North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide earned more than $1 billion in federal contracts, most of it providing security to diplomats in Iraq. Still, if the Iraqi government expels Blackwater after accusations of using excessive force, the company will survive, a spokeswoman said.
“It's huge,” Anne Tyrrell said of the potential expulsion. “I don't want to downplay that. … But it's not the only thing we do.”
Blackwater's work in the United States training law enforcement offices and military personnel, along with other overseas contracts, will keep the company going, Tyrrell said.
As of Thursday afternoon, she added, Blackwater hadn't been told formally that it wouldn't get a license to operate in Iraq, where it has about 1,000 workers who guard U.S. State Department workers. But a State Department spokesman said Iraqi's Ministry of Interior told the U.S. Embassy on Jan. 23 that it won't grant Blackwater a license.
Iraqi officials blame the company's violence. Blackwater has been involved in more than 200 shootings in Iraq, a congressional investigation found. In 2007, company contractors were accused of killing 17 innocent civilians in an incident in Baghdad. Five former Blackwater guards pleaded not guilty Jan. 6 in federal court to manslaughter and gun charges related to those deaths. Another has pleaded guilty to one count each of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting. He is cooperating with prosecutors.
Iraqi leaders called the 2007 shootings a massacre, labeling the Blackwater guards involved as criminal.
The Iraqis' decision to boot Blackwater has left the State Department scrambling to figure out how to ensure the safety of its staff in Iraq, which is so large that it is based in the biggest U.S. embassy in the world.
Blackwater had guarded the diplomats for five years and compiled a perfect record of never having lost one to the violence there. At the same time, though, Blackwater gained a reputation for being arrogant and quick to shoot.
Blackwater's capabilities include small helicopters that provide air cover for diplomatic convoys and the ability to quickly evacuate casualties to a hospital. Those functions and the same guards could be put under management of another large security company, such as DynCorp or Triple Canopy, said Robert Young Pelton, author of “Blackwater: License to Kill.” Pelton spent time on the road with Blackwater units in Iraq and with company owner Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL.
DynCorp and Triple Canopy already have licenses from Iraq.
Iraqi officials have said that Blackwater workers who haven't been accused of wrongdoing can continue working in Iraq if they change companies. Tyrrell agreed that it would be possible to shift Blackwater's guards to another company, because most are on short-term contracts.
It's also possible, Pelton said, that the embassy staff will start to behave more like its counterparts in other dangerous countries and simply venture out less, or, given that violence has fallen sharply, move clandestinely. That could reduce the need for such a massive security staff.
Blackwater's headquarters is in Moyock in the northeastern corner of North Carolina. There, it runs what's believed to be the world's largest privately owned firearms training facility. It tutors law enforcement officers and military troops there and at smaller sites in Illinois and San Diego.
Tyrrell said such training and the company's other contracts will keep it going, she said. The company also guards U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan, and it has a ship en route to Africa, where it hopes to get contracts protecting shipping from Somali pirates.
Pelton, the writer, said that Prince, whose family once sold an auto parts company for more than $1 billion, will have no trouble keeping the company alive. Because so many members of Blackwater's security force are on short-term contracts, the firm can get smaller with relative ease.
“This has been a cash cow for them, but they've got the training, things like that big aviation contract in Afghanistan and the drug interdiction, so they'll be all right,” Pelton said.