By Jeremy Scahill
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama's advisers said he "can't rule out [and] won't rule out" using mercenary forces, like Blackwater. Now, it appears that the Obama administration has decided on its hired guns of choice: Triple Canopy, a Chicago company now based in Virginia. It may not have Blackwater's thuggish reputation, but Triple Canopy has its own bloody history in Iraq and a record of hiring mercenaries from countries with atrocious human rights records. What's more, Obama is not just using the company in Iraq, but also as a U.S.-government funded private security force in Israel/Palestine, operating out of Jerusalem.
Beginning May 7th, Triple Canopy will officially take over Xe/Blackwater's mega-contract with the U.S. State Department for guarding occupation officials in Iraq. It's sure to be a lucrative deal: Obama's Iraq plan will inevitably rely on an increased use of private contractors, including an army of mercenaries to protect his surge of diplomats operating out of the monstrous U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
The Iraq contract may come as no surprise. But according to federal contract records obtained by AlterNet, the Obama administration has also paid Triple Canopy millions of dollars to provide "security services" in Israel. In February and March, the Obama administration awarded a "delivery order" to Triple Canopy worth $5.5 million under State Department contract SAQMPD05F5528, which is labeled "PROTECTIVE SERVICES--ISRAEL." According to one government document, the contract is scheduled to run until September 2012. (Another document says September 2009.) The contract is classified as "SECURITY GUARDS AND PATROL SERVICES" in Israel. The total value of the contract was listed at $41,556,969.72. According to a January 2009 State Department document obtained by AlterNet labeled "Sensitive But Unclassified," the Triple Canopy contract is based out of Jerusalem.
According to federal records, the original arrangement with Triple Canopy in Israel appears to date back to at least September 2005 and has been renewed every year since. The company is operating under the State Department's Worldwide Personal Protection Program (WPPS), which provides for private security/military companies to operate on the U.S. government payroll in countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, and Israel. Triple Canopy, according to an internal State Department report, also worked under the program in Haiti, though that task order is now listed as "closed." In State Department documents the WPPS program is described as a government initiative to protect U.S. officials as well as "certain foreign government high level officials whenever the need arises." The State Department spent some $2 billion on the WPPS program from 2005-2008.
Triple Canopy's Growing Footprint in Iraq
Triple Canopy is hardly new to the Iraq occupation. Founded in Chicago in 2003 by "U.S. Army Special Forces veterans," the company won its first Iraq contract in 2004. In 2005, with its business expanding, Triple Canopy relocated its corporate headquarters from Obama's home state to Herndon, Virginia, placing it much closer to the center of U.S. war contracting. (On several U.S. government contracts, however, including the Israel security contracts, its Lincolnshire, Illinois address is still used.)
Along with Blackwater and DynCorp, Triple Canopy has had armed operatives deployed in Iraq on a major U.S. government contract since the early stages of the occupation. At one point during this arrangement, Blackwater was responsible for Baghdad (the largest share of the work), DynCorp covered northern Iraq and Triple Canopy southern Iraq. Triple Canopy also worked for KBR and other corporations. As of 2007, Triple Canopy had about 2,000 operatives in Iraq, but only 257 on the State Department contract. However, its new contract, which takes effect May 7, will greatly expand Triple Canopy's government presence in Iraq. (Meanwhile, Blackwater is scheduled to continue to work in Iraq under Obama through its aviation division and in Afghanistan, where it has security and counter-narcotics contracts. It also holds millions of dollars in other U.S. government contracts around the world and in the U.S. In February alone, the Obama administration paid Blackwater nearly $70 million in security contracts.) The Obama administration may have traded Blackwater for Triple Canopy in Iraq, but it is likely that some of Blackwater's operatives, too, will simply jump over to Triple Canopy to keep working as armed security guards for occupation officials.
Like Blackwater, Triple Canopy has had its share of bloody incidents, among them allegations that operatives have gone on missions where they shot at civilian vehicles, including one after a briefing where a team leader cocked his M-4 and said to his men, "I want to kill somebody today. ... Because I'm going on vacation tomorrow." (The man in question denied any wrongdoing). While Triple Canopy fired some employees for not reporting shooting incidents in Iraq, none have been criminally prosecuted in Iraq or the U.S. (For a full report on this and other incidents involving Triple Canopy, check out the great work of Washington Post foreign correspondent Steve Fainaru, author of Big Boy Rules.)
Also like Blackwater, Triple Canopy has hired mercenaries from countries with atrocious human rights records and histories of violent counter-insurgencies. Among them: Peru, Chile, Colombia and El Salvador. In fact, in Iraq, Triple Canopy hired far more "Third Country Nationals" than Blackwater and DynCorp and has used more TCNs than US citizens or Iraqis. As I reported in my book, Triple Canopy used the same Chilean recruiter (who served in Augusto Pinochet's military) Blackwater used when it hired Chilean forces, including some "seasoned veterans" of the Pinochet era. In El Salvador, the company reportedly used "a U.S.-trained former paratrooper and officer of the Salvadoran special forces during the country's civil war" where the U.S. backed a brutal right wing dictatorship in a war that took the lives of some 75,000 Salvadorans. A Triple Canopy spokesperson reportedly said of the Salvadorans, "They've got the right background for the type of work we are doing." A Triple Canopy subsidiary in Latin America has also reportedly used a former CIA base in Lepaterique, Honduras as a training center. In the 1980s, the facility was used by the CIA and Argentinian military intelligence in training Contra death squads to attack Nicaragua. The base also served as the headquarters for the notorious Battalion 316, a CIA-trained Honduran military unit responsible for torture and disappearances.
There is also cause for concern about Triple Canopy's attitude towards accountability for its forces in Iraq, particularly in light of new rules which, on paper, give Iraqi courts jurisdiction over contractor crimes. Blackwater has, at times, conspired with the U.S. State Department to whisk its forces out of Iraq when they are facing potential prosecution for alleged crimes committed in the country, as in the case of a drunken Blackwater operative who was alleged to have shot and killed a bodyguard to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel-Mahdi on Christmas Eve 2006.
According to one Triple Canopy operative, "We were always told, from the very beginning, if for some reason something happened and the Iraqis were trying to prosecute us, they would put you in the back of a car and sneak you out of the country in the middle of the night." Another Triple Canopy operative said U.S. contractors had their own motto: "What happens here today, stays here today."
The use of mercenaries by Hillary Clinton's State Department stands in stark contrast to her co-sponsorship as a Senator of a bill last year that sought to ban the use of such companies in U.S. war zones, specifically Iraq. Last February Clinton said, "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due." Now, Clinton will be relying on these hired guns for protecting her and her staff in various countries.
It's hardly a surprise that Obama is continuing the use of mercenaries in Iraq and beyond (Triple Canopy itself maintains offices in Abu Dhabi, Nigeria, Peru, Jordan and Uganda); nevertheless, members of Congress -- whose actions when Bush deployed these private armies were too little, too late -- have a responsibility to investigate his use of companies whose profits are intimately linked to a continuation of war. Moreover, Obama's choice of this particular company should be investigated, both by the House and Senate, before May 7th when Obama's mercenaries become the official paramilitary force in Iraq. As for Triple Canopy's role in Israel, Obama's administration should explain exactly what these forces are doing on the U.S. government payroll.
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Jeremy Scahill, an independent journalist who reports frequently for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, has spent extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army