavior of some Blackwater security personnel in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina reinforced their negative image.
Firms like Blackwater have raised the concept of war-for-profit to a new level, says Mary Shesgreen from Elgin, another co-founder of Clearwater. Their contracts are not available for scrutiny by Congress, and the conduct of their armed personnel seems to have no legal accountability. Since the war started, 64 U.S. soldiers have been court-martialed for shooting Iraqi civilians, but no private contractors have been charged with such crimes. Nobodys tracking them.
A landmark lawsuit brought by families of four Blackwater USA employees killed in Iraq three years ago was ordered last week by a federal judge to be decided in arbitration. Because such a procedure is conducted behind closed doors and with gag orders attached to the litigants, this will allow Blackwater to again avoid public examination of its practices in Iraq.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky has introduced HR 897, the Iraq and Afghanistan Contractor Sunshine Act, which seeks to bring transparency to private contractors work in those countries. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama has sponsored Senate Bill 674, the Senate companion to HR 897. Both pieces of legislation are intended to increase the possibility for more accountability and oversight of private contractors working in war zones.
Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: the Story of the Most Powerful Mercenary Firm in the World, was in the area two weeks ago and, on the invitation of Clearwater, spoke to an overflow crowd of concerned citizens in Elizabeth, Ill., just a few miles from Blackwater North.
We were very pleased with the turnout, says Shesgreen. People in the area are very interested and worried about this issue.
On a recent NPR broadcast, Scahill said there are about 145,000 active-duty U.S. military personnel in Iraq, and more than 126,000 private contract personnel. Of these, it is estimated nearly 48,000 work for private military firms like Blackwater.
According to a May 19 New Your Times article, 917 private contractors have been killed in Iraq since the war began, and over 12,000 wounded, says Scahill, but these numbers are seldom mentioned in the news. Such under-reporting of non-military casualties masks the human toll of the occupation.
Scahill is also concerned with the effect of private militaries on democracy in general and the U.S. reputation in particular. According to him, Blackwater USA has hired ex-military people from countries whose governments originally opposed the war in Iraq. But Iraqis make no distinction between the behavior of U.S. military personnel and private contractors. To them, they are all Americans.
Do we as a society want a mercenary army operating in our name in Iraq, he asks, engaging in overt combat, and with little if any accountability?
Apparently, the members of Clearwater are asking the same question, and have decided they dont want them as neighbors, either.
For more information about Clearwater, visit their web site at www.noprivatearmies.org.
from the May 30-June 5, 2007, issue