Category Archives: Eh? Sure

It’s gonna steppe on you, etc

Wikipediaphile: Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic

Crest of the Volga German ASSRA bit of a call-back to an earlier Wikipediaphile entry, this – ten years ago my interest was piqued by mention of the ‘Jewish Autonomous Oblast’; this time round it’s the ‘Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic’.

The Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (RussianАвтономная Советская Социалистическая Республика Немцев ПоволжьяGermanAutonome Sozialistische Sowjetrepublik der Wolgadeutschen), abbreviated as Volga German ASSR (RussianАССР Немцев ПоволжьяGermanASSR der Wolgadeutschen) or VGASSR (RussianАССРНПGermanASSRWD), was an autonomous republic established in Soviet Russia. Its capital was the Volga River port of Engels (known as “Pokrovsk” or “Kosakenstadt” before 1931).

Apparently it all harks bark to Catherine the Great and an eighteenth century Windrush-style plea for immigrants: she “published manifestos in 1762 and 1763 inviting Europeans (except Jews)[3] [plus ça change] to immigrate and become Russian citizens and farm Russian lands while maintaining their language and culture…The settlers came mainly from BavariaBadenHesse, the Palatinate, and the Rhineland, over the years 1763 to 1767. They indeed helped modernize the backward agricultural sector by introducing numerous innovations regarding wheat production and flour milling, tobacco culture, sheep raising, and small-scale manufacturing [and] helped to populate Russia’s South adding a buffer against possible incursions by the Ottoman Empire.”

By the time of the Russian Revolution the Volga German minority was substantial and concentrated around the Volga river; and so it was that they secured in October 1918 first a ‘Volga German Workers’ Commune’, which subsequently earned an upgrade to an ASSR. Fast forward a couple of decades and yer man Jughashvili is in the saddle, Europe is once more ablaze, and before you know it the Schicklgruber fella is giving it large with the Napoleon complex, haring across the steppe Barborossa-style.

Not good news for the Volga Germans, whom His Steelness considered definitely suspect; and so orders were given, the ASSR was dissolved in September 1941 and practically the entire population of more than half a million was sent into ‘internal exile’, with 438,000 sent to Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Taiga, taiga, burning bright: the Lykovs of Siberia

After reading about the Know Nothings on the Smithsonian Magazine website (note: it seems that the bare existence of history offends some Trump supporters), I then saw one about the Lykov family.

The Lykovs were a family of Old Believers – proper old skool Orthodox types – who in the late 1930s fled east into the Siberian wilderness or ‘taiga’ in fear of Soviet purges and suppression of their religion. They forged a life for themselves, just about, living off the bounty of the land (which sometimes isn’t that bountiful, especially when it’s minus forty degrees; the mother, Akulina, died of starvation in 1961).

They completely avoided contact with the outside world, with any strangers from outside their small family group, for forty years, until 1978 when a party of passing geologists spotted them and dropped by to totally freak them out with tales of men on the moon and television and flared trousers. It was enough to kill off the three oldest offspring in 1981, leaving just the ageing patriarch Karp and his youngest daughter Agafia (born 1944). Then old Karp popped his clogs in 1988, on the anniversary of Akulina’s own passing.

Since then Agafia’s been the last Lykov remaining. In 1997 a retired geologist (what is it with these rock-botherers?!) decided to come and live nearby to help her out, but seeing as he was older than her, hadn’t lived his entire life in the taiga, and was, uh, a one-legged amputee, it seems she was doing most of the helping. He died in 2015. In early 2016 Agafia herself was airlifted out for medical treatment. Not sure if she’s returned.

Anyway, there’s some great documentaries about Agafia and her family out there; even the Russian language ones are worth catching for the footage.

(It reminds me a little of the story of Lieutenant Hiroo Shinoda, the ‘last of the holdouts’ (though he wasn’t), who hid out in the countryside of the Philippines for nearly twenty years after the close of the Second World War until rooted out by young hippie explorer Norio Suzuki.)

Wikipediaphile: Force de frappe

The Samson Option by Seymour HershFifteen years ago, I borrowed a book called The Samson Option from a friend called Mike. I’ve finally got round to reading it. It’s written by the My Lai dude, Seymour Hersh, and it’s about Israel’s pursuit (and cover up thereof) of a nuclear weapons programme.

It’s rather interesting, and Hersh does name a few names when it comes to his sources (something that The Observer might like to try). Reading back about the book’s publication I’m reminded of the furore surrounding Robert Maxwell’s connections with the Mossad, and of then-Mirror foreign editor Nicholas Davies’s alleged involvement in dobbing in Mordechai Vanunu. Journalists actively conspiring with spooks? Who’da thunk it?

Anyway, whilst reading through it, I came across a phrase used to describe France’s strategic policy of independent nuclear deterrence: ‘force de frappe‘:

The decision to arm France with nuclear weapons was made in the mid-1950s by the administration of Pierre Mendès-France under the Fourth Republic. Charles de Gaulle, upon his return to power in 1958, solidified the initial vision into the well-defined concept of a fully independent force de frappe capable of protecting France from a Soviet attack independently from NATO, which de Gaulle considered to be dominated by the United States to an unacceptable degree. In particular, France was concerned that, in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the United States, already bogged down in the Vietnam War and afraid of Soviet retaliation against the United States proper, would not come to the aid of its Western European allies.

The strategic concept behind the force de frappe was the so-called dissuasion du faible au fort (Weak-to-strong deterrence), i.e., the capability of inflicting to a more powerful enemy more damage than the complete destruction of France would represent. The enemy, having more to lose, would therefore refrain from proceeding further (see MAD). The principle was summarized in a statement attributed to De Gaulle himself:

Within ten years, we shall have the means to kill 80 million Russians. I truly believe that one does not light-heartedly attack people who are able to kill 80 million Russians, even if one can kill 800 million French, that is if there were 800 million French.

De Gaulle’s vision of the Force de Frappe featured the same “triad” of air-based, land-based, and sea-based means of deterrence deployed by the United States and the Soviet Union. Work on these components had started in the late 1950s and was vigorously accelerated as soon as De Gaulle became president.

France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960 and operational weapons became available in 1964.

The joy of Sex Bangla

Despite only having – very briefly – mentioned a blog called Sex Bangla a mere three weeks ago, for some reason daily traffic to the BunKRS has pretty much doubled thanks to Bangla sex-seeking surfers.

Nearly 500 visitors got here via the WordPress tag for Sex Bangla; more than 200 via various combinations of the search engine terms ‘sex’ and ‘Bangla’. My short mention of the subject is the second most popular post for October on this blog, and the fifth most popular of all time 😮

Perhaps there’s a shortage of Bangla banging on the net, because at the moment it seems like everyone looking for it is coming via here, and I feel more than a little embarrassed that I don’t have any to share.

Oh, you poor Banglapornophiles, may your grotsearches prove eventually fruitful.

PS What sort of perverts come here in the vain hope of finding Anna Mendelson poetry?

Wikipediaphile: Jewish Autonomous Oblast

I can’t remember how I came to hear of this place, but when I did I became fascinated by it. A ‘Soviet Zion’ in the Russian Far East! I think I should very much like to visit it one day.

Jewish Autonomous Oblast is a federal subject of Russia (autonomous oblast) situated in the Far Eastern federal district, bordering Khabarovsk Krai and Amur Oblast of Russia and Heilongjiang province of China. The region was created in 1934 as the Jewish National District. It was the result of Joseph Stalin’s nationality policy, which allowed for the Jewish population of Russia to receive a territory in which to pursue Yiddish cultural heritage within a socialist framework.

…According to Joseph Stalin’s national policy, each of the national groups that formed the Soviet Union would receive a territory in which to pursue cultural autonomy in a socialist framework. In that sense, it was also a response to two supposed threats to the Soviet state: Judaism, which ran counter to official state policy of atheism; and Zionism, the creation of the modern State of Israel, which countered Soviet views of nationalism. The idea was to create a new “Soviet Zion”, where a proletarian Jewish culture could be developed. Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, would be the national language, and a new socialist literature and arts would replace religion as the primary expression of culture.

Stalin’s theory on the National Question held that a group could only be a nation if they had a territory, and since there was no Jewish territory, per se, the Jews were not a nation and did not have national rights. Jewish Communists argued that the way to solve this ideological dilemma was by creating a Jewish territory, hence the ideological motivation for the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Politically, it was also considered desirable to create a Soviet Jewish homeland as an ideological alternative to Zionism and the theory put forward by Socialist Zionists such as Ber Borochov that the Jewish Question could be resolved by creating a Jewish territory in Palestine. Thus Birobidzhan was important for propaganda purposes as an argument against Zionism which was a rival ideology to Marxism among left-wing Jews.

Another important goal of the Birobidzhan project was to increase settlement in the remote Soviet Far East, especially along the vulnerable border with China. In 1928, there was virtually no settlement in the area, while Jews had deep roots in the western half of the Soviet Union, in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia proper. In fact, there had initially been proposals to create a Jewish Soviet Republic in the Crimea or in part of Ukraine but these were rejected because of fears of antagonizing non-Jews in those regions.

Sugaring Spicer: the sensitive side of a professional gun

Tim Spicer <3 blue shirts and big shiny guns

Tim Spicer ❤ blue shirts and big shiny guns

Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray is being threatened by lawyers representing the globetrotting mercenary Tim Spicer.

The full text of the letter to Murray’s publishers Mainstream from Spicer’s solicitors Schillings (as taken from the PDF of the letter as hosted on Craig Murray’s blog) is as follows:

PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL
Mainstream Publishing Company (Edinburgh) Limited
7 Albany Street
Edinburgh
Scotland
EHl 3UG

BY POST AND FAX: 0131 556 8720

Our Ref: SMS/JXR/ww/A131/3

ON THE RECORD
NOT FOR PUBLICATION

08 July 2008

Dear Sirs

The Road to Samarkand – Craig Murray

We represent Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Spicer OBE, C.E.O. of Aegis Defence Services Limited (“Aegis”).

We are instructed to write to you with regard to ‘THE ROAD TO SAMARKAND- INTRIGUE, CORRUPTION AND DIRTY DIPLOMACY’ (“the Book”) written by Craig Murray and due to be published in September 2009 by you
(http://www.rbooks.co.uk/search results.aspx) to be sold in England and Wales by Random House Sales Department.

We have reason to believe that the Book may contain serious, untrue and damaging defamatory allegations about our client.

Please confirm by return whether the Book is due to be published in England and Wales in September 2008 and if so, the exact date. please also confirm whether the Book is due to be published in any other jurisdiction, setting out each jurisdiction, together with the publication date and publisher concerned in each case.

lmportantly, we require you to confirm by return whether or not the Book contains any reference to our client, and if so, we require you to set out in full each and every reference to our client in its entirety to give our client the opportunity to take legal advice and to respond to any allegations in good time prior to publication.

Any widespread publication of the Book containing defamatory allegations concerning our client would be deeply damaging to our client’s personal and professional reputations and would cause him profound distress and anxiety. We remind you that you would be responsible for that damage and any subsequent republication of the allegations. We also put you on notice that you will be liable for any special damage or loss suffered by our client as a result of the Book and we reserve all our client’s rights in this regard.

We note from your website http://www.mainstreampublishing.com/news_current.html that Mr Murray is due to speak about the Book at a ‘Mainstream author event at the Edinburgh lnternational Book Festival’ entitled ‘Lived Lives’ on 12th August 2008 at 4.30pm in the RBS Main Theatre, Edinburgh. We hereby put both you and Mr Murray on notice that all our client’s rights are reserved in relation to any defamatory comments or publications made by you or Mr Murray in relation to that event.

Please immediately take into your possession all drafts of the Book pre-publication, all notes, emails, correspondence, memos, images and oiher documents relevant to the publication of this Book, and preserve them safely pending the outcome of this dispute. They will need to be disclosed in due course if litigation has to be commenced. Also, you will need to disclose the financial arrangements for the sale and licence of the Book to other publications.

In the circumstances, we require that you confirm immediately that you agree to undertake on behalf of Mainstream Publishing Company (Edinburgh) Limited not to publish any libels regarding our client in any editions of the Book or at all.

We require the above undertaking by 4pm on Friday 11th July 2008, failing which we will have no option but to advise our client with regard to making applications to the High court for an injunction to restrain publication and/or for pre-action disclosure. You are on notice that we will seek to recover the costs of any necessary applications from you.

We await your response by return. In the meantime all our client’s rights are reserved, including the right to issue proceedings against you without further notice.

Yours faithfully

SCHILLINGS

cc. Craig Murray Esq.

Not bad, eh? Psychic libel lawyers who can predict what might be in an as-yet unpublished book!

Murray’s response to the threat is unequivocal:

Schillings are a firm of libel lawyers dedicated to prevent the truth from being known about some deeply unlovely people. They managed temporarily to close down this blog (and several others) to keep information quiet about the criminal record of Alisher Usmanov. Now they are attempting to block the publication of my new book in the interests of mercenary commander Tim Spicer, one of those who has made a fortune from the Iraq War. It is sad but perhaps predictable that private profits from the illegal Iraq war, in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died, are providing the funding to try to silence my book.

Libel law in the UK is a remarkable thing – Schillings can go for an injunction when I haven’t published anything about Spicer yet and they haven’t seen what I intend to publish. People might conclude that Spicer has something to hide. You will see that they also are attempting to censor not only the book, but what I say at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 12 August. I can assure you that they will find it impossible to affect what I say about Spicer at that event.

Nor will they prevent me from publishing the truth about Spicer, one way or another.

In a subsequent blog post, he adds:

Among the incidents I cover in my new book are the murder of Peter McBride, the Aegis Trophy Video, the Papua New Guinea coup, the Equatorial Guinea plot, Executive Outcomes’ muder of civilians in Angola and the Arms to Africa affair. I do hope that other bloggers will generate another Streisand effect through blogging on these subjects.

Lest we forget, Spicer – currently running extensive private military operations in Iraq and elsewhere with his company Aegis – has a history of working as a gun-for-hire in places like Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone, and via connections at mercenary outfits like Executive Outcomes and Sandline has long been a colleague of fellow former Scots Guard the recently convicted coup plotter Simon Mann.

Definitely one to keep your eye on, this’un…

China: Inure your Han (from uncomfortable displays of public discontent)

After all the hullabaloo in London, Paris, Frisco and the rest, it seems the Olympic flame finally sucked on the breath of discontent on home territory, being extinguished by a pair of Chinese labourers at a parade in the Shenzhen industrial zone:

In a stunning blow to China’s prestige, two local protesters shocked hundreds of cheering bystanders when they unexpectedly extinguished the Olympic Torch today near the Window of the World, a theme park in the Shenzhen industrial zone near Hong Kong.

The protesters’ motives were unknown. As the unsuspecting crowd cheered Beijing’s Olympic success, an eyewitness heard one of the two men, both of them Chinese, say “mission accomplished” after the torch was put out. Chinese television, which was filming the progress of the torch, hurriedly cut away. Television presenters said the transmission was having technical problems. However, the eyewitness was able to film the disturbance and made it available to Asia Sentinel. The film is being prepared for publication and was to be put on the site later today.

It is unknown what happened to the two protesters, who appeared to be common laborers. Some of the bystanders ended up with blood on their faces, the eyewitness said. It took about an hour of confusion, with the torchbearer being escorted to a military van, before it could be relit and start the procession again.

The Chinese could be excused for thinking with a sigh of relief that they were home free. The torch, traveling across the world to open the Olympic Games in July, has become a lightning rod both to enthusiastic Chinese citizens and to protesters who have attempted to pull it away from runners in cities from Paris to Seoul. Many in Asia itself have come to regard the torch processions as a manifestation of Chinese triumphalism rather than a symbol of the international brotherhood of sport. A rising tide of Chinese nationalism has become increasingly apparent as angry crowds of Chinese showed outrage at the treatment of the runners. Local television has been inundated with pictures of the runners, appearing to cheering crowds as they went. Pictures of demonstrators by and large have not been publicized.

None of the protesters was able to get to the torchbearers in any of the cities that it has been carried through, although large security details have been necessary to protect it in many and numerous scuffles have broken out. Wheelchair-bound Chinese paralympian fencer Jin Jing was attacked by a Tibet independence protestor as she carried the Olympic torch in Paris. Her successful defence of the “sacred flame,” as the Chinese state media refers to the torch, made her an instant icon in China.

Large and unruly demonstrations associated with protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet and other causes greeted the runners in London and Paris, for instance. In India, one of the country’s largest ever security operations had to be mounted to protect the torch and even then the route had to be shortened. In San Francisco, the route had to be changed at the last minute to throw demonstrators off the trail.

In South Korea, thousands of Chinese students attacked Koreans demonstrating against the Tibetan oppression and China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees. There were also clashes in Japan between Chinese students and local protesters and elsewhere in Asia there was little celebration. Thailand delivered massive police protection and threats of deportation should Tibetan exiles cause trouble. Indonesia kept the whole torch ceremony private.

It wasn’t until the torch got to North Korea to see a truly trouble-free passage. With authorities undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief that the torch was on home soil, the Shenzhen leg of the trip actually had to be delayed from early morning to noon as Chinese mountaineers carried it to the top of Mount Everest, known as Qomololongma to the Chinese, earlier in the day No changes were were made or contemplated in the Shenzhen route although the distance run by each torchbearer was shortened from 200 meters to 100 because of the Qomololongma delay.

From Asia Sentinel (massive tip o’ the titfer to Blood & Treasure, an excellent blog pulling together many fascinating stories from across Cathay, especially on Chinese civil society and protests, which are rarely – if ever – reported in the mainstream western press).

Headline Of The Day: SKYWALKERS IN KOREA CROSS HAN SOLO

Irving Thespius wirewalking Niagara Falls (from Eagle Picture Library #7, "Public Enemy No.1")Courtesy of AP via the Washington Post:

SEOUL, South Korea — They came from all over the world, poles in hand, and feet ready to inch more than half a mile across a high wire strung over the Han River in a spine-tingling battle of balance, speed and high anxiety.

As part of its annual city festival, the South Korean capital staged Thursday what was billed as the world’s first high-wire championship, drawing 18 contestants from nine countries for three days of supreme feats of concentration.

Each acrobat must navigate the 1.2-inch-thick wire that spans the river, with the top prize of $15,000 going to the person crossing it fastest.

…Organizers in Seoul said stringing the wire across the Han made it the longest-ever such high wire, meaning anyone making it across will break the record for distance.

(Tip o’ the titfer: percyprune)

The Digest: December 2007

Notes from the BunKRS header
Well, I thought it was time to play about with the way the blog works a little bit, so from now on I’ll try and knock together some kind of a monthly digest pointing you in the direction of some of the stuff I’ve been blogging about, and to take up the slack on some of the things I’ve been too lazy to blog about. Which, in a way, makes no logical sense whatever.

But hey ho. It also gives me the chance to defend things such as my devilishly overcomplicated category tree, to champion my current favourite things, and to idly mention things I keep intending to do but don’t, by way of somehow stimulating myself into activity. Think of it as self-help therapy outfitted by Primark, with nary a glance towards embarrassment.
Pick of the Posts header
Some of the things which I’ve been blogging about in recent weeks…

New Features header
As ever, I’ve been trying out some new format ideas…

Forget-Me-Knots

This month I finally kicked off Forget-Me-Knots, a feature in which for no discernible purpose I get to expound upon the mystery messages I’ve left myself via my mobile’s ‘reminder’ function. TBH though, I doubt many could better the inaugural one, ‘Tap Marmite White’. But fear ye not, I shall persist. Oh, and feel free to let me know of any similar such cryptic notes-to-self you’ve discovered on your own phone. Or in old notebooks. Or in Post-Its on your pootie. Or scribbled on the back of your hand in biro.

Screenage Kicks

A collection of TV and film-related miscellanea, featuring, amongst others…

» From Here To Shiternity: An illustrated guide to onscreen scat!
» HonkWatch: An illustrated guide to cinematic emetics!
» Piss & Vinegar: An illustrated guide to TV and movie wee-wee!

Best Blogs header
Clearly this is a ramshackle, half-arsed effort, but out in the big, wide blogosphere, these are the sites which have been tickling me…

  • As mentioned already, I’ve been reading The Bristol Blogger – always an enjoyably scurrilous take on life here in Britain’s biggest village;
  • Also on a Bristol tack, I’ve been getting into Bristol Graffiti, which is pleasingly unpretentious and open minded;
  • Then there’s the Lancaster UAF blog, where I’ve been following the split in the BNP;
  • Blood & Treasure has been providing me with fascinating peeks into Chinese society and politics;
  • My taste for wordchat has been greatly satiated by LanguageHat;
  • And in the world of music I’ve been following Mad Decent (it’s not just Diplo, you know) and the Boston bounce-inflected Mashit blog

Top Pods header
And similarly, here’s a clutch of podcasts which have been keeping my speakers at a steady operating temperature…

  • One of my favourites has been the Dean of Guildford Cathedral, the Reverend Victor Stock, discussing practical theology and theoretical physics with host Dr Brian Cox on the CERN podcast (trust me, it’s more listenable than that sounds);
  • Yo La La! has been a juicy find, an English language pod on Francophone rap – #32 was an illuminating look at French-American collaborations;
  • Oh, and whilst I’m here I may as well plug my own *ahem* podcast portfolio, Bristle’s BunKRS Sessions – recently beefed up with BeyondHipHop and The KRS MooSick Show, in addition to stalwarts like Bristle’s Bootleg Show, Axis Of Foley and UnderCover. New shows are on the way before Xmas, promise!

P.S. header
Right, that’s pretty much it for this month’s digest, I just want to say cheers to Shells and Lucrezia for the weekend, ta muchly for excellent hospitality and letting me bend your ears! And also good to see Hiccup and Ignatius and Cap’n Haddock, and my spar M, and my original homeboy Mike, and to meet German Julia, and glad to see things are working out for you, Lucibus (buy some of her beautiful pictures!), and to (briefly) say hi to Tim and Mark Who Boy… 2007’s been a mostly cruel year for me, so it was wonderful to have such a nice weekend towards the end of it all 8)

Happy Christmas to y’all out there, and here’s to a blinding 2008!

Dog of war has his wild goose cooked, finally

Bob Denard (1995 Comoros coup)Reuters has reported the death of veteran French mercenary Bob Denard:

“Denard was symbolic of the whole ambiguity of relations between the colonisers and the colonies which had became independent,” said Bertrand Badie, professor of international relations at Sciences Po university in Paris.

“He’s also seen a bit as the inventor of private armies.”

What a shame, eh. I’m sure many tears shall be spilt across Africa tonight.

Contextual playlist:

Non-fiction

  • No Mean Soldier by Peter McAleese (autobiography of a former British soldier-turned-mercenary, who killed for cash in places like Angola, and who was hired to assassinate Pablo Escobar)
  • Private Warriors by Ken Silverstein (covers Pentagon revolving door recruitment policies, the development of the looser network of adventurer-mercenaries into the more businesslike private military contractors)

Novels

  • The Dogs Of War by Frederick Forsyth (a mercenary-led coup in Africa gets the thriller treatment from affable right-wing former hack turned bestselling potboilerer)

Documentaries

  • Inside Story: Dogs Of War (BBC investigation into the shady goings on in the ‘international brigade’ ranks of the right-wing Croatian paramilitary HOS during the Balkans civil war, in which journalist Paul Jenks was killed)
  • Shadow Company (a film about the proliferation of PMCs and in particular their use in Iraq)

Movies

  • The Dogs Of War (Christopher Walken does Christopher Walken in an Al Pacino/Scent Of A Woman way, in the adaptation of the Freddy Forsyth book)
  • Le Professionnel (Nouvelle Vague pin-up Jean-Paul Belmondo is a suitably leathery-skinned French intelligence agent who is out for revenge, having been left out to dry in Africa by his bosses for reasons of high politics)
  • The Wild Geese (Richard Burton leads a platoon of ageing hams and chunky character actors in an African coup)
  • Under Fire (another in the cycle of journalists-caught-in-war films – see also The Year Of Living Dangerously, Salvador, The Killing Fields, Beyond Rangoon etc – this time set in Sandinista-period Nicaragua, and with Ed Harris as a Zeligish American spook-cum-merc)

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“We’re not cowboys, and I’ll shoot any varmint who says otherwise”: Blackwater boss gets on the offensive

Erik Prince of Blackwater

Erik Prince, the chap found founded and runs Blackwater, has been giving evidence to the House Oversight Committee:

The US company at the centre of the burgeoning scandal over the role of private security guards in Iraq today brushed aside accusations that it was a cowboy outfit, as new details emerged about a incident in which an allegedly drunken member was involved in a fatal shooting.

Testifying before a Congressional hearing, Erik Prince, the normally secretive head of Blackwater, denied his company was overly aggressive.

…In an opening statement before the House oversight committee, Mr Prince, 38, defended his company in relation over the killings. “There has been a rush to judgment based on inaccurate information, and many public reports have wrongly pronounced Blackwater’s guilt for the deaths of varying numbers of civilians. Congress should not accept these allegations as truth until it has the facts.”

He added: “Based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on Sept. 16.”

As predicted, “Mr Prince was helped by division on the committee between Democrats, who were critical, and Republicans who thought the company had been successful in fulfilling its protection role”. Gotta love that party politics!

Also helping out Yosemite Erik was the State Department:

…the US justice department unexpectedly stepped in at the last minute and asked that both the members of the Congressional committee and Mr Prince avoid specific questions about the September incident.

The truth, partly the truth, and nothing but the truth, mostly 😀

(From The Guardian, 2nd October)

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Blackwater drinking in the Last Chance Saloon?

…And so Blackwatergate continues:

Employees of Blackwater USA have engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, in a vast majority of cases firing their weapons from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded, according to a new report from Congress.

In at least two cases, Blackwater paid victims’ family members who complained, and sought to cover up other episodes, the Congressional report said. It said State Department officials approved the payments in the hope of keeping the shootings quiet. In one case last year, the department helped Blackwater spirit an employee out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the employee, while drunk, killed a bodyguard for one of Iraq’s two vice presidents on Christmas Eve.

(NY Times, 2nd October)

NY Times Blackwater graphic

The Times also reports in some detail one particular incident in which a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed an Iraqi bodyguard, was disarmed, then given back his weapon, not interviewed by police, and then flown back to the United States with the complicity of the US State Department.

The acting ambassador at the United States Embassy in Baghdad suggested that Blackwater claim that the shooting was accidental, apologize for it and pay the dead Iraqi man’s family $250,000, lest the Iraqi government bar Blackwater from working there, the report said. Blackwater eventually paid the family $15,000, according to the report, after an embassy diplomatic security official complained that the “crazy sums” proposed by the ambassador could encourage Iraqis to try to “get killed by our guys to financially guarantee their family’s future.”

The report did not identify the acting ambassador, but a State Department spokesman, Karl Duckworth, said it was Margaret Scobey.

The shooting is under investigation by the Justice Department, but it remains unclear what laws might be applied in the case, because it occurred overseas.

According to the report, which was based largely on internal Blackwater e-mail messages and State Department documents and compiled by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the episode began between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 24 when the off-duty Blackwater employee, who witnesses said had been drinking heavily, passed through a gate near Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s compound in the Green Zone.

When confronted by bodyguards to Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi of Iraq, the Blackwater employee fired his Glock 9-millimeter pistol, hitting one of the guards, Raheem Khalif, three times. Mr. Khalif, 32, later died at an American military hospital.

The Blackwater employee fled to the Triple Canopy guard post, where he told the guards that he had been in a gunfight with Iraqis who were chasing him and shooting at him. But the guards had not heard any shots.

The next day, the Blackwater employee told Army investigators that he had fired in self-defense after the Iraqi bodyguard shot at him. On Dec. 26, Blackwater flew the man out of Iraq to Jordan, and then to the United States.

The meat in all this seems to be material released by our friend Waxman and his House Oversight Committee. The Washington Post has also got its teeth into the claims:

Blackwater security contractors in Iraq have been involved in at least 195 “escalation of force” incidents since early 2005, including several previously unreported killings of Iraqi civilians, according to a new congressional account of State Department and company documents.

In one of the killings, according to a State Department document, Blackwater personnel tried to cover up what had occurred and provided a false report. In another case, involving a Blackwater convoy’s collision with 18 civilian vehicles, the firm accused its own personnel of lying about the event.

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The State Department made little effort to hold Blackwater personnel accountable beyond pressing the company to pay financial compensation to the families of the dead, the documents indicate.

And it’s the failure of State to regulate the behaviour of the private military corporations it hires which looks to be the main area of investigation now: “There is no evidence in the documents that the Committee has reviewed that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater, or the company’s high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation,” is how one memorandum from the HOC puts it.

It’s one thing to have a bunch of hotdoggin’, gun-totin’ private sector cowboys yeehawin’ their way around the new frontier, but to do so in a way which so glaringly highlights weak political or governmental control? Well, that takes real genius. Not that this is likely to descend into partisan mudslinging followed by backroom expediency or anything…

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‘Iraq mercenaries a bunch of gun-happy cowboys’ says US general

Brigadier-General Joseph Anderson, Chief of Staff, Multinational Corps - Iraq

I saw this at the weekend but didn’t get a chance to blog it: Brigadier General Joseph Anderson, who is the chief of staff at the Multinational Corps in Iraq, has added to the Blackwater-inspired furore over the activities of private military contractors by publicly criticising the behaviour of some such security companies in a videolink briefing to journalists:

I can certainly say I’ve seen them do some tactics that I thought were over the top.

Are they quicker with the trigger? Are they quicker to wave a weapon, brandish a weapon, other tactics, cutting people off? All of us have experienced, have seen different things at different times. I have seen them, in my opinion, over-react but that does not mean it’s consistently the case.

(Reuters, Saturday 29th September)

The question is, will Sheriff Anderson clean up his town and rid Iraq of these dangerous desperadoes?

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Oh Blackwater Lovely War!

So, those uppity Iraqis are determined to exercise sovereign control over their own country by enacting a law to regulate even (gasp!) gun-toting western ‘bodyguards’:

Iraq has said it would review the status of all security firms after what it called a flagrant assault by Blackwater contractors. Eleven people were killed while the firm was escorting a U.S. embassy convoy through Baghdad on September 16.

“This legislation will cover everything to do with these companies. The companies will come under the grip of Iraqi law, will be monitored by the Interior Ministry and will work under its guidelines,” [Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Kareem] Khalaf said.

“They will be strictly punished for any (violations) on the street.”

(Reported by Reuters, 25th September)

As the BBC helpfully reminds us, “contractors are currently granted immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law by Order 17 of the Coalition Provisional Authority – the now-defunct interim body set up by the US-led coalition in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein.”

By Wednesday, Reuters was reporting that the American Defense Department was joining the State Department in running its own investigation:

Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had sent a five-person team to Iraq to review the contractors’ operations.

…Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England had also ordered commanders to collect copies of contractors’ standard operating procedures and guidance on the use of deadly force to ensure they conform with U.S. rules.

The State Department is investigating a shooting incident earlier this month in which 11 people were killed while contractors from the U.S. firm Blackwater were escorting an embassy convoy through Baghdad.

Those contractors worked for the State Department. The Pentagon employs 7,300 security contractors in Iraq, but none of them are from Blackwater.

Morrell avoided getting directly into the whole Iraqi law side of things, but then he would, wouldn’t he? He’s repping the DoD, which is scrabbling to cover its arse before some scandal breaks on its own contractors. Yet even while he “rejected suggestions that security contractors in Iraq operate without oversight”, he couldn’t help but push the line that America (and by implication not Iraq) should investigate the actions of Americans and American companies:

We have the means to go after them through the Department of Justice. We have the means to go after them through military courts. Just because there has not been a prosecution brought does not mean that the authority does not exist to deal with people who misbehave or break the law.”

There does seem to be a rather delicious irony here: the DoD, which is so feverishly opposed to the idea that “unlawful combatants” held by American forces should be released from the Pentagon’s own quasi-legal system – one which is outside the controls of the standard principles of jurisprudence – into the realm of habeas corpus and cross-examination, is now pushing for US private citizens to be accorded the protections of the American courts for crimes they may have committed in a far-off foreign land.

So on the one hand an Iraqi accused of killing an American in Iraq might well find himself or herself whisked away to the Guantanamo Hilton, held virtually incommunicado for years, subject to treatment which would not be acceptable within the (hardly cushy) civil American prison system, with extremely limited access to legal assistance or welfare checks, and the possibility of summary punishment at the eventual end. On the other, an American accused of killing an Iraqi in Iraq might well find himself or herself whisked away to the States, given access to lawyers, bailed, permitted to exercise their constitutional rights whilst waiting to hear whether the authorities intend to proceed, considered innocent until proven guilty, possibly prosecuted, and maybe, just maybe, convicted by a jury of their peers – and then given the opportunity through the appeals system to question any such conviction. C’est la vie!

Anyway, the State Department was in a tizzy on Tuesday, when Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, complained to Condi Rice that her goons were suppressing evidence about the Blackwater situation which the HOC wanted to see:

“Blackwater has informed the committee that a State Department official directed Blackwater not to provide documents relevant to the committee’s investigation into the company’s activities in Iraq without the prior written approval of the State Department,” Mr. Waxman’s letter [to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] stated. The letter was made available to the news media on Tuesday.

In response, a State Department statement late Tuesday said: “There seems to be some misunderstanding with regard to this matter. All information requested by the committee has been or is in the process of being provided.”

The statement added: “Blackwater has been informed that the State Department has no objection to it providing information to the committee. We have offered to make available for testimony those officials in the best position to respond to the specific issues the committee has raised.”

(Reported in the NY Times)

By Thursday 27th, Waxman was once more waxing Blackwater’s arse, this time over its behaviour back in 2004, when it sent its contractors into Fallujah, the “hottest zone in Iraq in unarmoured, underpowered vehicles.” This was the incident when “four Blackwater employees escorting a convoy were killed and their charred bodies hung from a bridge”.

Waxman said the committee’s research showed that leading up to the incident, Blackwater was an “unprepared and disorderly organization” operating in a hostile environment.

“Mistake apparently compounded mistake,” he said.

The report was based on documents and interviews with 18 individuals with knowledge of the incident, including Blackwater’s Baghdad operations manager and project director and seven other staff from the company.

A day before the incident, the report said Blackwater’s operations manager in Baghdad sent an e-mail to company headquarters in North Carolina complaining about a lack of equipment, including armoured vehicles, ammunition and weapons.

“I need new vehicles, I need COMS, I need ammo, I need Glocks and M4s … I’ve requested hard cars from the beginning,” said the e-mail.

It’s possibly not the slick image of military competence and professionalism which Blackwater is aiming for – and the eyewitness reports from this month’s Baghdad balls-up published in Thursday’s NY Times probably don’t help either:

Participants in a contentious Baghdad security operation this month have told American investigators that during the operation at least one guard continued firing on civilians while colleagues urgently called for a cease-fire. At least one guard apparently also drew a weapon on a fellow guard who did not stop shooting, an American official [who “was briefed on the American investigation by someone who helped conduct it”] said.

This unnamed ‘American official’ (hmmm…) goes on to provide a broad outline of the events of 16th September:

The episode began around 11:50 a.m… Diplomats with the United States Agency for International Development were meeting in a guarded compound about a mile northeast of Nisour Square, where the shooting would later take place.

A bomb exploded on the median of a road a few hundred yards away from the meeting, causing no injuries to the Americans, but prompting a fateful decision to evacuate. One American official who knew about the meeting cast doubt on the decision to move the diplomats out of a secure compound.

“It raises the first question of why didn’t they just stay in place, since they are safe in the compound,” the official said. “Usually the concept would be, if an I.E.D. detonates in the street, you would wait 15 to 30 minutes, until things calmed down,” he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.

But instead of waiting, a Blackwater convoy began carrying the diplomats south, toward the Green Zone. Because their route would pass through Nisour Square, another convoy drove there to block traffic and ensure that the diplomats would be able to pass.

At least four sport utility vehicles stopped in lanes of traffic that were entering the square from the south and west. Some of the guards got out of their vehicles and took positions on the street, according to the official familiar with the report on the American investigation.

At 12:08 p.m., at least one guard began to fire in the direction of a car, killing its driver. A traffic policeman said he walked toward the car, but more shots were fired, killing a woman holding an infant sitting in the passenger seat.

Nice work if you can get it.

PS Reuters is running with this story, citing both the report in the NY Times and a similar one in the Washington Post, which is sourced by an anonymous State Department official and our friend the “U.S. official familiar with the investigation”.

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The three golden rules…

This Blackwater thing rumbles on:

Admit nothing

The company has no knowledge of any employee improperly exporting weapons…

Deny everything

We have yet to see definitive proof that the firm in question is Blackwater…

Make counter-allegations

When it was uncovered internally that two employees were stealing from the company, Blackwater immediately fired them…

Job’s a good’un!

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