Security state

Jeremy Scahill is in the midst of a national book tour, which brings him to Sacramento next week, where he’ll be appearing at the United Methodist Church at 21st and J streets on Thursday, May 3, at 7 p.m.

Earth-shaking news: Is California preparing to outsource its emergency services during times of disasters, such as earthquakes? That’s the question posed last July by the Virginian-Pilot, the newspaper out of Hampton Roads that’s done one of the few major investigations of Blackwater USA, the controversial North Carolina-based security corporation that provides more private mercenaries in Iraq than any other firm and is proposing to build a new facility outside San Diego. Virginian-Pilot reporters Bill Sizemore and Joanne Kimberlin’s story helped illuminate Blackwater’s efforts to penetrate the domestic security market in the wake of Hurricane Katrina:

“On the home front, Hurricane Katrina’s $73 million purse has persuaded Blackwater officials to position themselves as the go-to guys for the natural disasters,” reported Sizemore and Kimberlin. “Operating licenses are being applied for in every coastal state on the country. Governors are being given the pitch, including California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom a Blackwater official recently visited to discuss earthquake response.”

At the time, neither Blackwater nor the governor’s office disputed the passage. But when investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill referenced it in his new book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, the meme gained momentum, and the denials started flying.

The meeting never happened, Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear told Bites. Ditto, said Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell.

Very interesting, thought Bites, who called Kimberlin, who insisted that last April Seamus Flatley, deputy director of Blackwater’s new domestic operations division, told her the company had met with Schwarzenegger’s office. “That’s what Seamus told me then, and no one ever called to say it was wrong,” she said.

Very interesting.

California connection: Scahill told Bites that like most Americans, he’d never heard of Blackwater until March 31, 2004, when four of its mercenaries were ambushed in Fallujah, torn apart and hung off a bridge over the Euphrates.

In Scahill’s book, the ambush marks a turning point for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which increasingly has outsourced security needs to private firms such as Blackwater. As the furor of the Iraqi insurgency rose, so did Blackwater’s fortunes. Three months after the ambush, the firm received a $300 million contract from the U.S. state department. Scahill told Bites that Chris Bertelli, a partner with the Alexander Strategy Group, the high-powered Republican lobbying firm hired by Blackwater, was instrumental in putting a good public face on the firm.

What’s all this have to do with California?

“I bring up Chris Bertelli and the Alexander Strategy Group in relation to your question because in November 2005, the Schwarzenegger administration hired Chris Bertelli in the Department of Homeland Security in California,” Scahill said.

Whoa. Bites called Bertelli, now deputy director for the governor’s office for Homeland Security, who said he’s had no contact whatsoever with Blackwater since leaving Alexander Strategy Group. He also objected to being characterized as a lobbyist—until he did a little research on himself and discovered he was, in fact, registered as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Blackwater’s Tyrrell called back to inform Bites that although there had been no actual meeting with Schwarzenegger, “There was discussion with the governor’s office about the potential of setting up a meeting. … A meeting was tentatively scheduled, though it fell through … and it was never rescheduled.”

At press time, McLear could not confirm whether a meeting between Blackwater and the governor had ever been in the works.

Very interesting. Very interesting, indeed.