RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Mercenaries and vigilantes and special agents are usually characters found on the big screen, and in a moment we'll review a new movie about an American agent on the case in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But hired guns, the real ones, or as they're known, security contractors, are very much in the new nowadays. One of those contractors in Blackwater USA. Some of its employees are accused of killing Iraqi civilians in an incident earlier this month. Blackwater also operates inside the United States. It was in charge of security for federal emergency workers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Now Blackwater is applying for licenses that would permit it to help maintain order when other states face natural disasters.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The first Blackwater employees arrived in New Orleans just 36 hours after the levees broke. At one point, more than 600 Blackwater employees were in the city. Some were guarding the local Sheraton Hotel. Others were helping fish people out of the water or rescuing them off rooftops. Blackwater eventually landed a $73 million contact to protect FEMA staff helping with the recovery operation.

Nelda Davis(ph) worked in the FEMA center in the New Orleans public library while it was under Blackwater protection.

Ms. NELDA DAVIS (Worker, FEMA Center, New Orleans): In general, I was glad Blackwater was there. I felt secure, I mean, because the guys would walk us to our vehicles in the evening and from our vehicles in the morning, because everyone at the disaster centers were not happy with what some of the agencies were providing to them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Davis said that Blackwater helped diffuse a tense situation. For example, they had a code. If workers felt uncomfortable or didn't feel safe, they were supposed to call out loudly for a blue form. That was a signal for the Blackwater guys to come over and stand close by.

Davis said it let the people coming into FEMA know that they needed to keep their voices down. While Davis is glad to see Blackwater arrive, the company's push to work natural disasters in this country has made some people edgy.

Mr. JEFFREY WALKER (Georgetown University Law School): The only difference in my view between Blackwater in Iraq and Blackwater in New Orleans is they are mercenaries in Iraq and they are vigilantes in New Orleans.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Jeffrey Walker is a former Air Force attorney and now a fellow at Georgetown University Law School. He raised the alarm about private security contractors like Blackwater more than a decade ago when he was working at the Pentagon. His issue, among others, is the lack of accountability. Soldiers have court marshals, police have internal affairs investigations, but there's nothing like that regulating Blackwater.

Mr. WALKER: The only accountability that these guys have right now - they get their contract cancelled, or if individual Blackwater guys kind of go off the reservation, DOD or State Department, in this case, has the right to order the contractor to send individuals home.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's why Walker and others are concerned about Blackwater's intention to take their private security operation domestic. The company has met with leaders in a roster of states to offer their security services in case of natural disasters.

In California, they've suggested earthquake relief. In New York, they've offered help in case of terrorist attack. The Iraq war won't last forever, so Blackwater needs an alternate business plan. Work here at home is one solution.

Mr. WALKER: From a capitalist point of view, that's brilliant. You want to diversify your market. But do you really want someone diversifying this service? This really is hired gun services. This makes me really nervous. This is not a good thing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Providing security after national emergencies is usually a function of the National Guard and local police. During the Katrina aftermath, the Blackwater employees were paid about $950 a day; that's about eight times the salary of a New Orleans police officer.

Nelda Davis said she was glad they were in New Orleans to help, but that the skills they have developed in Iraq don't necessarily translate to natural disasters. Those situations require more empathy, she said.

Ms. DAVIS: You can't handle those people the same way you would handle someone that you may think possibly will be trying to kill you. It's jus totally different. So I think they need to be a little more, you know, sensitive in who they select to work in the domestic details as opposed to international.

TEMPLE-RASTON: FEMA declined to talk about its decision to hire Blackwater on tape. A spokesman would only say that there was indeed a contract. Similarly, the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans, which had heralded the arrival of Blackwater in a press release in the days after Katrina, declined to discuss the company now.

The head of Blackwater's domestic operations, James Flatley, would not be interviewed. In an e-mail to NPR, he said that there had been a media blackout because of the quote, "recent visibility", unquote, the company had received. He was referring to the shooting deaths of the Iraqi citizens earlier this month.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.

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