On June 11, enveloped in the golden brown desert habitat and bright blue skies of Otay Mesa, California, investigative journalist and author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” (Nation Books, 2007) Jeremy Scahill joined over 100 San Diegans in a demonstration against the private military contractor Blackwater. Just one week earlier, Blackwater opened its 61,000 sq. ft. military training facility in an industrial park on 7685 Siempre Viva Rd, San Diego, CA 92154. Blackwater started a training class for the Navy on June 5, after being granted a restraining order against the City of San Diego who tried to block Blackwater’s certificate of occupancy in late May.Blackwater claims to have a $400 million contract with the US Navy for specialized anti-terrorist training.
San Diego citizens were out in force with shouts of “We are the people! You can’t ignore us! Blackwater must go!” Various local groups and leaders were present to voice their opposition to the facility’s opening, including City Attorney Mike Aguirre, Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee, John Fanestil of the San Diego Foundation for Change, Carol Jankow of the Peace Resource Center, Ray Lutz, Potrero activist and director of Citizens’ Oversight Projects.org.Many argue that the opening of the Blackwater facility was accomplished through a secretive and questionable permitting process, with no public hearings, and a lack of transparency and accountability.John Fanestil, Executive Director of the San Diego Foundation for Change, warned against the growing “culture of the covert operation” which authorizes and legitimizes the secretive appropriation of land and public resources, treating community groups with suspicion and cutting out local stakeholders and elected officials from the traditional processes of debate and discussion which enable community self-determination in a democracy. District 8 City Councilman Ben Hueso pointed out in a recent editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune (No: Facility is inconsistent with community) that had it not been for a tip from a concerned citizen, the Blackwater facility would have opened with little fanfare or public knowledge of its existence.
Scahill’s study of Blackwater provides rigorous and well-researched support for the concerns of many San Diego leaders who fear the erosion of the processes of public accountability, transparency and democratic process that the recent opening of the Blackwater Otay Mesa training facility represents. Scahill’s book stresses the rapid transformation of private-public enterprises and the unique access to public monies and political power that military contractors enjoy today. While military contractors have always been hired to perform specialist operations in foreign wars, Scahill argues that the increasing privatization of traditional government and military functions sets Blackwater apart:“We are in the midst of the most radical privatization agenda in U.S. history.”
What is unique here, and uniquely threatening to democracy and the rule of law, are the historical and economic conditions under which this massive transfer of public tax dollars to private corporations is taking place. Scahill rejects the facile name-calling or moralistic arguments against Blackwater that would lead some to call them “fascists” or to offer up conspiracy theories to explain the success of these companies.Rather, Scahill points to the political economy of security in the post-9/11 period as the driving force behind the rapid expansion of companies like DynCorp, Titan, as well as Blackwater.“Blackwater operates in a demand-based industry—demand for aggressive wars of conquest” that are the driving force for the massive wealth transfer from the American people to private corporations.
Following the Bush Administration playbook, Blackwater spokesmen regularly stay on message in attempts to frame their expansion in the most limited terms possible.They regularly claim that it is “pure coincidence” that Blackwater West is building facilities on the US-Mexico border. In a May 23 editorial in the San Diego Union Tribune, Blackwater President Gary Jackson argued vociferously that Blackwater will limit its role to “provide essential preventative training” to a seriously underfunded military. “The proposed training facility has one purpose: to prepare our military and law enforcement personnel to deal wtih potential threats. [. . .] While critics have floated a wide range of wild theories concerning the ‘real purpose’ of our presence in San Diego, it really is that simple. There is no other agenda.”
In spite of repeated public statements to the contrary, Blackwater is clearly situating itself to capitalize on potentially lucrative contracts to provide border security and engage in anti-drug efforts, work which is currently being performed by military contractors in Colombia. When questioned by East County activist and candidate for 77th Assembly district, Ray Lutz, about Blackwater’s future plans to involve itself in border security, Blackwater VP Brian Bonfiglio readily admitted that Blackwater would accept any contracts that might come its way.
Last summer Blackwater entered into a $15 billion contract to fight “terrorists with drug trade ties,” according to Scahill. In addition, Blackwater runs another subsidiary company called “Total Intelligence Solutions,”overseen by J. Cofer Black, Robert Richer and Enrique “Ric” Prado, which Scahill has referred to as “Blackwater’s private CIA.” Currently in the US, 70% of the total US intelligence budget is in the hands of private intelligence corporations.”
Blackwater spokesmen’s own words confirm John Fanestil’s analysis that this expansion is driven by a culture of covert operation. Gary Jackson argues against public hearings that might threaten the unimpeded expansion of their corporate enterprise: “Debate over U.S. foreign policy has a place – in Congress, in presidential campaigns, and indeed in Ameri
can public discourse – but political debate should not affect permitting processes or encumber our military and law enforcement’s essential need to prepare for potential attacks.” In a response to the widespread public response to Potrero citizen groups’ opposition to Blackwater’s proposed facility there, Brian Bonfiglio rejected the legitimate role of elected leaders and citizen groups in public debate, accusing Congressman Bob Filner and the East County Democratic Club of having “inserted themselves into the process . . . to make a political statement about the war in Iraq.” (posted on 8 January 2008 on the voiceofsandiego.org blog Cafe San Diego–link disabled)
In fact, the widespread opposition of local elected leaders has nothing to do with opposition to the Iraq war.Congressman Bob Filner and City Councilman Ben Hueso have each made it clear that they oppose Blackwater because of the inherent conflicts of interest involved. In his May 23 editorial in response to Blackwater President Gary Jackson, Hueso pointed to the “very apparent conflict of interest of a for-profit corporation that profits from insecurity at the border.”
At an April 25 press conference in front of the proposed Otay Mesa facility, US Congressman Bob Filner pointed out a few of the dangers inherent in the use of mercenary forces in military roles: “The use of civilian-defense contractors is irresponsible, and should be stopped immediately. Not only are they unaccountable to the Military, the State Department and Congress; they are civilians serving in combat and combat-training. Many have been wounded or have wounded others, and yet, they are not veterans; there is no safety net when they come home. It is criminal to ask civilian men and women to perform the role of the military when they lack the support necessary to return to their civilian lives.”
In her statement at the same press conference, Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny, California Senate District 40, explained that local opposition is a legitimate part of any process of public debate: “There were environmental issues when Blackwater tried to locate in Potrero and now they want to site a facility in an industrial area within the footprint of the proposed cross-border terminal. Given the controversial nature of this corporation, residents and stakeholders in Otay Mesa should have been informed of a proposed training facility for mercenaries near their community. Their views on this matter need to be taken into account whether this facility is compatible to Otay Mesa’s residents and businesses.”
On Tuesday, June 17, the public debate will continue as City Attorney Mike Aguirre argues the City of San Diego’s case against the opening of the Otay Mesa facility in Federal Court.Meanwhile, local activists have planned to continue public demonstrations in front of the Blackwater facility.