Mercenary (Mer-cen-ar-y): Adjective (of a person or their [sic] behavior): Primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics; Noun: A professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army; Synonyms: adjective venal; noun hireling soldier of fortune

Assassin (As-sas-sin): Noun 1. A murderer of an important person in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons; 2. A member of a branch of Ismaili Muslims (1094-1256) renowned as violent military fanatics; Synonyms: murderer- killer- slayer-cutthroat

        —The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

In his insightful memoir We Meant Well, Peter Van Buren, who had served as a State Department official in Iraq during the Bush administration, described the various “tribes” he encountered at his FOB (Forward Operating Base), including the military contractors, many of whom worked for the by-then-notorious Blackwater private military/security firm, or one of its many iterations:

Most were Americans, with a few exotic Brits and shady South Africans thrown in. . . . Not to their face, most people called these guys mercs, not contractors, in that they carried weapons on behalf of the U.S. government, sometimes shot at Iraqis, but were not soldiers.  This is what the military would look like without its senior NCOs—a frat house with guns.  This tribe differentiated itself from the soldiers.  They especially favored fingerless leather gloves—think biker gang . . . Popular was a clean-shaven head, no moustache, but a spiky goatee about four inches long. . . . They were bullies, of course.  Flirting inappropriately with the women and posturing around the men. . . . This tribe worked out at the gym a lot, as did the soldiers . . . [but the contractors] ended up huge, ripped, and strong, while the soldiers just ended up strong, leading to whispered discussions about large-scale steroid use.  Aggressive tattoos on all exposed skin seemed a condition of membership . . . They all let on that they were former SEALs, Green Berets, SAS men . . . but they could not talk about it.  Nor did they disclose their last names . . . Instead, they tended to go by nicknames like Bulldog, Spider, Red Bull, Wolverine, Smitty, or Sully. . . . If arrogance was contagious they’d all be sneezing.

It’s interesting that in 2009, as Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater USA, was distancing himself from his creation (before departing for his new residence in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates), one witness in the numerous federal investigations of Blackwater claimed that the company’s contractors requested that he procure steroids and other drugs for them and invited him to all-night cocaine- and hashish-fueled parties at Baghdad’s Al-Hamra hotel.  A thug, it appears, is still a thug; a mercenary still a mercenary; and an assassin still an assassin, regardless of what you call him.  The nature of the beast does not change if it is rechristened as a “military contractor” and blessed by the U.S. government, which has apparently at times outsourced its lethal “operations” to such as these.  The goal has been to achieve “plausible deniability” of any involvement in assassinations, but the result has been to undercut accountability before the people of the country in whose name these operations have been carried out.  In an atmosphere of terrorist threats, increased secrecy, and expanding state power, the slippery slope to tyranny provided by such an arrangement should be apparent to any thinking citizen.

In 1976, President Ford, under pressure as a result of reports issued by the Senate’s Church Committee on illegalities and abuses of power by the CIA and other government agencies, including attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, issued an executive order banning assassinations.  The ban was reiterated in a 1981 executive order issued by President Reagan, which read, in part, that “no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”  In 1998, the Clinton administration relaxed the ban in regard to targets the U.S. government connected to terrorism.  Following the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush issued a presidential “finding” that expanded the Clinton-era directive, giving the CIA authority to hunt down and capture or kill individuals targeted as terrorist threats to the United States.  At the time, sources in the CIA were confident that the “finding” would not leave the agency as the political fall guy, should an operation be botched.  But Congress was not informed about the assassination program for eight years after the presidential finding was issued.  And the government’s “deniability” and duplicity reflexes were not long at rest—indeed, if media accounts of the life story of one of the chief CIA-turned-Blackwater operatives, Enrique “Ric” Prado, are true, those reflexes had never really been inoperative, executive orders notwithstanding.

In June 2009, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta testified before a congressional committee that the agency had previously hired Blackwater to help manage the assassination program.  “The move was historic,” according to journalist Evan Wright, author of a book on the invasion of Iraq, Generation Kill, in that the U.S. government had outsourced a “covert assassination service” to a private enterprise.  Wright penned an e-book entitled How to Get Away With Murder in America on the operation and its immediate distancing of the U.S. government—especially the president—from responsibility:

In the past, the C.I.A. was subject to oversight, however tenuous, from the president and Congress . . . [but] President Bush’s 2001 Executive Order severed this line by transferring to the C.I.A. his unique authority to approve assassinations.  By removing himself from the decision-making cycle, the president shielded himself . . . from responsibility should a mission go wrong or be found illegal.  When the C.I.A. transferred the assassination unit to Blackwater, it continued the trend.  C.I.A. officers would no longer participate in the agency’s most violent operations, or witness them.  If it practiced any oversight at all, the C.I.A. would rely on Blackwater’s self reporting . . . Running operations through Blackwater gave the C.I.A. the power to have people abducted or killed with no one in the government being exactly responsible.

The bulk of Wright’s reporting on the assassination program concerns Ric Prado.  According to Wright’s sources, Prado, whose family had fled Cuba for Miami after the revolution brought Castro to power, was a high-school friend of one of South Florida’s leading cocaine traffickers in the 70’s and 80’s, Albert San Pedro, and had been an enforcer for San Pedro’s drug business.  Wright’s FBI and Miami police sources say that Prado was involved in seven murders.  Prado served in the Air Force, and in the early 1980’s, as the Reagan administration’s program to arm and support the Nicaraguan Contras was initiated, Prado joined the CIA as a covert operative.  (The agency either missed, which seems highly unlikely, or simply ignored his connections to organized crime; in any case, the Spanish-speaking veteran Prado apparently seemed a good fit for the Contra program.)  In 1991, Prado was implicated in an FBI investigation of organized crime that uncovered his association with San Pedro.  According to Wright’s law-enforcement sources, Washington protected Prado, and he was never called to testify before a federal grand jury.  By 1996, Prado was a senior manager in the CIA’s anti-Bin Laden operation.  In 1998, he was made chief of operations in the agency’s Counterterrorist Center, headed at the time by J. Cofer Black.  Reportedly, Black and Prado were later put in charge of the CIA assassination program following the Bush administration’s issuing of its “finding” on targeting terrorists.

Blackwater was first “put on the map,” according to Vanity Fair journalist Adam Ciralsky, by the 2000 Al Qaeda attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.  Erik Prince’s firm was hired to train sailors to respond to such attacks.  In 2002, CIA Executive Director A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard—who was, according to some media sources, a friend of Erik Prince’s deceased father, Edgar—enlisted Blackwater to provide security for the agency’s Kabul station.  (When he died in 1995, Edgar Prince left his children a prosperous auto-parts manufacturing firm that they eventually sold for $1.35 billion.)  Krongard later served as an unpaid advisor to the Blackwater board of directors, stepping down in 2007.

By 2005, both Prado and Black were working for Blackwater—and had effectively brought the assassination program with them.  Eventually, Black’s immediate superior, Rob Richer, then-deputy chief of the CIA clandestine service, was hired by Blackwater as well; according to a number of media reports, the entire operation was “off the books,” with no formal contract concluded between the CIA and Blackwater.  Blackwater could provide the needed services and the “plausible deniability” the government wanted.  When the assassination program was kicked off, Prado and Black had gone to Prince to enlist Blackwater’s services in training hit teams that would “find, fix, and finish”: Find the target, fix the target’s routine, and if necessary, “finish” the target.  Prince and Prado worked at privatizing the program (Prince is on record as a significant donor to the Republican Party and a champion of “private sector” solutions), running the operations with contractors and third-country nationals who may not have been aware of the CIA connection.  Prince himself later told Ciralsky that “we were building a unilateral, unattributable capability.  If it went bad, we weren’t expecting the chief of [the CIA] station, the ambassador, or anyone to bail us out.”  He also insisted that the CIA still had operational control over the unit.

In his 2009 congressional testimony, then-CIA Director Panetta claimed that he had learned of the assassination program only the day before he testified, and that he had promptly shut it down.  Panetta named both Erik Prince and Blackwater as key players in the program.  The CIA also claimed that the program’s teams had never actually killed anyone (and claimed the lack of results, and not the lack of accountability or control, was the reason the program had been shut down).  But according to Evan Wright—and to Prince himself—that was not the case.  Wright’s sources, two former Blackwater contractors, insisted that they had “finished” targets (the two contractors claimed that the company’s teams had been “whacking people like crazy”), while Prince himself told Ciralsky that he and a team of foreign nationals had “fixed” a target for a U.S. Special Forces team in Syria in October 2008.  (The Vanity Fair story was published in January 2010.)  Apart from that, according to a New York Times story published in August 2009, Blackwater—and not the CIA—had been arming Predator drone aircraft for attacks on targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Blackwater attracted media scrutiny because of its own contractors’ dubious, trigger-happy reputation.  The beginning of Blackwater’s—and Erik Prince’s—troubles was in Iraq, where the aggressiveness of the firm’s contractors had, during the Bush administration, alienated the Iraqis as well as the U.S. military.  On September 16, 2007, Blackwater contractors, providing security for U.S. officials, opened fire on Iraqis at a Baghdad intersection, killing 17 people.  Following a 15-month investigation, the Department of Justice charged six Blackwater contractors with voluntary manslaughter and other offenses.  The DOJ insisted that the use of force was both unjustified and unprovoked.  Subsequently, the New York Times claimed that Blackwater had bribed Iraqi officials to the tune of one million dollars to buy their silence regarding the case.  (Prince denied the charge.)  The killings kicked off a host of federal investigations regarding Blackwater.  By 2010, Prince had sold his interest in the company and kicked off new ventures in the United Arab Emirates.  Blackwater, renamed Xe, was subsequently reincarnated as Academi.

The Obama administration has gone through the motions of distancing itself from the private contractor to provide some cover for its continuing program of targeted assassination by Predator drones.  But the President has not abandoned Blackwater.  According to Evan Wright, in 2010 the Obama administration intervened on behalf of Blackwater executives who had been indicted on weapons-trafficking charges, filing motions to suppress evidence on national-security grounds.  The administration then awarded Blackwater a $250 million contract for unspecified services performed for the CIA.

Wright believes that the “apparatus” for killings conducted with “plausible deniability” is still in place.