In the wilderness of North Carolina, a massive 7,000 acre complex rises up out of the Great Dismal Swamp where militaries and police forces come to be trained by the world’s most infamous private security company. The multimillion dollar complex, which includes lodging, classrooms, cafeteria, gun ranges and an airport, is the home of Academi: the mercenaries formerly known as Blackwater. While the company fights to rebrand itself, it is also expanding its operations.
Founded in 1997 by Erik Prince, a conservative Christian nationalist, the private security firm became one of the largest and most powerful mercenary armies in the world. As chronicled by Jeremy Scahill in Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Blackwater came to prominence during the massive outsourcing of security services during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It became one of the most controversial companies in one of the most controversial industries.
As reported by the Washington Post, post-invasion Iraq was flooded with guns for hire. From 2003 through 2007 the State Department paid out $2.4 billion for private security in Iraq. Blackwater received $1 billion during that time period from contracts to guard diplomats and other VIPs. Blackwater received a $27 million no-bid contract to provide security for Ambassador Paul Bremer, who led the Coalition Provisional Authority from May 2003 until June 2004. In addition Blackwater received contracts to guard Bremer’s replacements, Congressional delegations, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
There were several incidents involving Blackwater mercenaries using lethal force in Iraq. A Congressional report found that from 2005 until 2007 Blackwater operatives open fired on at least 195 occasions. In February of 2006, three Kurdish civilians were allegedly killed by Blackwater guards Kirkuk. Later that year the bodyguard of an Iraqi vice president was killed by a Blackwater guard. Then in early 2007 three security guards for an Iraqi media outlet were killed by a Blackwater guard. The most infamous incident involving Blackwater mercenaries would occur later that year.
On September 16, 2007 a Blackwater convoy left the Green Zone, reportedly without permission. According to witnesses, it suddenly and without provocation opened fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians. By the end of what became known as the Nisour Square Massacre, 17 civilians were dead and 20 more were wounded. While the Blackwater mercenaries claim they were shot at by insurgents, investigators with the FBI and the military determined they used deadly force without justification.
The US Supreme Court recently refused to dismiss a case against four former Blackwater employees involved in the Nisour Square Massacre who claimed their Constitutional rights were violated. The Guardian newspaper reports that trail will now precede, with Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball all facing manslaughter and weapons charges.
Since 2009 when the Iraqi government barred the Blackwater from the country, causing the firm to lose lucrative government contracts, Blackwater has gone to great lengths to rebrand and rehabilitate its image. That same year Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services LLC, and Prince resigned as CEO and moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Then in December of 2010 USTC Holdings bought the company, and in December of 2011 changed its name again to Academi.
While Prince’s name is no longer associated with the company, members of Academi’s board of directors and executives have close ties to the military, intelligence agencies, and defense contractors. Board member Retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman served as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Director of the National Security Agency. Additionally John Ashcroft, former Attorney General during the Bush Administration, serves on the board.
According to the Washington Post, Academi recently appointed retired Army General Jack Keane strategic adviser and consultant. After retiring in 2003, Keane became an analyst for Fox News, where he has been vocal critical of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. Keane also thinks that “some kind of conflict” with Iran is “inevitable.”
The Virginian-Pilot reported that Academi executives told the newspaper that “it is a new company with new leadership now…one dedicated to playing by the rules.” But, it seems that in many ways the company’s past is difficult to separate from its present day incarnation. The founder is apparently a liability to whatever rebranding it would like to accomplish. Ted Wright, Academi’s CEO, told the Virginia-Pilot that while Prince no longer has any association with the company he still has a financial stake in the company. An “earned-out” clause gives Prince a cut of the sales to “ensure that he doesn’t do anything to hurt the company,” as Wright puts it.
However, this rebranding effort has hit a snag. Athletic equipment and sporting goods chain thinks that Blackwater’s new name is too similar to theirs. The Virginian-Pilot repots that Academy claimed in a lawsuit, filled U.S. District Court in Houston, that the similarity between the two names will cause them “irreparable harm” given Academi’s corporate history and “the negative media coverage stemming from its security operatives in Iraq.”
Despite the complications in their rebranding and going through “lean times,” the reach of Academi is further than it ever was during the Blackwater years. Academi employees are deployed the world over, from North Africa in countries like Algeria to the Middle East in Bahrain. While Academi has been banned from Iraq, the company is still in Afghanistan (for now). Since 2002, Academi has received more than $1 billion in contracts in Afghanistan.
In the current fiscal year, Academi has received $40 million in contracts from the Department of State and another $10 million worth in contracts from the Department of Defense. The majority of these contracts are for “security services” in Afghanistan. While both State and Defense have 39 separate contracts with Academi, the Department of Homeland Security’s 47 contracts are the most of any federal agency.
The 47 contracts Academi has received from DHS in fiscal year 2012 are only worth $1.6 million. These contracts are mostly “tactical and law enforcement training” for members of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This training takes place at the Academi training facilities in North Carolina.
Academi is also expanding their already massive training facility. The Virginia-Pilot reported that the company is investing $3.2 million in its largest expansion in four years. A 235-bed lodge is planned for its North Carolina headquarters, in order to accommodate more customers for the training offered at the compound.
While defense contractors are bracing for cuts in defense spending, one of the ways that lawmakers often look to for savings is outsourcing services. The head of the world’s largest private security firm in the United Kingdom recently predicted that private companies will be running large parts of the UK’s police force. It seems that Academi and other private security contractors will be in an excellent position to take advantage of that kind of shift in policy here in the United States.
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