Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blackwater Changes Its Name

Blackwater, the most notorious of the private security contractors (and that is saying something), is changing its name. The Washington Post confirmed this in a February 14th article. The new name of the company will be Xe (pronounced "zee"), and the move is meant to redefine how people think of Blackwater. Anne Tyrell is the company's spokeswoman (which has to be high up on the list of worst jobs in the world) and she said that Blackwater is not what it used to be and "can no longer accurately be described as Blackwater." Somewhat coincidentally, yesterday Judge Ricardo Urbina (D.C. District) ruled that the Department of Justice could proceed with its case against five former Blackwater contractors for manslaughter in a case stemming from the Nisoor Square incident in Baghdad in 2007. For those who don't remember, or haven't heard of, the Nisoor Square incident, it involved heavily armed Blackwater contractors opening fire unprovoked in a crowded square in downtown Baghdad, killing and wounding a number of innocent Iraqis. A sixth contractor charged in this incident plead guilty, and is now cooperating with federal prosecutors. This case represents the largest and most prominent use of a recently passed, and woefully underused, federal statute called the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. The MEJA grants federal prosecutors here in America the power to try, in federal court, those who commit certain felonies while working in support of a Department of Defense mission overseas. It is the only statute proven to give the U.S. governement power to hold overseas contractors criminally liable, and despite numerous reports of contractor abuses overseas it has only been used about 12 times. I'll stop here because I'm digressing from the topic of this post.

The real question here is why is Blackwater changing its name? Given the terrible press that it has recently gotten the most logical answer is: to distance itself from its past mistakes. That makes sense to me; however, the word out of Blackwater the past few months has been that they are shifting their business model (away from private security) and basically getting out of the security contracting business. I think that may be facially true, but I think that now is an easy time for them to say they are getting out. In fact, what I think is happening is that they are stepping back for the time being and waiting for a better environment to get back in the private security business.

The reasons it is easy for them to step back now are easy to spot. First of all their lucrative State Department contract is not being renewed when it runs out in May. It's gotten roughly $1.3 billion worth of contracts from State since 2001 so it has a pretty nice cushion there. The reason this contract is being cancelled is because the Iraqi government is refusing to allow Blackwater to have a license to operate in the country. I'd say it's a good time to step back when your cash cow takes a hike. Secondly, it's easy for them to step back on attempting to acquire private security contracts because a new administration is in power. I think it is highly unlikely that the Obama administration would ever hire Blackwater, or Xe, or whatever you want to call it. Not only is there a stigma now attached to the company, but the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, was a huge republican supporter and it is no secret that Blackwater got most of its contracts through his position as a Republican insider.

Blackwater does legitimately have other facets to its business and has for quite some time. It has an aviation section, an intelligence section, and a huge training section (among a few others). I absolutely believe that they will focus on growing these parts of their business and using them as their money makers for the foreseeable future; however, I do not believe that they are getting out of the private security industry. Private security is where the money is and it is what Blackwater does best (they never lost a protectee during their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). Erik Prince is a former Navy SEAL and a lot of Blackwater's employees are former SEALs and others from the special operations community. These guys are hard wired to want to operate in the field. They don't want to sit around and do intel or train people all the time.

Bottom line is that Blackwater is stepping back for the time being, but that doesn't mean they are going away forever. The question will be: What will happen when they step back on the private security scene? Will they have changed? Will it be a company that attempts to control and reign in its operators? I think not. I don't the problem resides with most of the people that work for Blackwater, I think it is a problem with the leadership. The leadership never showed any sign that it thought it was doing anything wrong or any sign that it would attempt to change its ways. Unless the leadership changes, when and if Blackwater comes back on the scene, I think it will be more of the same.

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