Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jeremy Scahill Returns to San Diego

Independent Journalist Warns of Dangers from Blackwater


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The last time Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, spoke in San Diego it was in May 2007, when residents of the remote Potrero neighborhood in southeastern San Diego County had mobilized against the efforts of the international security company Blackwater to build a giant military training camp in their backyard. Scahill returned on June 10 and 11, 2008 both to celebrate the ultimate victory of Potrero’s residents — who recalled the members of the elected planning group that had given Blackwater the thumbs-up for their project, whereupon Blackwater abruptly canceled it — and to mobilize opposition to the proposal Blackwater got approved by the city of San Diego, without any public hearings whatsoever, for an indoor “training facility” for U.S. Navy personnel in Otay Mesa.

Though as many as 180 private security companies have “boots on the ground” in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Blackwater stands out not only for the depth and scope of their political connections — mostly to Republicans, though they also hired Hillary Clinton’s political guru, Mark Penn, when it looked like she was going to be this year’s Democratic Presidential nominee — but for the especially difficult assignment they have. Officially under contract to the U.S. State Department, Blackwater’s principal job in Iraq is to protect U.S. occupation officials and high-level politicians and government officials who visit the country. As Scahill put it in an article in the October 15, 2007 Nation, “Blackwater’s primary purpose in Iraq, at which it has been very effective, is to keep the most hated U.S. occupation officials alive by any means necessary.”

In practice, Scahill alleges, Blackwater has done this by creating and maintaining a reign of terror on the streets of Baghdad and Iraq’s other major cities — in the process undermining U.S. counter-insurgency efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of Iraq’s people. The most recent incident, and one which made headlines worldwide, happened on September 16, 2007, when a Blackwater-guarded State Department convoy sped on the wrong side of the street near Nisour Square in the busy Mansour district of Baghdad. Just then, Scahill told his audience at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest June 10, “a white Opel sedan pulled up to an intersection in Mansour. It was being driven by a 20-year-old Iraqi medical student — and his passenger was his mother, a doctor herself.”

When the Blackwater personnel on the convoy saw this little sedan in the intersection, Scahill said, “they decided this young man and his mother could be terrorists. They shot the son and killed him instantly, and his mother reached down and clutched her son’s body. She saw the men in the armored vehicles aiming again at the car, and the Iraqi police got out of the way. The convoy fired so many rounds the car blew up, and this led to a 15-minute firefight in which 17 people were killed, including a nine-year-old boy. An Iraqi lawyer was shot in the back four times as he tried to run away, and several other people were also shot in the back.”

As soon as the Nisour Square incident happened, Scahill said, “the Bush administration took steps to immunize the people who did the shooting and use the State Department to cover it up.” The Blackwater mercenaries involved in the shooting were given binding promises that whatever they said to investigators could not be used against them in court. Not that there was much risk that they’d actually face a trial; just before leaving Iraq and supposedly handing back sovereignty to the Iraqis, former U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer had issued Order 17, a binding proclamation stating that Iraqi courts could never try any private contractors for crimes committed in Iraq.

Nor were they likely to be prosecuted by U.S. authorities either. As private security contractors, Blackwater’s armed mercenaries in Iraq aren’t subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that binds actual government-paid U.S. servicemembers. Several people in the U.S. Congress, including presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama, have introduced legislation to put Blackwater’s and their competitors’ people under UCMJ jurisdiction — and Bush, predictably, has promised to veto any such bill. Though the U.S. military did their own investigation and found that Blackwater’s people had engaged in an unprovoked shooting, the administration insisted that the official U.S. inquiry would be handled by the FBI — and the FBI agents sent to Baghdad were told they would have to rely on Blackwater’s security people to protect them while they tried to investigate Blackwater.

The Iraqi government defied Order 17 and started their own investigation, Scahill said, “and for 72 hours Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki actually thought he was in control of his own country. He said that Blackwater would have to leave Iraq, and the head of the Iraqi justice system said that they would have to be tried in Iraqi courts.” Within three days, after direct pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, al-Maliki reversed himself and repealed his own ban on Blackwater — but for those three days, according to Scahill, “Blackwater couldn’t work and no Americans in Iraq went out of the Green Zone,” their heavily fortified compound in central Baghdad.

When al-Maliki made his short-lived attempt to ban Blackwater from Iraq, “all of a sudden the [U.S.] corporate media woke up,” Scahill said. “There were two versions: one from the Iraqi government and one from Blackwater, who said they were the victims of an armed ambush by enemies of America.” A third report, allegedly from the State Department but actually written by a Blackwater contractee, also backed up the company. But 12 minutes after the last shots in Nisour Square had been fired, “a U.S. Army investigation led by Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa called it an ‘unprovoked attack’ and a ‘criminal act.’” Tarsa also said that Blackwater’s men in Iraq use larger and deadlier ammunition than the U.S. Army does when patrolling civilian areas. Even the FBI called 14 of the 17 shootings “unjustified,” and a U.S. grand jury is investigating and has subpoenaed top Blackwater officials.

Scahill said that the father of the nine-year-old killed in the incident had testified before the grand jury that Blackwater had offered him money to compensate for the loss of his child. “He told Blackwater and the State Department, ‘I don’t want your money. I want Blackwater to admit their guilt and apologize. It’s important morally for my family and my tribe,’” Scahill stated. “He said a Blackwater official said they couldn’t make those admissions for legal reasons.” According to Scahill, “we could have a handful of prosecutions of armed private contractors” — similar to the way low-level military personnel like Lynndie England were made the scapegoats for the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib — “because the heat is on.”

But, according to Scahill, the best chance for justice for the victims of Blackwater in Nisour Square and their surviving relatives is a civil suit filed in New York by some of the families under the Alien Tort Claims Act “for damages sufficient to punish Blackwater and its founder and CEO, Erik Prince.” Sponsored by a U.S. organization called the Center for Constitutional Rights, this suit may be the only way to hold Blackwater accountable for its abuses in Nisour Square because of the “extraordinary coverup” engaged in by the U.S. government.

According to Scahill, Nisour Square wasn’t the first time Blackwater personnel outright murdered civilians in Iraq. Previously they’d shot a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice-president. What’s more, he said, “There’s a raging legal debate over whether any law can be applied to these individuals for crimes committed in Iraq.” He said Andrew Noonan, the Blackwater operative who killed the vice-presidential bodyguard, was flown out of Iraq and “lives in Seattle and is a free man today,” while “the families of Nisour Square have risen up from the shell of horror and proved themselves to be moral beings.”

To Scahill, that’s a moral challenge to Americans to do the same and stand up to the abuses of Blackwater and its competitors — and the relentless privatization agenda that the U.S. government is following by outsourcing more functions and authority to them. “Over the past eight years, we’ve seen the greatest transfer of public money and resources to the private sector in our history,” he said. “In Iraq today, there are 150,000 official U.S. military personnel and 180,000 private contractors representing 630 companies, many of them from countries whose governments are officially against the war. Forty percent of the money the U.S. is spending on the war goes to the private contractors, and they can use it for any purpose they want — including building their corporate infrastructure and making campaign contributions to politicians.”

What’s more, Scahill said, Blackwater is moving aggressively to have a “Plan B” in place in case the Iraq war actually ends: a share of a $15 billion contract from the U.S. government to fight — here comes the new buzz-word — “terrorists with drug ties.” This is code for Left-wing revolutionaries and political dissenters in Colombia and other Latin American countries — a market Blackwater has been trying to crack and take business away from one of its major competitors, DynCorp.

If Blackwater gets into Latin America, Scahill said, “the money is serious. Colombia gets $630 million from the U.S. government, allegedly for the ‘war on drugs,’ and it pays back half of it to U.S. private military companies. It’s really a counter-insurgency, and DynCorp and Blackwater is being used as a small-footprint approach to U.S. military involvement” now that the traditional ways the U.S. imposed its will on Latin America — direct invasions or CIA-sponsored coups — have become politically unsustainable.

Another potential growth area for Blackwater is running a private intelligence service for anyone who can pay. “Recently Erik Prince started his own private CIA — that’s their term for it — called Total Intelligence Solutions,” Scahill explained. “They say they’re going to ‘bring CIA-type services to the corporate world.’ They’re marketing their services to Fortune 500 corporations and governments. This private CIA is being run primarily by three individuals: J. Cofer Black, 28-year veteran of the CIA and the man who ran the CIA’s counter-terrorism center after 9/11, ran the ‘extraordinary rendition’ program and told the U.S. Congress that ‘after 9/11 the gloves came off’; Robert Richer, former deputy director of operations for the CIA, the man who briefed Bush on the growing Iraqi resistance and the CIA’s liaison to King Abdullah of Jordan; and Enrique ‘Rick’ Prada, an expert with the CIA’s ‘black operations’ unit.”

And these three are only the tip of the iceberg: Prince has recruited plenty of people from the CIA, FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to work for him. “The careers of these individuals are now all available for bidding on the open market,” Scahill said. “We now have 16 official government intelligence agencies headed by an official, Mike McConnell, who used to head the business association for private intelligence. Seventy percent of the U.S. intelligence budget is now in the hands of private, for-profit companies; and what is to prevent these corporations from injecting ‘intelligence’ to benefit a client or hurt a competitor?”

To make things even more depressing, Blackwater’s role in Iraq isn’t likely to go away or even shrink once George W. Bush leaves the White House. That’s partly because the Bush administration already quietly renewed Blackwater’s Iraq contract past its own term in office, but also because neither major-party Presidential candidate is promising a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. “John McCain is clearly the candidate of the war industry,” Scahill admitted, but he said that Barack Obama’s plan for Iraq would still leave 20,000 to 80,000 U.S. troops in place and maintain U.S. control over the Green Zone, the U.S. Embassy (described by Scahill as “that monstrous ‘embassy’ built with slave labor”) and the Baghdad International Airport.

Obama’s Iraq strategy would not only deny Iraqis full sovereignty over their own country and keep up to half as many U.S. troops in Iraq as were stationed there at the height of Bush’s “surge,” but according to Scahill there’s no way he could implement it without Blackwater. That’s because somebody has to maintain security for all the U.S. officials that would staff the Green Zone and the embassy — and that can’t be U.S. military personnel, partly because they’re already stretched too thin and partly because they don’t want to be in a position where they regularly confront unarmed Iraqi civilians.

Nor, at least immediately, can it be the State Department’s own security forces. There simply aren’t enough of them — according to Scahill, “right now Blackwater has more people in Iraq than the U.S. State Department has in the whole world” — and it would take at least three years to recruit and train enough State Department security agents to take over what Blackwater is doing now. “So to keep a U.S. presence in Iraq, Obama will have to use Blackwater,” Scahill said.

Indeed, twice during the question-and-answer period Scahill was asked whether Blackwater would ever stage a coup and take over the U.S. government — and both times he said his fondest wish was that there’d be political leaders in this country who would stand up to them and make them think they had to. So far, he said, Blackwater and the private military sector in general have got everything they wanted from the U.S. government and from both major parties.

Scahill’s depressing account of Obama’s more-of-the-same-only-a-little-less-of-it Iraq strategy wasn’t designed to discourage people from voting for him — even though Scahill witheringly described his friends who “are in love with Obama” as having “drunk the Kool-Aid.” What it means, he said, is that peace activists have to mobilize to force Obama to commit to a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq — and to do that now, while they still can leverage him with the threat of not voting for him if he doesn’t, rather than once he wins, when his principal political threat will be from the Right and it won’t matter what the Left thinks of him anymore.

“We have a moment for incredible change in this country,” Scahill said. “People are waking up to the dangers of the loss of our civil liberties and the U.S. being identified with torture. I wrote one book about one company, but that company embodies so much about what’s been wrong with this country in the last eight years. When as a society are we going to realize that those at the top who set the tone for these policies don’t get off the hook for Blackwater, Abu Ghraib, Guant√°namo and the violations of our own civil liberties at home?”

For more information on Jeremy Scahill and his researches on Blackwater, visit his Web site at or read his articles on Blackwater for The Nation magazine at