Triple Xe

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about that haunting, creepy scene in Apocalypse Now where, far up the river, Willard encounters a small band of soldiers in pitch blackness, punctuated by sudden explosions and shards of bright light, and Willard finally says, in exasperation, “Hey solider, do you know who’s in command here?” And the crazed, wild-eyed soldier replies: “Aint you?”

That scene is playing out in real life.  Again.  The New York Times published another excellent piece by James Risen, last week, where he examined revelations that Blackwater/Xe set up in excess of 30 “shell companies” so that they could keep obtaining government contracts they would not otherwise have received under their tarnished, radioactive real name.  Not only did this deception enable Blackwater/Xe to procure the contracts, but the combination of the murky nature of private security and the obfuscatory intentions behind creating multiple shell companies made accountability and oversight of their actions nearly impossible.

This deception is unfolding on two separate levels.  The first can be gleaned in Risen’s report that:

“Congress began to investigate the affiliated companies last year, after the shooting deaths of two Afghans by Blackwater security personnel working for a subsidiary named Paravant, which had obtained Pentagon contracts in Afghanistan. In a Senate hearing earlier this year, Army officials said that when they awarded the contract to Paravant for training of the Afghan Army, they had no idea that the business was part of Blackwater”

Let’s just note in passing that this company, no matter the name, just can’t refrain from murdering people and ending up under investigation.  They just cannot do it.   But read that statement: at a certain level, the Army did not even know who they were hiring.  Isn’t there someone in procurement and accounting who looks into a company’s corporate governance, history, track record etc. before millions of tax payer dollars are showered upon them?  Or does the Army just want to hire Blackwater/Xe no matter how dangerous and corrupt they are?  Is Afghanistan that violent and hopeless that they need cowboys and assassins to do the dirty work no matter the cost and/or diplomatic risk?  If that’s the case why are we still there?  Fundamentally, arrangements like this are about deniability and even though I take the Army at their word regarding the hiring of Paravant, you can see how well the ultimate goal of deniability was achieved by everyone involved.

The second, more important, more Willard-esque level this works on can be discerned in these frightening words from Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman Senator Carl Levin who said (via Huffington Post):

“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’.”

Translation:  Q: Hey soldier, do you know who’s in command here?  A: Ain’t you?

I’d skimmed Risen’s article last Friday when it appeared and although I’d considered posting about it as a follow up to my previous Blackwater/Xe post, I was busy and fatigued.  But that quote from Senator Levin was included in a piece published yesterday on the Huffington Post by Janine R. Wedel, author of Shadow Elite, and, in my view, put Risen’s article in a different, more ominous context.

Wedel’s post is fascinating on it’s own merits because she puts the “ambiguity” and confusion resulting from Xe’s use of “shell companies,” which render oversight and accountability nearly impossible, into a larger frame, eloquently and cogently characterizing the narrative logic and momentum behind such maneuvers on a macro level :

“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.”

You see the dynamic she describes here and the crucial causal relationship between ‘ambiguity’ and ‘deniability’ playing out again and again, whether it be Blackwater or BP.   Both Risen and Wedel cite a chilling, internal Blackwater email, written by a company official, and former CIA agent, named Enrique Prado, that explicitly mentions, and according to Wedel “markets” this ‘deniability.’  The email reads:

“’We have a rapidly growing, worldwide network of folks that can do everything from surveillance to ground truth to disruption operations,’” Mr. Prado wrote in the October 2007 message, in which he asked another Blackwater official whether the Drug Enforcement Administration might be interested in using the spy network. ‘These are all foreign nationals,’ he added, ‘so deniability is built in and should be a big plus.’”

Besides providing proof that the ability to escape accountability is of paramount importance to the majority of Blackwater/Xe’s dealings, this disturbing email also contains a few ominously Orwellian gems like its frightening invocation of “folks” who can perform “ground truth.”

How long before they are selling their ability to perform “ground truth” in, and not to, the United States?

After all that’s what mercenaries do, right?  Especially ones that feel spurned and unappreciated enough to move from Virginia to Abu Dhabi.

This creeping sense of everyone accruing power no matter the cost, yet somehow maintaining enough distance and structural ambiguity to evade and deny accountability pervades my impressions of America in 2010.  People like Erik Prince and Tony Hayward are defiantly in charge until their scams are uncovered or they do something like destroy the entire Gulf Coast, then all of a sudden not only are they not in charge-they can’t even remember anything about their structure of command or if they had the right engineering specifications…and it was the other company’s fault/responsibility anyway, and so-on and so forth.  Constantly, continually and masterfully, as Wedel wrote, “skirting accountability in one venue by claiming they were operating in another.”

Is this state affairs destined to be permanent? Can our national equilibrium be restored?

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