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As I participate in the voiceofsandiego.org blog, it’s important to note that as the vice president for Blackwater West my comments will be based on our land use project in Potrero. Being the VP for our training campus project here in California does not necessarily mean that I am the best spokesman for the company as it applies to Blackwater Worldwide training and operations. I will do what I can, but my comments and responses will be Potrero based.
As a start, and what seems to be on everyone’s mind is the Potrero Planning Board recall. As a lead-in, we believed the residents of Potrero would allow their planning group to do what county policy says they must: make a decision concerning a land use permit based solely on the land use impacts on the community of the proposed project. Unfortunately, Potrero residents became caught up in a political firestorm that was stoked by interests that did not care what Potrero residents wanted for their town.
The members of the planning group who were recalled attempted to do their job. They reviewed Blackwater’s proposed training facility that would occupy 140 acres of the 824 acre parcel off Round Potrero Road. They had questions about noise, traffic, and environmental impacts. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the county’s planning process is such that the environmental impact report, which would have provided answers to those and other questions, had not yet been released and we at Blackwater were prohibited by the process from providing the information requested at that time. It’s expected that the EIR will be released for review and comment in the next several months.
What then, was the sin these planning group members committed that they were subjected to recall? In the document in which they requested answers to questions about Blackwater’s proposed project, they “conditionally” approved it as being a compatible land use for that piece of land at that location in the county. They didn’t approve the project. They asked quite a few questions. And, as an aside, they mentioned that the proposed land use was acceptable given county planning and zoning guidelines.
That’s when the East County Democratic Club and Congressman Bob Filner inserted themselves into the process. They did not do so because of the land use concerns. They did not do so because they were concerned for the residents of Potrero. They did so to make a political statement about the war in Iraq and Blackwater’s role in the war as a trainer of independent contractors.
What Blackwater had hoped would be simply a land use issue turned into an opportunity for those who oppose President Bush and what they refer to as “his” war in Iraq. We chose not to participate in that debate, in large part because the anti-war group didn’t concern itself with the facts.
The mere mention of Blackwater (or other private military companies) was enough to panic these anti-war activists and others. It is not surprising that these people refer to private contractors as “mercenaries.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “mercenary” as “a professional soldier serving a foreign power.” Blackwater does not now, nor has it ever, provided security services for, or on behalf of, any country other than the United States of America. Blackwater does not condone mercenaries and its private contractors do not deserve to be called that or any other number of epithets. Most Blackwater trained contractors are willing to put their lives on the line only because they are helping the American war effort. And in many cases, they have performed heroically.
Most Americans now believe Iraq was a bad idea. But since we are there, the U.S. government needs certain capabilities that they can’t get from the military. The Diplomatic Security Service doesn’t have enough agents to meet the demand, and they cannot simply go out and hire a few thousand highly trained agents overnight — let alone let them all go once we finally get out. Contractors, like it or not, meet a need.
Security contractors play an important role supplementing troop strength by guarding static infrastructure, politicians and diplomats, and vital convoys. By doing so, they free up the uniformed members of the military for combat, patrols, raids and the other necessary roles that they play in a combat zone. There is no argument that the U.S. military is limited in size and that there have been difficulties in maintaining the elevated troop levels needed to provide the military stability required to suppress the various terrorist and militia insurgents and to prevent sectarian violence.
If private military companies are not allowed to operate in the Iraqi theater of operations, the estimated 50,000 armed contractors would be extremely difficult to replace. There has already been an outcry at the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops on the ground as a result of “the Surge.” To suddenly announce that we need tens of thousands of additional troops to babysit journalists and politicians, drive trucks, protect convoys, and guard diplomats would be absurd both politically and militarily.
You may not like what you have read or heard of Blackwater. However, most people realize that the only way to salvage something worthwhile out of Iraq is through diplomacy. That’s not going to happen if our diplomats aren’t safe.
In addition, back here in the U.S., since personnel cutbacks and wholesale military base closures in the 1980’s and 1990’s, there is a severe shortage of military and law enforcement personnel training facilities across the country.
The same budget shortfalls that beleaguer the federal government have taken a toll on state and local governments as well. In law enforcement, that means less costly training. For example, the Police Academy at Miramar College has a small defensive driving course. It’s scheduled to be paved over for parking soon. The next closest driving course is in San Bernardino. There is also a dearth of facilities where police personnel can conduct weapons training.
Blackwater’s training facility in North Carolina includes driving courses and firing ranges, which it makes available to local law enforcement. No public funds were expended in building or maintaining the facility and the cost of using the facility is often covered by state and federal grants.
The Potrero facility will include a driving course and areas for firearms training at no cost to local law enforcement. The same state and federal grants will allow San Diego County law enforcement personnel to make use of Blackwater’s facilities at a fraction of the cost that would be necessary if local law enforcement was required to build and operate their own facility.
We believed that San Diego County, with its well-known support for the military and defense industry companies like SAIC, General Atomics, Cubic, SPAWAR, and others, would welcome a facility that would generate $1.2 million for the local community and create about 60 jobs, while providing a sorely needed public service to our law enforcement community.
Unfortunately, that discussion never took place. All the anti-war protesters that descended on Potrero talked about were mercenaries and Iraq. We overestimated local residents’ ability to see through the anti-war, anti-Bush, and anti-military propaganda.
However, the process continues and Blackwater’s proposed training facility in Potrero will be decided upon by the County Board of Supervisors. Hopefully, they will stick to discussing the land use impacts of a 140-acre training facility on more than 800 acres outside the sparsely populated town of Potrero.
— BRIAN BONFIGLIO