Having just paid my taxes (quarterly estimate a day late and, yeah, I owed a little more), I was curious to know where some of my money was going. I know it can be dangerous to ask too many questions of the government. I know I may learn things that I really don’t want to know. But ...
Yup, it happened.
It’s disturbing to realize, for instance, that a portion of my tax dollars ends up in Erik Prince’s lint-free tailor-made pockets. (Yeah, I knew that already, but I didn’t want to think about it. Besides, it really hits home when I write that check and stick it in the mailbox; any portion is too much as far as I’m concerned.) Prince and his family helped bankroll Gary Bauer and the Family Research Council as well as help James Dobson start Focus on the Family. He’s not someone I would choose to give money to ... but it turns out that that’s what I’m doing whether I like it or not. I’m helping to fund the armed wing of the GOP, Blackwater Worldwide (formerly Blackwater USA). I'm helping to put that evangelical smirk on Erik Prince's boyish face.
A little research informs me that since 2001, my government, the government I help to underwrite, has paid $1,059,633,363 (yes, that’s billion; I had to count the commas too) to Blackwater, Erik Prince’s conservative Christian militia, comprising a total of 724 different contracts. That info is accurate through the 2nd quarter of 2007.
Like many people, I’ve typically associated Blackwater with Iraq, and by far that’s where the biggest contracts are. But many of the 724 government contracts Blackwater received are for work done within the United States—in 15 states (NC, LA, VA, CA, FL, HI, TX, WA, MD, GA, AZ, NJ, MI, SC, and NM) and the District of Columbia. They’ve also received US government contracts to work in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Germany, Canada, China, Cuba, the United Arab Emirates, and Spain. Cuba? Yeah, that was contract #223 from the Department of Defense; the contract description involved a cryptic reference to “training,” obviously at Guantanamo. Yup, my money went for that.
Within the US, I’ve helped Blackwater train local police forces, and in some cases the mercenaries themselves were “deputized” for police work. I’ve helped pay for that kind of Blackwater police force in New Orleans, for instance—$86.2 million from the Department of Homeland Security, with an additional $58.9K that went to “recreational and gymnastic equipment.” That’s one helluva Bowflex! (I wonder if my paying for it means I get to use it sometimes?)
The contracting agencies were more varied than I realized as well. Some of them seem pretty inane, like governmental make-work created because they needed new and exciting ways to spend my money. Of course there’s the State Department (ca. $835 million worth of Blackwater contracts), but also the Bureau of Immigration and Customs ($86 million), the Air Force ($50 million), the Navy ($47 million), and the Army ($21 million). I didn’t serve in the armed forces, but I feel like I’ve contributed in my own meager way, financially, so they could hire Blackwater. My money has been funneled to Blackwater through contracts from the US Coast Guard ($3.1 million), the US Customs Service ($181K), the Department of Energy ($75K), the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health ($54K), and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network ($33K). (That last one is kind of ironic given Jeremy Scahill’s comments about Blackwater “looting the US Treasury”. Check out Scahill’s latest video at that site. He doesn’t pull any punches in talking about Hillary and Barack either.)
And just what have my Blackwater Worldwide contributions paid for? Well, I’ve helped pay for a number of different contracts for “Protective Services - Iraq” and “Protective Services - Afghanistan,” all of those for the State Department. I’ve helped pay for contracts from the US Air Force for “Air Transportation Services” (what, their own planes aren’t good enough any more?) and “Afghanistan STOL Contract” (“short take-off and landing”; again, Air Force pilots can't do that?). With my money the US Navy hired Blackwater for “SRF-A” training (Security Reaction Force - Advance), and the US Special Ops Command, a branch of the Department of Defense, hired them for “Air Support Services” and “Basic Firearms and Tactical Skills” training, which I’m assuming the Defense Department no longer teaches. There are other things ...
“Blackwater Training” (Coast Guard)
“Security Guard” (the State Department; not sure what the difference between that and “Protective Services” is)
“Driving Training” (US Special Ops Command)
“Convoy Course” (Coast Guard)
“Provide Aircraft and Pilot for Training Exercise” (US Army)
“Weapons Training” (Coast Guard, for $62K!)
“Mobile Force Protection Training” (US Special Ops Command)
“Personal Defense Training” (Office of Policy, Management and Budget)
“Targets and Bases” (US Navy)
“Advanced Marksmanship Training” (US Special Ops Command)
“Change in Dates” (US Special Ops Command, for $5K!)
“Vertical Replenishment Services” (huh?)
“Armed Guard Services for Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts” (Homeland Security)
“1-Section Bear Range” (FBI)
Believe me, I’m barely scratching the surface here. And it all happens, at least in part, because I and many like me sign that check and lick that stamp.
All of this is visciously depressing. Here I am, willingly giving my money to a panhandler who I know will go out and buy a fifth of Thunderbird or a bottle of Ripple!
Apart from the fact that I don’t approve of what Blackwater does, maybe I can still salvage some self-respect. How fiscally responsible is it to use a mercenary force to do work that was formerly done by US forces? Are they saving the government money? Can I at least use that rationale to justify my continued quarterly contributions? The concluding comments from a House Oversight Committee memo entitled Re: Additional Information about Blackwater USA says something about that:
One fundamental question that the recent controversy over Blackwater has raised is whether the government's heavy reliance on private military contractors is a wise use of taxpayer funds. According to contract documents obtained by the Committee, Blackwater bills the United States government $l,222 per day for one individual Protective Security Specialist. On an annual basis, this amounts to $445,891 per contractor.
These costs are significantly higher than the costs that would be incurred by the military. The security services provided by Blackwater would typically be performed by an Army Sergeant, whose salary, housing, and subsistence pay range from approximately $140 to $190 per day, depending on rank and years of service. On an annual basis, the salary, housing, and subsistence pay of an Army Sergeant ranges from $51,100 to $69,350 per year. The amount the govemment pays Blackwater for these same services is approximately six to nine times greater.
My mother used to accuse me of having champagne tastes on a beer income, but this just seems a bit much, especially when I hear Blackwater vice-chairman Cofer Black, in explaining why Blackwater should be hired to supply forces for international conflicts, say, “We’re low-cost and fast”. That’s low cost? Blackwater is the 2008 version of the $30,000 toilet seat, for chrissake! So not only am I helping to fund Prince Erik’s little conservative Christian militia, I’m also, by my continued contribution, tacitly encouraging my government to act wastefully and irresponsibly. I can’t even use “it saves the government money” as an excuse. It doesn’t! And besides, the vast majority of Blackwater's contracts are no-bid!
What irks me even more is that this paramilitary agency that I help fund with my tax dollars is itself looking for ways to avoid paying their taxes. That this patriotic bunch of war profiteers finds ways to avoid paying tax by calling their soldiers independent contractors rather than employees only heaps gasoline on the flame of my funk. “Sure, Erik, you go right ahead and build your little army. Arm them to the teeth, pal. And don’t you worry, I’ll pick up the check, you don’t have to use your own money. After all, what’s $31.8 million in unpaid taxes between friends?”
When I was a kid (well, a high school kid), one of my personal heroes was Henry Thoreau. I was born not too far from his home in Concord, MA. There is part of me that would like to do what Henry did and refuse to pay my tax in protest to my government’s involvement in things I do not and cannot support. Henry ended up spending the night in the Concord jail for his actions. But do I do that? No, I don’t. While there’s a part of me that wants to, there’s another part of me that reeks of personal cowardice. I’ve got my rationalizations all worked out, and they work for me, usually. I’ll call it pragmatism, and the realization that the Concord jail in 1846 is nothing like prison in 2008. I tell myself that, yes, the government does a lot of good and my money goes to that kind of thing as well, so why toss the baby with the bathwater. I tell myself that, given all the money the government spends on other things, my pittance is hardly a drop in the Blackwater bucket, so quit bitching about it. On the good days I can live with that. It works. On other days, however, it feels like cowardice. My inaction, that depressive little voice says, means tacit complicity. Yes, I write my congressman (McHenry ... yeah, what’s the likelihood that that little weiner will ever see the light?); I write my senators, Dole and Burr (ditto on the seeing-the-light thing). I do that. And that helps too.
But I still shed a few tears as I sign and send my quarterly taxes.