Vinnell Corporation, a Northrop Grumman Company, founded in 1931, performs services for governments, international agencies, US military and private clients, including Oman, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. On May 12, 2003, it was targeted for attack by terrorists in Saudi Arabia.
Vinnell's corporate headquarters, in Fairfax, Virginia, provides the operational base for marketing and for financial, personnel, data, and project management. Logistics, procurement and transportation support for Vinnell's overseas operations is provided by Logistics and Transportation Services, Inc. (LTSI), a Vinnell subsidiary in Baltimore, Maryland.
Vinnell has undertaken projects in over fifty countries on five continents, includi operational and logistics support, facilities and grounds maintenance, training, freight forwarding, and subcontract management. It provides technical services and training programs for multi-national military organizations, power production, and industrial facilities. Important Department of Defense contracts include the operation, maintenance, and caretaker services for the US Air Force at three air bases in Oman and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) Modernization Program which has been entrusted to Vinnell for over 12 years. A multi-million dollar company, Vinnell also carries out the Turkey Base Maintenance Contract (TBMC).
The Vinnell Corporation began as a southern California construction firm in 1931 and built a reputation on civilian projects including portions of the Los Angeles freeway system, the Grand Coulee Dam, and Dodger Stadium.25 The company's involvement with military and intelligence work began at the end of World War II, when it contracted with the U.S. government to ship supplies to Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist army in China, and continued with contracts to build military airfields in Pakistan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan, and South Vietnam throughout the 1950s and 1960s.26
During this period Vinnell also established a close relationship with operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency. Company founder Albert Vinnell offered his staff's services to the agency and several CIA agents used employment with Vinnell as cover for operations in Africa and the Middle East. In return, the CIA helped Vinnell win construction contracts on oil fields in Libya and Iran.
The company became most directly involved in military and intelligence operations during the American war in Southeast Asia. At the height of the war Vinnell had over 5000 employees in Vietnam. They were officially working on such projects as repairing U.S. military equipment and constructing military bases and airfields, but U.S. military officers who oversaw Vinnell's work at the time have revealed that Vinnell also ran several secret intelligence programs. In 1975, one Pentagon official described Vinnell as "our own little mercenary army in Vietnam."
Continuing U.S. military defeats in Vietnam from 1970 to 1974 brought near economic ruin on Vinnell, and the company filed a reorganization plan under California law in January, 1975. The company was saved from bankruptcy later that year when it landed a $77 million contract to train the National Guard of Saudi Arabia. The contract has been repeatedly renewed and expanded over the last 22 years and remains Vinnell's most profitable venture. The most recent incarnation of the Vinnell operation involves maintaining over 1000 employees in Saudi Arabia doing contract work for the Saudi National Guard and Royal Air Force. Although the Saudi royal family will pay the $819 million price tag for this project, it is clearly part of an ongoing effort by the U.S. government to shore up a politically moderate regime and strategic ally in the Middle East.
In Saudi Arabia
At various times both the American press and lawmakers have criticized Vinnell's operations in Saudi Arabia as an effort to protect the country's autocratic rulers from the democratic aspirations of their own people. The National Guard has a chain of command independent of the Saudi Defense ministry. The 75,000 strong force can operate as a mobile complement to the tank-heavy divisions of the Saudi army in wartime, but its primary mission is protecting the ruling Saudi royal family from peacetime internal political unrest. To suit this purpose the Guard still recruits primarily from the tribal desert interior of Saudi Arabia. In this sense the Guard is a direct descendant of the Bedouin warriors who helped the Saud clan take control of their country early in the twentieth century.
Over the past 22 years Vinnell employees have become an integral part of the Guard. One U.S. military officer who monitors Vinnell's Guard activities said in a recent interview that "It's a big mission. We have responsibilities and tasks in every functional area there is to run an organization . . . everything from management training to logistics to medical." But he made it clear that Americans do not "run" the Guard. Despite such statements, some suspect that Vinnell agents have at times gone beyond mere training and consulting. In 1979, for example, Saudi rebels took over the Grand Mosque at Mecca and demanded that the royal family relinquish power. As the Saudi National Guard prepared to storm the mosque, U.S. military personnel and Vinnell employees helped plan the attack. Finally, when the initial attack failed, there were unconfirmed reports that Vinnell "trainers" were brought in to provide "tactical support" for the final successful assault.
Undoubtedly, there are great advantages to licensing a company like Vinnell to perform tasks that would otherwise be undertaken by the U.S. military. First and foremost, the Vinnell operation costs the American government nothing and facilitates a key strategic goal of stabilizing an important ally in an unstable region. It also performs the task with no risk to American service men and women -- a key issue with political constituencies in an increasingly isolationist America. Finally, private corporate "consultants" may be able to keep a lower profile than American military personnel within Saudi Arabia where at least a portion of the population resents a foreign military presence.
But more recent events in Saudi Arabia exhibit the dangers inherent in the use of companies like Vinnell. On November 14, 1995, a bomb exploded in one of the Saudi National Guard's training facilities in Riyadh, killing five Americans. Two of the victims were American service personnel and three were civilian contractors including a retired army officer. Many experts on Saudi politics said the target of the attack was not random. Many in Saudi Arabia view the National Guard as palace guard whose main mission is to crack down on internal dissenters.
While the American military provides direct assistance to the mainstream Saudi army, virtually all of the National Guard training is contracted by Vinnell. This setup results from the sensitive position that the Guard plays in internal Saudi politics. Hiring out the Guard training mission to Vinnell is an effort to avoid the perception that the royal family's autocratic internal policies are being implemented and supported by the American military.
As the bombing shows, however, political groups in Saudi Arabia often do not distinguish between American civilian "privateers" who contract with the Saudi National Guard and American soldiers who work with the mainstream military. After the blast, an anonymous caller to a western news agency stated flatly, "If the Americans don't leave the kingdom as soon as possible, we will continue our actions." He did not specify which Americans.
On May 12, 2003, another terrorist attack targeted the residential quarters of Vinnell employees in Saudi Arabia, killing at least 30 people.
- 16 January 2004: Report on some screw-up involving a $48 million contract to train a new Iraqi army.
- 20 January 2004: "Forget Halliburton" by Steven Rosenfeld, Guerilla News Network: "The vice president (Dick Cheney)'s former company (Halliburton Company) may keep getting the headlines for its hefty contracts in Iraq and Pentagon overcharging, but it's not the private company that's so badly botched the training of the new Iraqi Army that the Jordanian Army has been hastily brought in to finish the job. ... That firm is Vinnell Corp. of Alexandria, Va., owned by politically connected Northrop-Grumman. Its errors in training a new Iraqi Army have undermined the creation of one of the most important institutions in a post-Saddam Iraq--a national army, senior American intelligence and military analysts say."
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Fairfax, VA 22033
Telephone - 703.385.4544
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- Pratap Chatterjee, "We Train People to Pull Triggers," CorpWatch, 20 March 2003.
- Matt Gaul, "Regulating the New Privateers".
- Donna Abu-Nasr, "Saudis Relive Night of Terror Attack," Associated Press, May 18, 2003.
- William O. Beeman, "Saudi Bombing - A Calculated Act with a Political Message," Pacific News Service, May 14, 2003.