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Blackwater facility gets OK from judge

Ruling would allow the firm to train sailors at a San Diego site.

June 05, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A federal judge Wednesday cleared the way for the controversial Blackwater Worldwide security firm to open a facility to provide weapons training and other "force protection" techniques to U.S. Navy sailors.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff ruled that "the public interest weighs in favor" of allowing the company to open its facility in a 61,000-square-foot warehouse on Otay Mesa near the Mexican border.

Still, Huff gave city lawyers a final chance to make their argument that the company, in effect, engaged in trickery by using the name of subsidiaries in applying for permits. A hearing is set for June 17.

The Blackwater facility is opposed by a coalition of environmentalists, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) and opponents of U.S. policy in Iraq. The same group opposed Blackwater's plan to build a much larger complex in a rural area east of San Diego, a plan that was scrapped in March.

When city officials threatened to refuse to issue a permit allowing the company to occupy the warehouse, Blackwater sued in federal court.

Dan McGrath, executive assistant city attorney, said that Huff's ruling improperly robs the city of its right to make land use decisions. Mayor Jerry Sanders wants the project submitted to the Planning Commission for review.

Only after the permits were issued did opponents learn that the project was Blackwater's. The North Carolina-based company has a contract with the Navy that was to begin this week.

Among other things, Blackwater would instruct sailors on tactics to use if insurgents assault a ship at sea. The Navy has increased such training in the wake of the 2000 suicide bombing of the guided-missile destroyer Cole in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, that killed 17 sailors.

"In this day and age when terrorists can strike any time, anywhere, you have to be prepared," said attorney Michael Neil, a retired Marine brigadier general who represented Blackwater.

Raymond Lutz of Citizens Oversight Projects, which is opposed to Blackwater, said he and others are concerned that Blackwater employees might soon be acting as border guards. "We already know that Blackwater shoots first and asks questions never," he said. "We say no to Baghdad on our border."

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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