Xe and the Private Security Re-Branding Hustle

Today in CREDO’s Bracket of Evil, Blackwater squares off against Karl Rove for the title of “Worst for America.” Compelling cases can be made for both, that’s for sure. But it’s a bit ironic that it comes at a time when both are finding it increasingly difficult to find a role in the post-Bush era. Rove hasn’t been able yet to figure out whether he’s trying to be credible media (presumably not), a GOP strategist (increasingly problematic as historians begin to see him as all tactics, no strategy), or just famous-name-for-hire (more difficult as the brand dies).

Blackwater though is going through an even more dramatic collapse and re-invention largely outside the public spotlight. In the past three weeks, four lawsuits have been filed against the company (recently rebranded “Xe”) over the conduct of employees in Iraq. On March 19th, the family of a slain Iraqi vice presidential guard filed suit against Blackwater and former employees, accusing Andrew Moonen of drunkenly murdering Raheem Khalaf Sa’adoon in December of 2006 and other Blackwater employees of attempting to cover up the incident and reneging on a deal to compensate the family for the death. “Xe – Blackwater also is accused of spiriting Mr. Moonen out of Iraq, bribing an Iraqi government official, and destroying documents and other evidence relating to the Moonen shooting and other Xe – Blackwater shootings.”

On March 26 and 27, two more lawsuits were filed against Blackwater related to shootings in September 2007 including the now-infamous Nusoor Square massacre in which Blackwater employees killed 17 civilians. Finally (for now), a lawsuit was filed on April 1st accusing Blackwater personnel in the shooting of three Iraqi security guards in February 2007 and subsequent attempts to cover up evidence and otherwise frustrate the investigation of the incident. All of this, of course, on top of a federal investigation into Xe/Blackwater’s role in the Nusoor Square Massacre which has targeted six former employees with gun and manslaughter charges. One has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter, the other five are scheduled to go to trial early in 2010.

But does it ultimately matter?

All this going on somewhat outside the public spotlight is exactly the idea. After more than a year in preparation, Blackwater has rebranded itself as Xe, founder Erik Prince has stepped down from his role as CEO and president Gary Jackson has retired. All because these brands had become so tainted that it seriously infringed on Blackwater/Xe’s ability to do business. As Prince said as he stepped down “Me [sic] not being part of the equation reduces the ‘X’ on the thing.”

But it hasn’t stopped there. In what one Xe/Blackwater employee termed “[t]he implosion in the swamp”, nearly every executive has departed in the past several months as the company has sought to reinvent itself in both image and purpose. Largely absent is the contracting and security operations that have drawn headlines around the world for violence and a consistent lack of oversight. In their place is a re-commitment to training and tactical instruction in facilities like the one opened last year near the U.S./Mexico border in San Diego.

Much of this shift in focus is indeed driven by concerns about public perception. Rumblings of exactly such a change began last summer when it was determined that Iraq would refuse to renew Xe/Blackwater’s license to operate in the country. But last week, on top of changes to name and leadership, it was announced that Chicago-based security firm Triple Canopy would be taking over Blackwater’s Baghdad security contract. As many- including Blackwater expert Jeremy Scahill- have long maintained, the size and structure of government security forces have been so dramatically transformed by the privatization model that contractors are simply required based on sheer size of the security needed, but Xe/Blackwater found it increasingly difficult to stay in the private security game, having become the international symbol of everything wrong with a poorly-overseen system of contractors.

So where is Xe heading now? Clearly the company has been working on international contracts for quite some time. Last summer, they began working to expand their surveillance air fleet (now at over 80 aircraft) and the successful opening of facilities in San Diego and Illinois have significantly increased their capacity to offer training to military and law enforcement personnel. Additionally, in the wake of growing piracy concerns in the Indian Ocean, the company has explored private maritime security and last year was exploring training and support contracts for Latin American countries. But how will this actually change things?

Small-scale local pushback has continued around the country. Efforts by Xe/Blackwater to expand the hours of its San Diego shooting range were recently thwarted by local residents, and a partnership with Southwestern College sparked pushback from Congressman Filner, faculty and local activists, inspired anti-Xe/Blackwater teach-in sessions at the school and prompted the college to rework its contract with the company. Life so far isn’t much easier for a rebranded Blackwater.

The prospect of being hired by other countries though, especially for combat purposes, raises all sorts of jurisdictional and legal concerns. Would employees working under foreign contracts be bound by U.S. law or foreign laws? What if those contracts ultimately included direct action against American companies, government agents or military forces? Involvement in foreign countries outside the aegis of the U.S. government has even more sinister possibilities. Accusations have today been leveled against “Blackwater gone underground” for recruiting ex-combatants from Liberia’s civil war to fight in Iraq. While the author has sources confirming the Blackwater connection, the broader concern doesn’t hinge on this particular accusation being true (awful though it is/would be). Whose responsibility is it to police U.S.-based private contractors who engage in this sort of behavior in foreign countries?

And despite losing its security contracts in Iraq, it’s expected that “many if not most of its private security guards will be back on the job in Iraq” working for other security firms in short order. And as Scahill notes, “Triple Canopy has its own bloody history in Iraq and a record of hiring mercenaries from countries with atrocious human rights records.”

Which ultimately leaves us with simply this: A bunch of new and less-familiar names for exactly the same problems that have plagued the Iraq debacle and U.S. military and security operations as a whole for a decade or more. Poorly-controlled private contractors with frightening records of violence and disrespect for human rights continue to be responsible for security throughout the world (Scahill notes Triple Canopy will also be operating out of Jerusalem as a private security force in Israel-Palestine) with no indication that anything but toxic brand names have been changed.

The whack-a-mole continues.

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