May 2, 2007 (WLS) -- The world's most controversial security service is now open for business in Illinois. But is Blackwater, Inc. looking to make Illinois an outpost for what has been called the world's largest private army?
This is the same Blackwater that has become the icon for private security services in Iraq. According to critics, Blackwater is nothing more than a corporate warlord, based in North Carolina, with a payroll of hired gunslingers-- hundreds of them now protecting diplomats and contractors in Iraq. Blackwater executives say they and their mission near a rural town south of Rockford are greatly misunderstood-- that to know them is to like them-- and that they want their new neighbors in Illinois to know them.
On the ground in nine nations around the world, Blackwater is what one company executive calls the most "notorious" in the fast-growing business of private security. For 10 years the firm has been headquartered on almost 7,000 acres in North Carolina. More than 100,000 people have been trained there, the majority of them active duty US Marines, sailors and soldiers. That makes it the largest private military training base in the world.
The firm has received hundreds of millions of dollars in State Department security contracts the past few years. But Blackwater also has a law enforcement training division. And the company says the facility it just opened in northern Illinois is for police training.
"We saw a need for it. You would have to go five states away to find a training facility to find anything like this," said Anne Tyrrell, Blackwater spokeswoman.
Surrounded by pristine farmland, down a series of bumpy rural roads, "Blackwater North" took over an existing 80-acre shooting range. On the day ABC7 visited, officers from several departments including Chicago and Rockford were in a tactical hostage exercise.
"There are new techniques that the criminals are using so we have to be updated with our techniques. Coming out to Blackwater, these guys have seen it all," said Det. Steve Stoball, Freeport Police Department.
In the nearest "big city" of Mount Carroll, some people say they just woke up one morning and Blackwater was in business.
"If they are going to do training for torture, are they going to do that on the site? We don't know," said one speaker at a community meeting.
Residents recently met to discuss Blackwater's move into Illinois, and whether it will be expanding, something the company claims it does not intend.
"There is a campaign being waged against us to spread false information," said Annie Tyrrell, Blackwater spokesperson.
Much of the Blackwater resistance began after an incident in Fallujah focused attention on Blackwater's hired gun role in Iraq. Four Backwater security agents were ambushed by insurgents, murdered, dragged through the streets and strung from a bridge over the Euphrates.
"It's like a secret army over there that the majority of Americans aren't aware of," said the wife of a dead Blackwater employee.
At a Congressional hearing in February, relatives of Blackwater officers killed in the grizzly assault testified that their loved ones were deployed to a combat zone with minimal preparation or protection. Blackwater is among 25 private military firms hired by the US government to provide security in Iraq, at a cost of $4 billion according to Congress, but with little oversight or accountability.
"If you are going to subcontract out this war then there needs to be some laws," said the wife of the deceased Blackwater employee.
North Shore Representative Jan Schakowsky has introduced a bill that would crack down on contractors who provide rent-a-soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Private military firms in general I think is a threat to democracy," said Dan Kenney.
The spillover from Blackwater's military operations prompted DeKalb 4th grade teacher Dan Kenney to begin a campaign against the security contractor. On his spring break, Kenney says he went to Blackwater, Illinois, posing as a prospective customer to find out what they were up to.
"There's a 'combat town' they call it," said Kenney.
Kenney says what he saw, and was told, leads him to believe that Blackwater will eventually conduct military commando training in Illinois.
"They kind of see themselves above the law. They see themselves above the law in Iraq and other countries they go into," said Kenney.
"The company has come in under false pretenses," said Mary Jo Burke, Blackwater protester.
Nearby resident burke Says she has been trying to unravel Blackwater's intentions for several months.
"Since we don't know who their going to be training, what kind of training or the impact on the environment, we don't want them here," said Burke.
Burke says the Jo Daviess County Board should have held public hearings. Board President Marvin Shultz did not return ABC7's phone calls to discuss Blackwater.
"There are people who are afraid, particularly people with children seeing people in camouflage and with these submachine guns," said Burke.
"We want to prepare law enforcement to do their jobs to the best of their ability to best serve and protect their populous. That's all that will be going on here," said Anne Tyrrell, Blackwater spokesperson.
Blackwater officials say there are many "myths" surrounding what they do. From personal experience and observation during a reporting trip to Iraq: one thing about Blackwater that is not a myth is the fear that the company's security officers instill while on duty. In Iraq, when a caravan of Cadillac escalades used by Blackwater agents would approach, regular Iraqis, those of us in the media and even some American military personnel, would stop in their tracks, knowing that the Blackwater squad was heavily armed and not afraid to use their weapons.
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