Security company broke own rules

Four U.S. civilians ambushed and killed in Fallujah, Iraq, lacked some protection their contract promised

Staff WritersAugust 22, 2004 

Blackwater Security Consulting violated its own standards in March by sending four contractors on an undermanned mission in Fallujah, Iraq, where they were ambushed, mutilated, burned and dragged through the streets, the company's contract for the job shows.

Wesley Batalona, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Jerry Zovko worked for Blackwater, a private security company based in Moyock in northeastern North Carolina.

The four men drove into an ambush March 31 along a main road in Fallujah without the full six-man team specified in Blackwater's contract to protect a company feeding U.S. troops. The contract was obtained by The News & Observer.

Iraqi insurgents riddled their vehicles with bullets before a mob defiled their bodies and hung two of them from a bridge over the Euphrates River. The incident, shown on television and front pages around the world, kicked off the bloodiest month in the Iraq war and led to a U.S. assault on Fallujah in which 600 Iraqis and 10 U.S. Marines died.

The four men were riding in a pair of Mitsubishi Pajero sport utility vehicles while guarding three flatbed trucks operated by Eurest Support Services, a European food company. Blackwater said the convoy was en route to a military base to pick up kitchen equipment. The Pajeros had no armor on the sides, just one plate in back.

All the factors that led to the ambush may never be clear. But several people who worked with Blackwater said the company should have sent its standard six-man team and two armored vehicles.

Also, they said, squabbling with its client over the vehicles didn't leave Blackwater operators enough time to familiarize themselves with their routes before starting work.

The contract for the work, which Blackwater signed March 12, says that such security teams would include at least six people because of the high risks in parts of Iraq. Topping the danger list: Fallujah.

"Further to Blackwater's analysis of ESS requirements and the current threat in the Iraqi theater of operations as evidenced by the recent incidents against civilian entities in Fallujah, Ar Ramadi, Al Taji and Al Hillah, there are areas in Iraq that will require a minimum of three Security Personnel per vehicle," the contract states. "The current and foreseeable future threat will remain consistent and dangerous. Therefore, to provide tactically sound and fully mission capable Protective Security Details, the minimum team size is six operators with a minimum of two vehicles. ... "

The U.S. military seldom ventured into Fallujah with fewer than four trucks loaded with heavily armed troops. Many private security contractors in Iraq work with at least three people in a vehicle so that the two armed passengers can "scan" 360 degrees around it to try to prevent ambushes.

Blackwater officials declined to discuss the company's decisions.

Kathy Potter, a former worker in Blackwater's Kuwait office, said the team shouldn't have gone out without more men and properly armored vehicles.

"We just shouldn't have gone in" to Iraq, she said in a telephone interview from Alaska, where she now lives. "But these guys are go-getters, and they'll make do with what they get. ... I guess they thought the threat was lower for them because they weren't military."

Parsing 'protection'

The contract is vague on what sort of vehicles were required, saying that Blackwater's client was to provide 12 "vehicles, security, with protection kit."

Blackwater spokesman Chris Bertelli said that means better protected than a civilian SUV, but less so than an armored vehicle. He said the Pajeros met that definition.

Potter, though, said that Blackwater expected trucks with more than the single improvised steel plate installed in the rear of the Pajeros.

Blackwater is one of dozens of private security companies in Iraq doing jobs once performed by the military. It now protects John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, along with the food shipments destined for U.S. soldiers.

Blackwater's contract to provide security for ESS was actually made with Regency Hotel & Hospital Co., a Kuwait business headed by the owner of the Regency Hotel in Kuwait City. Kuwaiti law forbids foreign firms from operating independently in Kuwait, so Blackwater needed a local middleman to work out of Kuwait and buy equipment there.

The relationship between the two companies was sometimes strained, according to Potter. She said that for months before the mission, her husband John Potter, a Blackwater contract employee, fought with Regency to get better equipment -- particularly armored vehicles -- for the Blackwater job providing security on convoys throughout Iraq.

Regency promised for weeks that they would provide armored vehicles but didn't, Kathy Potter said.

"Regency, all they cared about was money," she said. "They didn't care about people's lives."

The contract gives Blackwater complete control over how and when the convoys move, based on its judgment and the threat level. Kathy Potter said that Blackwater signed off on the mission.

Costly squabbling

But the protracted squabbling with Regency left too little time to equip the men with such vehicles.

Also, this haggling kept Blackwater contractors from having time to learn established convoy routes from the British security company it was replacing, Control Risk Group, she said.

John Potter, a former Navy SEAL, was reassigned by Blackwater before the Fallujah ambush. Kathy Potter was fired about the same time after being told some of the workers couldn't get along with her. Kathy Potter said her husband is working for Blackwater in Afghanistan and wouldn't comment.

Other Blackwater contractors gave identical accounts of John Potter's dealings with Regency. They asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize their careers.

Blackwater negotiated the contract mainly with one man at Regency, Robert "Tim" Tapp, a 1973 West Point graduate and native of Evansville, Ind. Tapp spent 17 years in the U.S. Army before joining a private company called Conventional Munitions Systems of Tampa at the time of the first Persian Gulf War.

Tapp was working for Jameel Al Sane, chairman and managing director of Regency. Al Sane did not return phone calls; a spokeswoman for Tapp said that he "will not be available for comment on this or any other issue."

Tapp and Al Sane wanted to use small Honda SUVs for the ESS contract, Kathy Potter said, because Al Sane had connections that could get him a great deal on Hondas.

According to Kathy Potter, John Potter told the men that the Hondas wouldn't work for the high-speed, high-risk escort missions: The vehicles were too small, they wouldn't bear the weight of armor and the fuel tank was too small. The Hondas also were built to collapse in the front and back to absorb the brunt of a crash.

"That's not what you want," Kathy Potter said. "You want to be able to hit something and keep on driving."

Improvised armor

Kathy Potter said she rounded up two lightweight Mitsubishi Pajeros for temporary use until armored trucks could be found. The only armor on the vehicles was a single improvised steel plate in the back.

It was of little use when Batalona, Helvenston, Teague and Zovko drove the Pajeros into Fallujah on March 31. Videotape shot by the attackers shows bullet holes in the sides of the vehicles, in the windshield of at least one, and side windows shot out of both.

Some of the attackers are shown carrying AK-47 assault rifles. There's no visible evidence that the vehicles were hit by heavier weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenades.

Bertelli, the Blackwater spokesman, said that armored vehicles would not have made a difference in Fallujah. Bulletproof windows can stand up to automatic weapon fire only for so long, he said.

"At point-blank range, three rounds from an AK-47 is enough to shatter a window," Bertelli said. "Everything was done at point-blank range that day."

Mike Geylin, a spokesman for Armor Holdings, an Ohio company that installs armor on military Humvees and civilian vehicles, said they can be made to withstand more than that. It just depends on how much the buyer is willing to spend.

After the ambush, Blackwater obtained at least some armored vehicles. That became clear when one was destroyed along with an unarmored truck in another ambush, this one in June in Baghdad. Four Blackwater contractors were killed in that attack, but three fought their way out.

Blackwater contractors were troubled by the thought of makeshift vehicles.

In an e-mail message before the Fallujah attack, obtained by The N&O, Blackwater contractor Jim Graham discussed a long list of modifications he thought would be needed to the Honda SUVs proposed by Regency -- including armor "halfway up the window on all doors" and a horseshoe-shaped barricade in the rear.

Graham then expressed his frustration with the project.

"This is not an armored vehicle," Graham wrote. "In my opinion, the way to do this, and the safest, is obviously to buy from someone who has reenvented [sic] the wheel, and learned lessons in blood, but if that is not an option, what then?"

Staff writer Jay Price can be reached at 829-4526 or jprice@newsobserver.com.

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