Friday, June 8, 2007

Attack of the Clones: Blackwater, Emergency Powers & the Endangered Republic

We go through episodes too, like Attack of the Clones.--Talib Kweli, "Get By"

In Star Wars lore, the Galactic Republic--in order to put down an insurgent rebellion--engineered a private guard of clone soldiers. Hailed as the protectors and saviors of the Republic, it was unknown that in fact they had truly been created by the Sith--as part of a complex plot to one day take power--and that the insurgency was more fabrication than reality. With the declaration of a grave emergency--the supposed "treason of the Jedi"--this clone army came under the sway of a Chancellor with thinly veiled aspirations of supreme power. In short time the Galactic Republic became an Empire, and the Chancellor its sole leader, with a vast private army answerable only to himself. Thankfully, we haven't gotten the science of cloning down past Dolly the sheep. And Sith Lords are mere fable. However, what the Star Wars mythology does warn, is that when you allow leaders with notions of unlimited power and religious messianic fervor to amass private armies wedded to similar notions, you might be asking for trouble--as a series of recent articles on the private firm Blackwater and White House directives reveal.

Earlier this year investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill released his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, shedding insight into the private military outfit that has now become a staple and beneficiary of the Bush presidency. In an article titled Bush’s Shadow Army in March, Scahill detailed the origins and extensive nature of the organization:

Blackwater was founded in 1996 by conservative Christian multimillionaire and ex-Navy SEAL Erik Prince--the scion of a wealthy Michigan family whose generous political donations helped fuel the rise of the religious right and the Republican revolution of 1994. At its founding, the company largely consisted of Prince's private fortune and a vast 5,000-acre plot of land located near the Great Dismal Swamp in Moyock, North Carolina....Blackwater currently has 2,300 personnel deployed in nine countries, with 20,000 other contractors at the ready. It has a fleet of more than twenty aircraft, including helicopter gunships and a private intelligence division, and it is manufacturing surveillance blimps and target systems.
With the Iraq War, Blackwater became a darling of the Bush Administration and has been making a literal "killing"--receiving lucrative federal contracts. As its founder and CEO Erik Prince told FOX News, "The phone is ringing off the hook now."

Scahill notes:

Its [Blackwater] largest obtainable government contract is with the State Department, for providing security to US diplomats and facilities in Iraq. That contract began in 2003 with the company's $21 million no-bid deal to protect Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer. Blackwater has guarded the two subsequent US ambassadors, John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as other diplomats and occupation offices. Its forces have protected more than ninety Congressional delegations in Iraq, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. According to the latest government contract records, since June 2004 Blackwater has been awarded $750 million in State Department contracts alone. It is currently engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign to be sent into Darfur as a privatized peacekeeping force. Last October President Bush lifted some sanctions on Christian southern Sudan, paving the way for a potential Blackwater training mission there. In January the Washington, DC, representative for southern Sudan's regional government said he expected Blackwater to begin training the south's security forces soon.
The accountability of these mercenaries, who are authorized to use deadly force, is non-existent. Twice in the past week, they have been involved in shooting incidents in Baghdad which have sparked anger among Iraqis. In 2004 the death of four Blackwater mercenaries in Fallujah caused a U.S. reprisal which killed hundreds of Iraqis and caused over a 100,000 to flee the city, which was left in ruins--an act that many today cite as a key spark of the insurgency. More disturbing is that Blackwater recruits not only from the U.S., but from the more notorious secret police/paramilitary employment pool in places like Chile--where many once worked under the American installed/backed right-wing dictator Augustus Pinochet. Erik Kongshaug highlights this practice in a May article for Random Lengths News:

The story of Chile's involvement with Blackwater begins in 2003, when Blackwater's neo-con founder, Erik Prince, a former U.S. Navy Seal, was discovered by his Chilean parallel: Jose Miguel Pizarro Ovalle, an avid supporter of then-ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet and an ex-Chilean special forces, himself, of dual U.S.-Chilean citizenship....As a subcontractor for Blackwater, Pizarro began recruiting from the Chilean military and federal police....Pizarro had provided, by his own admission, some 750 Chilean forces to Blackwater and other private military firms operating in Iraq.
Besides Chile, one of the largest other pools of recruitment for Blackwater is none other than South Africa. Bill Berkowitz in his article Mercenaries 'R' Us points out "there are more than 1,500 South Africans in Iraq today, most of whom are former members of the South African Defense Force and South African Police"--that's the pro-white apartheid South African Defense Force and South African Police, in case you might have missed the significance.

As if this shadowy nexus of foreign policy, white supremacy, private armies and modern "gurkhas" wasn't bad enough, there is the fearful prospect of what could happen if any leader--as was done with the Clone Army of the Galactic Republic--decided to turn their hired guards loose on a domestic populace. Seems far-fetched of course, but it's not as if we don't have the mechanisms to take such speculation into reality.

This past May, in a story that was somehow missed by most of the main stream press, the Bush White House released a directive detailing plans for dealing with a "catastrophic emergency" titled "National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD 51" and "Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-20." Within, "catastrophic emergency" is defined as "any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government function." This vague definition can fit just about anything--a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, an environmental accident, a computer virus attack, a disease outbreak or otherwise. During this time the document claims that "the continued function of our form of government under the Constitution, including the functioning of the three separate branches of government," will remain. However, it also states "The President shall lead the activities of the Federal Government for ensuring constitutional government," and goes further to say that any such functioning government would be "coordinated by the President, as a matter of comity with respect to the legislative and judicial branches and with proper respect for the constitutional separation of powers." If you're not familiar with the term "comity"--it simply means "courtesy;" this means the President would decide the proper role for the other two branches of government, as he feels would be necessary or proper.

In an article this June titled The Unitary King George, president of the National Lawyers Guild Marjorie Cohen states:

This Presidential Directive is a blatant power grab by Bush to institutionalize "the unitary executive." A seemingly innocuous phrase, the unitary executive theory actually represents a radical, ultra right-wing interpretation of the powers of the presidency. Championed by the conservative Federalist Society, the unitary executive doctrine gathers all power in the hands of the President and insulates him from any oversight by the congressional or judicial branches. In a November 2000 speech to the Federalist Society, then Judge Samuel Alito said the Constitution "makes the president the head of the executive branch, but it does more than that. The president has not just some executive powers, but the executive power -- the whole thing."
Now I'm no conspiracy theorist and neither are any of the people I quote above. Yet is it so hard to imagine a situation where such a directive granting George Bush the Younger emergency power as a "unitary executive" could easily place thousands of Blackwater mercenaries on the streets of U.S. cities? All one would need is the excuse that the present national guard are off fighting for our "freedoms" elsewhere. No? Can't picture it? Well although the emergency power granting directive hasn't been used by this president (yet), the private army of Blackwater has occupied a U.S. city already once before.

As Scahill documents:

In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina its forces deployed in New Orleans, where it billed the federal government $950 per man, per day--at one point raking in more than $240,000 a day. At its peak the company had about 600 contractors deployed from Texas to Mississippi. Since Katrina, it has aggressively pursued domestic contracting, opening a new domestic operations division. Blackwater is marketing its products and services to the Department of Homeland Security, and its representatives have met with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The company has applied for operating licenses in all US coastal states. Blackwater is also expanding its physical presence inside US borders, opening facilities in Illinois and California.
In the case of New Orleans, the disaster was Katrina, or more accurately the horror of the floods and incompetent neglectful relief effort that left tens of thousands of American citizens to face unimaginable conditions. Added to this was an American news media who helped spread wild rumors of "black gangbangers" and "rapists" let loose in a type of dystopian Mad Max meets Birth of a Nation scenario. Today much of these rumors have been proven to be either grossly exaggerated or outright discredited. But at the time, it provided the rationale for sending in private mercenaries like Blackwater. Images of these private soldiers, toting M-16s throughout the devastated city, escaped much of the national news media attention, but was seen around the world as chilling comparisons to Iraq.

Scahill notes:

...the appearance of Blackwater fighters, heavily armed and wearing their trademark black uniforms, patrolling the streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, may be a grim taste of the future.
Before I'm accused of being an alarmist, naturally I realize we haven't reached that future--not yet. However neither should we lull ourselves into the belief that it is out of the realm of possibility. There is nothing in the policies of the Bush Administration that has told us otherwise. In fact, all that we have seen should warn us to err on the side of caution. This is a presidency that blatantly attempts to greatly expand not only the power of the executive, but the authority of government to spy on its citizens even before 9/11. This is an administration that hijacked an emergency like 9/11 to pass the troubling Patriot Act and then create a false set of threats to start a disastrous war in Iraq. This is the administration that makes bedfellows not only with the notorious Federalist Society, but pulls key members from the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century which advocates the creation of an imperial global-spanning "Pax-Americana." This is an administration that manipulates fear, announcing incredulous "terror plots" and "terror warnings" to push policy or deflect responsibility. This is a government that sanctions torture, refuses to close Gulag-like facilities such as Guantanamo and has secret prisons around the world, where people are "disappeared" to without warning or legal recourse. And now it finds itself allied with a private mercenary firm, run by a religious Dominionist who--like the Sith Lords of Star Wars lore--has his own rigidly religious beliefs that guide his politics.

Taken all together, to paraphrase a saying, "either you're very concerned--even afraid--or you haven't been paying attention."

The world of a Clone Army and Galactic Republic twisted to empire are the works of fantasy. But it is not without historical inspiration. As award winning journalist Chris Hedges reminds us in What If Our Mercenaries Turn on Us?:

The privatization of war hands an incentive to American corporations, many with tremendous political clout, to keep us mired down in Iraq. But even more disturbing is the steady rise of this modern Praetorian Guard. The Praetorian Guard in ancient Rome was a paramilitary force that defied legal constraints, made violence part of the political discourse, and eventually plunged the Roman Republic into tyranny and despotism. Despotic movements need paramilitary forces that operate outside the law, forces that sow fear among potential opponents, and are capable of physically silencing those branded by their leaders as traitors. And in the wrong hands, a Blackwater could well become that force.
Hedges warns further:

If the United States falls into a period of instability caused by another catastrophic terrorist attack, an economic meltdown that triggers social unrest, or a series of environmental disasters, such paramilitary forces, protected and assisted by fellow ideologues in the police and military, could ruthlessly abolish what is left of our eroding democracy. War, with the huge profits it hands to corporations, and to right-wing interests such as the Christian Right, could become a permanent condition.
Of course we would be remiss if we indulged in amnesiac recollections of the American past, as if this threat to domestic freedom was somehow new. The Republic was born and nurtured in imperfection--where slavery was legal, women were guaranteed little rights and the poor were to remain in their class. The Republic has flexed its Imperial muscles before--sailing warships to force Japan into trade; dethroning indigenous royals in Hawaii; engaging in massacres in the Philippines; initiating a war of aggression with Mexico; establishing the Monroe Doctrine proclaiming its dominance over the hemisphere and more. The notion that the U.S. never practiced colonialism only works if we pretend this continent was not filled with varied indigenous peoples that were conquered, oppressed or outright exterminated in the name of Manifest Destiny. As Founding Father Thomas Jefferson would prophecy of the tragic fate of Native Americans, "In war they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them." This is the Republic that gave us the capitalism worshipping Gilded Age, where scientific racism was normalized, black oppression was codified into law, Japanese-Americans were placed into internment camps and Red Scares dominated public life. This is the Republic that helped initiate wars in Southeast Asia that would kill millions, topple democratically elected governments from the Congo to Iran, prop up dictators like Saddam Hussein, and push a mix of neoliberal economic policies and neoconservative ideologies that have threatened the lives and well being of most of the world's inhabitants. No leader or party of the Republic is without the taint of pretensions to Empire that "American Exceptionalism" breeds.

Yet, as Howard Zinn reminds us, the Republic has also been people and voices struggling against those powerful and destructive forces towards a better ideal. The many accomplishments the Republic often now boasts about--ending slavery, granting women some semblance of equality, human rights, civil rights, labor rights, freedom of speech, social safety nets, liberties and more--would not exist at all if not for those voices who challenged the would-be Empire builders, and reined them in.

Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here envisioned an America that had come under the sway of a fascism, where the would-be Empire builders had won. It was a work of both satire, and warning, as Lewis watched the happenings in Europe and similar themes erupting throughout the U.S. This year Salon columnist Joe Conason released his own take on Lewis's work, and our current society titled It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush. Private mercenary firms like Blackwater are only one part of that peril. But perhaps if signing statements, secret directives, debates on torture and such aren't enough to compete with Paris Hilton's brief jail stint or the latest 50 Cent beef for our collective attention, then maybe the spectre of jack-booted thugs toting automatic weapons, garbed in black uniforms and sporting wraparound sunglasses standing guard at the corner Starbucks or bodega might jolt us into reality--or realities that may yet come.


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