Observing Our Government Through Blackwater

By David Swanson

Jeremy Scahill, author of a terrific book on the Blackwater mercenary army, spoke in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Tuesday to a packed hall. He took questions at the end, and one man asked something to the effect of “Why does the government want to privatize the military? We taxpayers have been paying for the Army.” I wished Scahill had pointed out that it’s the tax payers who are now paying the private corporations, but the answer Scahill gave was critical.

“There’s a cynical answer and an honest answer,” he said, “and I think they’re the same answer.” He said that the Pentagon is useless to politicians because it doesn’t make campaign “contributions”. But when you take a big chunk of that enormous military budget and give it to private companies, you free it up to come back (some portion of it) to politicians every campaign season.

Scahill has the ability to tell the story of one little corner of corruption and through it provide an understanding of the overall military industrial media congressional complex. The corner of corruption he focuses on is Blackwater.

Scahill described the recent “Bloody Sunday” incident in Baghdad in which Blackwater mercenaries shot and killed approximately 28 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in a square. The Iraqi government claims to have video proving the shooting was unprovoked. Witnesses corroborate that story.

Within hours of the incident, Condoleezza Rice phoned Iraqi President and Bush puppet Nouri al Maliki. Within 5 days Blackwater was back on the streets.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman plans to hold a hearing on October 2nd and has asked Blackwater CEO Eric Prince to testify, but has not subpoenaed him. He’s asked Prince to testify before, and Prince has refused.

The State Department has told Waxman that any information it provides Congress on occupation contractors will be classified. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has herself refused to comply with a subpoena. It might be possible to compel Prince to comply, but Waxman has not subpoenaed him. Beyond the power of subpoena, Waxman has made clear he will never support using the power of impeachment. For several months now he has sent frequent requests to the State Department without receiving compliance.

Scahill described the size of the problem. There are 181 security companies in Iraq and 180,000 private contractors, tens of thousands of whom are mercenaries. And they are unaccountable. When a Blackwater mercenary shot and killed the Iraqi Vice President’s body guard, Blackwater snuck the shooter out of the country. In February of this year, Waxman held hearings and invited Prince to testify. Prince did not show up, but sent his lawyer instead. Rep. Dennis Kucinich noted at the hearing that Blackwater appears to be complicit in the flight of a murder suspect.

Blackwater has frequently found itself in gun battles with Iraqis, as recounted by Scahill. The U.S. Embassy, Scahill said, lied when it recently said it had never had complaints about Blackwater. The Iraqis have complained frequently. But the US wants shock troops, Scahill said. “They want Iraqis to have the fear of god in them if they try to approach Ryan Crocker or Condoleezza Rice.”

A US soldier can be court martialed. There have been 64 courts martial for murder charges in Iraq, which Scahill finds stunningly low, given that in his estimate there have been 750,000 Iraqis killed. (I don’t know why Scahill disagrees with the studies that now place the number over a million.) Mercenaries are not prosecuted under Iraqi or US law or courts martial.

Scahill said that when he recently testified before Congress, the whole issue seemed to be brand new to congress members. After four years of slaughter and wild west tactics in Iraq, Scahill said, two freshman senators have finally proposed establishing a system of justice for mercenaries.

Scahill seems to be of two minds about this proposal. He recognizes that mercenaries, aggressive wars, and foreign occupations are illegal to begin with, making their regulation a dubious endeavor. He recognizes that the mercenary companies are themselves supporting the proposal, and that this is a good indication of how worthless it is. Yet, he finds something encouraging about the fact that there is a proposal and a discussion underway. I am less encouraged, largely because any bill that was actually worth passing would be vetoed.

Scahill recently gave a talk in Eric Prince’s home town in Michigan (a town described well in Scahill’s book). Prince published an op-ed in the local paper claiming that Blackwater is not a mercenary company. But, Scahill explains, Blackwater has hired soldiers from countries like Chile whose democratically elected governments opposed the occupation, and sent those soldiers to fight in Iraq. Employing soldiers to fight for a foreign power, such as Chileans for the United States, is the very definition of mercenary used by Prince himself.

The Democrats in Congress are asleep on this issue, says Scahill, and he blames the financial “contributions” they receive from the war industry.

Scahill says that the count of 1,000 or more private contractors killed in Iraq is almost certainly undercounted dramatically, because it includes only those eligible for federal aide.

Britain may put in more mercenaries as it pulls out troops, Scahill said. The US may put in more mercenaries when it pulls out troops. And more and more of the mercenaries may be hired from poor nations around the world, including Iraq. (And yet the best talk in Congress is still of “redeploying” troops, never troops and mercenaries.)

Scahill also discussed Blackwater’s connections with the Bushes and the radical right. With Blackwater guards now bigger targets in Iraq than the people they are guarding, why would the US keep them on? The answer, Scahill suggests, is the role the Prince family has played in funding the religious right and rightwing political movements in the United States. All of this, including the story of Blackwater’s creation and rise to power, is well told in Scahill’s book.

And it’s not just the Princes. The number two man at Blackwater, Cofer Black, formerly of the CIA, is part of the power that Blackwater has over the State Department as well, Scahill surmises. He has been in charge of capturing Osama Bin Laden and in charge of the extraordinary rendition program. It’s unclear whether Blackwater’s planes have been used in that program. The number three man at Blackwater is Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon Inspector General under Rumsfeld. Blackwater’s lawyers include Fred Fielding, former White House Counsel, and Kenneth Star, former investigator of Bill Clinton’s oral sex.

The main problem, as Scahill says, is that companies have a profit motive in launching and escalating wars. And nobody in Washington, other than Dennis Kucinich, will talk about it, Scahill says.

Someone in the audience Tuesday night asked whether Scahill was concerned about what role American mercenaries in Iraq will play when / if they’re brought home. Scahill agreed that it should be a major concern, and said that he’s seen a glimpse of it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He talked to Israeli private security guards for a company called Instinctive Shooting International who were operating an armed checkpoint on behalf of a wealthy individual. Mercenaries are for hire by billionaires as well as by the government.

Scahill also warned that he expects an increase in attacks on mercenaries in Iraq as retaliation for the recent massacre.

Scahill dodged the obligatory 9-11 theories question but answered a question on whether the four famous Blackwater deaths in Fallujah had been an intentional set-up to spur revenge attacks. Scahill believes that was not the case, that Blackwater was simply rushing recklessly to fill a contract.

Someone also asked what everyone in the room could do when they got home. Based on Scahill’s response, I posted the following call to action on a local website:


Jeremy Scahill discussed Blackwater tonight in Charlottesville. Someone asked what we could do, and he suggested that we all phone Congressman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California and the Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. We should ask Waxman to subpoena Blackwater CEO Eric Prince. Waxman’s number is 202-225-3976.

A little background: Waxman has subpoenaed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and she has refused to appear. Unless Waxman backs impeachment of her (the House Judiciary Committee passed an article of impeachment against Nixon for refusal to comply with subpoenas) he has no leverage over Rice. Waxman has asked Prince to testify before, and he refused. There is a chance that Waxman could compel Prince to obey a subpoena or hold him in contempt or inherent contempt. The State Department has told Waxman that any information it provides is classified. Waxman should ignore that announcement, hold open hearings, and subpoena Prince and other heads of mercenary companies. He should expose to the public what their contracts are and what their crimes have been, including the recent Blackwater bloody Sunday massacre, of which Waxman should obtain the video from the Iraqi government and air it.

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