What Blackwater Sells (and the Government Wants): Deniability

Ever heard of a pri­vate secu­rity con­trac­tor name Par­a­vant? XPG? No? Well, that’s just as Black­wa­ter, the par­ent com­pany of Par­a­vant, XPG and dozens of other “sub­sidiaries”, would have it. As a for­mer Par­a­vant Vice Pres­i­dent noted in Sen­ate hear­ings ear­lier this year, Par­a­vant and Black­wa­ter were “one and the same,” with Par­a­vant cre­ated in 2008 to put aside Blackwater’s “bag­gage”. But then again, we prob­a­bly shouldn’t be call­ing Black­wa­ter Black­wa­ter, since the com­pany itself changed its name to Xe in 2007, hop­ing to get a fresh start in the race for wartime con­tracts from the U.S. government.

The New York Times reported last week the story of Black­wa­ter and its “web of more than 30 shell com­pa­nies,” and this is not just a case of cor­po­rate rebrand­ing on steroids. Blackwater’s machi­na­tions and con­tin­ued bat­tle­field pres­ence have been made pos­si­ble by sys­temic changes such as a sharp decline in government’s abil­ity to over­see the work and even func­tions that have been increas­ingly out­sourced to pri­vate com­pa­nies. These changes are part of a new sys­tem of power and influ­ence that made its debut after the Cold War’s end. At the pin­na­cle of this sys­tem is the “shadow elite”. That’s the title of Janine’s book in which she iden­ti­fies a new breed of power bro­ker who bend the rules and play with their iden­ti­ties to best press their own agenda. They shut­tle back and forth among roles of power in offi­cial and pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions, gain­ing and hoard­ing vital infor­ma­tion at each stop to serve their own, not their orga­ni­za­tions’, inter­ests. And they take advan­tage of the ambi­gu­ity at the murky spaces where state and pri­vate power meet, because with ambi­gu­ity comes a cru­cial asset: deniability.

Black­wa­ter cre­ates deni­a­bil­ity in (at least) five ways. First, there’s the obfus­ca­tion cre­ated by the shell com­pa­nies them­selves. Once the name “Black­wa­ter” became radioac­tive, the com­pany, like the most nim­ble play­ers of the shadow elite era, recrafted its image and cor­po­rate struc­ture, if not its prac­tices, to achieve the same old agenda. Black­wa­ter could con­tinue to ped­dle its ser­vices through those subsidiaries.

Sec­ond there’s the ambi­gu­ity of pur­pose of gov­ern­ment offi­cials — and the deni­a­bil­ity that it lends them. As the Times puts it:

Army offi­cials said [dur­ing a Sen­ate hear­ing ear­lier this year] that when they awarded the con­tract to [shell com­pany] Par­a­vant for train­ing of the Afghan Army, they had no idea that the busi­ness was part of Blackwater.

There’s no appar­ent rea­son to doubt those Army offi­cials, but is that true for all of the con­tracts secured by Blackwater’s renamed units? It’s not hard to imag­ine the ben­e­fits of deni­a­bil­ity to gov­ern­ment offi­cials who might want to use Blackwater’s ser­vices, but are wary of the pub­lic rela­tions tox­i­c­ity. They can say they just didn’t know they were deal­ing with Blackwater.

Third, there’s the deni­a­bil­ity implicit in hir­ing for­eign con­trac­tors to per­form sen­si­tive and dan­ger­ous U.S. work. An inter­nal email obtained by the Times shows just how much Black­wa­ter tries to mar­ket this kind of deni­a­bil­ity. A Black­wa­ter exec­u­tive actu­ally uses the word in describ­ing why the gov­ern­ment, in this case the Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion, might be inter­ested in the ser­vices of a pri­vate spy net­work set up by Black­wa­ter. Black­wa­ter offi­cial Enrique Prado is quoted as writ­ing, “these are all for­eign nationals…so deni­a­bil­ity is built in and should be a big plus.” (It’s worth not­ing that Prado, in true shadow elite fash­ion, brought gov­ern­ment expe­ri­ence to his work at Black­wa­ter — he’s “a for­mer top CIA offi­cial,” accord­ing to the Times.)

Fourth, Black­wa­ter ben­e­fits from the deni­a­bil­ity that comes when the mech­a­nisms of gov­ern­ment over­sight have bro­ken down, and chains of com­mand are hard to dis­cern, the sys­temic nature of which Janine explains in a new report, Sell­ing Out Uncle Sam: How the Myth of Small Gov­ern­ment Under­mines National Secu­rity. Take the case of the deadly inci­dent that was the focus of those Sen­ate hear­ings — by the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee — men­tioned above. The Times refers to the 2009 inci­dent, in which two Par­a­vant work­ers fired their weapons and killed two Afghan civil­ians, and a read of the Sen­ate hear­ings shows how tan­gled the lines of author­ity appar­ently were. From the Com­mit­tee Chair­man, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.):

Army con­tract­ing per­son­nel .… said that one way they mon­i­tored the contractor’s per­for­mance was from their office in Florida, and that was by check­ing in with Colonel Wake­field … in Kabul. How­ever, Colonel Wake­field .… told the com­mit­tee that Task Force (TF) Phoenix, a sub­or­di­nate com­mand, had over­sight respon­si­bil­ity. Even after the May 2009 inci­dent, a review of poli­cies at Camp Alamo uncov­ered con­tin­u­ing ‘uncer­tainty’ as to what ‘author­i­ties and respon­si­bil­i­ties are over con­trac­tors,’ includ­ing ‘dis­ci­pli­nary issues’.

Who do you blame when no one can pin down who was really respon­si­ble in the first place?

Add to the con­fu­sion the fifth oppor­tu­nity for deni­a­bil­ity: in the case of the Par­a­vant deal (and count­less oth­ers through­out the con­tract­ing uni­verse), this con­tract was actu­ally a sub­con­tract — with another defense firm, Raytheon. As seen in the Sen­ate hear­ings, teas­ing out what Raytheon’s over­sight role exactly was is no sim­ple task. Again, ambi­gu­ity makes account­abil­ity a near impossibility.

Ambi­gu­ity is not an acci­dent. As Janine writes in Shadow Elite, ambi­gu­ity is a key fea­ture of the new sys­tem of power and influ­ence, and it serves power bro­kers an impor­tant func­tion. They can play dif­fer­ent sets of con­straints off each other, skirt­ing account­abil­ity in one venue by claim­ing they were oper­at­ing in another. They need not nec­es­sar­ily break the rules; they merely shift around them. Ambi­gu­ity is what affords actors deni­a­bil­ity: while advanc­ing their own agen­das, they agilely defy scrutiny and pub­lic accountability.

The Times quotes Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illi­nois Demo­c­rat, who doesn’t under­stand why the gov­ern­ment keeps giv­ing Black­wa­ter work:

I am con­tin­u­ally and increas­ingly mys­ti­fied by this relationship.….to engage with a com­pany that is such a chronic, repeat offender, it’s reckless.

Reck­less, yes, but to our eyes, not surprising.

One of the more infu­ri­at­ing aspects of the shadow elite is the abil­ity to seize new oppor­tu­ni­ties, fresh deals, no mat­ter how egre­gious the track record. The over­ar­ch­ing rea­son is that those on the other side of the deal are get­ting some­thing too. In Blackwater’s case, the gov­ern­ment wants some of the dan­ger­ous and dirty work of war car­ried out by hired guns, not uni­formed U.S. forces. And they appar­ently want to main­tain the abil­ity to point the fin­ger else­where when, as was the case that night of May 5, 2009 on Jalal­abad Road in Kabul, things go hor­ri­bly wrong.

By Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan

Pub­lished in The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Sep­tem­ber 9, 2010.

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