One subject that both local authorities and federal officials have been reticent to discuss is the role that private armies and mercenaries played in providing security and law enforcement in Gulf of Mexico states hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.
It now appears hundreds of former soldiers and law enforcement officers—possibly as many as 600 or 700—were hired by private individuals, companies and corporations to protect assets in New Orleans and other parts of the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast region.
It is not known how many of those guns for hire were non-U.S. citizens who had served in foreign armies.
One journalist reported an encounter with two former Israeli veterans of the Israeli Defense Force who had seen service in the war in Lebanon. They were employees of ISI, a major military contractor, and were armed with M-16 rifles. They had been flown into the New Orleans area by private jet and, at the request of a private individual, were guarding a gated community.
Blackwater, one of the largest international contractors, with mercenaries in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other trouble spots, has admitted that it sent at least 150 personnel to New Orleans and others to Alabama and Mississippi.
Blackwater has established a reputation for renting out specialized personnel, especially former members of special forces from around the world, to provide security for leading political figures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the outset of the Iraq occupation, Blackwater provided protection for the members of the U.S.-led Provisional Authority, in particular its chief, L. Paul Bremer, and also made bodyguards available to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
In one of the more gruesome murders that took place in Iraq in 2004, Iraqi revolutionaries killed four Blackwater personnel in Fallujah in 2004. Iraqis then mutilated and burnt their bodies before hanging them from a bridge.
According to Blackwater, and other contractors, including ArmorGroup International, the mercenaries sent to New Orleans and parts of Mississippi helped in rescue efforts even though their main task was to protect individuals, property and other assets.
Blackwater claimed that those it sent were not former soldiers—in other words mercenaries—but retired law enforcement officers armed with pistols and not the heavy weaponry supplied to personnel in war zones.
However, Blackwater personnel in New Orleans were seen carrying military-style shotguns that had been modified for urban warfare and fully automatic rifles.
Some Blackwater staffers who spoke to members of the media admitted they were former soldiers who had seen action in trouble spots across the globe. Others were observed sporting gold New Orleans law enforcement badges as though to indicate they had been hired by the city.
There were rumors, yet to be confirmed, that the Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), who often appeared inept during the crisis, sanctioned the presence of mercenaries in order to beef up security in the wake of the collapse of the New Orleans police department and the delayed arrival of National Guard and regular Army troops.
In the past two years some members of the House and Senate have expressed disquiet about the 20,000 or more private mercenaries employed by the Defense Department overseas, and about an undisclosed number operating within the United States.
The use of mercenaries in New Orleans and in parts of Mississippi poses the question of whose authority they operated under. Blackwater told some journalists that local authorities were always informed before its personnel were sent to an area, raising yet another question of how often private security personnel have been used in domestic operations and in what context.
Mercenaries often provide protection for visiting dignitaries, but rumors have surfaced that they have also been involved in FBI operations and have been known to attend interrogations at Guantanamo.