Wackenhut Corporation, Palm Beach Gardens
Whether it’s guarding missile silos or Area 51, Wackenhut is one of those companies the Top Secret Government calls when it needs someone else to do its dirty work.
Wackenhut Corporation was formed in 1954 by George Wackenhut, a former FBI agent who was a close friend of Florida politicians, including Senator George Smathers (himself a close friend of President Kennedy) and Governor Claude Kirk. Wackenhut was able to use those connections to obtain a contract for his company to provide security services at Cape Canaveral. Another contract quickly followed to provide security for Titan missile silos around the country. Before long, Wackenhut was the largest supplier of security services to the federal government, it protected embassies in 13 countries, including Chile, Greece, and El Salvador. It also protected the Alaskan oil pipeline, the Savannah River Plant and Hanford nuclear weapons facilities, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the Nevada Test Site, and an isolated facility in Nevada that would later become famous as Area 51.
Throughout its history, Wackenhut’s board of directors has been a who’s who of the military-industrial complex. Among its members have been Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, General Mark Clark, former FBI director Clarence Kelley, former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, former Secret Service director James Rowley, and former CIA director Bobby Ray Inman. Needless to say, such board members have been a major part of Wackenhut’s success in securing lucrative government contracts.
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George Wackenhut liked to collect data on Americans suspected of being Communist sympathizers or just leaning to the left. In 1965, the Wackenhut Corporation went public, and in its initial public offering documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company boasted of maintaining files on 2.5 million Americans that is, a file on one out of 46 Americans over the age of 18 then living. After Congress held hearings in 1975 on companies holding snoop files on Americans, Wackenhut donated its files to the Church
League of America, a now-defunct anti-Communist group based in Wheaton, Illinois.
In 1976, Congressional hearings chaired by Senator Frank Church of Idaho forced the CIA to abandon its practice of setting up dummy “front” companies in the United States to carry out various activities. In response, the CIA began to contract with companies like Wackenhut to perform tasks done by CIA fronts. Wackenhut soon gained a reputation as one of the companies the CIA called when it wanted something done. “I don’t have the slightest doubt that the CIA and Wackenhut overlap,” said Philip Agee, a former CIA agent turned author. William Flinshaw, a retired FBI special agent, said, “It is known throughout the industry that if you want a dirty job done, you call Wackenhut.”
For much of the Reagan administration, those “dirty jobs” were in Central America. In 1981, Wackenhut formed a new Special Projects Division headed by George Berckmans, a former CIA agent assigned to the Mexico City CIA station. Wackenhut’s expansion into Central America was rapid and large; in 1985, Wackenhut had over 1500 employees in El Salvador alone. And Wackenhut employees were seen in the company of people like Eden Pastora, the military leader of the Nicaraguan Contras.
Wackenhut was also involved in some very curious activities in the United States. The September 1992 issue of Spy magazine carried a report of some strange goings-on involving Wackenhut in the winter of 1990. David Ramirez, a member of the company’s special investigations division, was sent, along with three other members of the division, to San Antonio from their headquarters in Miami, in San Antonio, they rented two Ford Tauruses and drove four hours to the Mexican border town of Eagle Pass. After night fell, they met two truck drivers and then went to a warehouse where an 18-wheel tractor-trailer was waiting. Ramirez’s instructions were simple: do not look inside the trailer, secure it, and make sure it got to Chicago. Armed with shotguns, the Wackenhut personnel escorted the truck north. They drove for 30 consecutive hours, stopping only for food and fuel. They eventually drove the truck to an empty warehouse near Chicago, where others took possession of it and told the Wackenhut personnel to fly home to Miami. Ramirez’s superiors told him the truck contained $40 million in food stamps; other special investigations division employees told him they had made similar runs from the Mexican border.
However, Ramirez found the “food stamps” story unbelievable due to the secrecy and high-level of security, and he eventually talked to reporters after leaving Wackenhut. In its report, Spy magazine queried the Department of Agriculture, who emphatically denied that any food stamps were ever shipped in such a way nor was there any food stamp printing, distribution, or storage facility in Eagle Pass (moreover, food stamps are shipped from metropolitan areas to rural areas, not vice versa). Spy theorized the shipments were components used in the manufacture of chemical weapons, and that the components were destined for Iraq. Whatever the shipments were, they were clearly something of a clandestine or contraband nature.
After the election of President Clinton, Wackenhut began scaling back its government security operations and, it must be assumed, its other government services. They did not renew their contracts to provide security to the Nevada Test Site and Area 51, for example (these were taken over by EG&G). Instead, Wackenhut began expanding its “corrections” business, and now is the largest operator of privately-run prisons in the United States. Reportedly, this is a more lucrative business than providing security services, although some believe Wackenhut realized those contracts would be coming to an end because of the company’s close ties to previous Republican administrations. But Wackenhut was back in the government security business in a big way after the September 11 attacks. Wackenhut landed several new contracts for security at various government installations and assumed several high-profile civilian security duties, such as stops and inspections of vehicles (especially large ones such as trucks and recreational vehicles) crossing Hoover Dam south of Las Vegas. Wackenhut employees worked on both the Nevada and Arizona sides of the dam, manning roadblocks and selecting vehicles for more intensive secondary inspections. The Wackenhut employees wore official-looking uniforms resembling those worn by state troopers, complete with impressive arm patches reading “Wackenhut.”
You didn’t know private security employees could stop people on public highways and inspect their vehicles? Hey, they can when they’re working for Wackenhut!
Secret Stuff: On March 30, 1999, Wackenhut and Raytheon Aerospace entered into a consent judgment totaling $8 million to settle a lawsuit brought against them by AGES, an aircraft servicing business that was competing against Raytheon Aerospace for a U.S. military aircraft maintenance contract valued at $450 million. AGES claimed Raytheon Aerospace hired Wackenhut to spy on AGES to determine what was in the sealed, confidential bid that was submitted to the military. While the settlement was reached before the case went to trial, depositions from six eyewitnesses stated that Wackenhut investigators were staking out the AGES offices in parked cars and were observed wearing headphones and taking notes. The witnesses reported seeing tape recorders, parabolic and “shotgun” microphones, and various electronic equipment in the car. One of the eyewitnesses reported what appeared to be a flat, oval-shaped antenna mounted behind a sun visor in one of the cars; expert witnesses for AGES identified these as antennas often used to receive signals from short-range bugging devices. Two witnesses reported seeing a woman walk out of the AGES offices with papers in her hand, meet with the Wackenhut investigators at their car, and then drive away in her car, with the Wackenhut investigators following her. Shortly after this happened, AGES discovered that documents were missing from their offices.
In settling the suit, Wackenhut admitted no guilt, but paid several million dollars to AGES.
Getting a Look Inside: There are no tours of the Wackenhut headquarters building. However, you can order genuine Wackenhut caps and tee shirts from their website!
Unusual Fact: George Wackenhut once called the first President Bush “pink,” proving that, no matter what else you may say about him, Mr. Wackenhut was a discerning judge of character.
Getting There: Wackenhut’s corporate headquarters is located at 4200 Wackenhut Drive in Palm Beach Gardens. The building is along Interstate 95, just south of the intersection with PGA Boulevard, and is easily visible from the highway.