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Jeremy Scahill on Blackwater
Jeremy Scahill by Robin Holland
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October 19, 2007

On September 16, 2007, Blackwater contractors, during a complex confrontation in downtown Baghdad, shot and killed Iraqis in the crowded Nisour Square.

The FBI and State Department are currently investigating the incident, yet it further sheds light upon a growing private sector security force in Iraq and elsewhere, that many fear has not been held accountable to the same degree as have US military officials.

Jeremy Scahill has been covering Blackwater for THE NATION and other publications for more than three years. He is a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, and is the author of BLACKWATER: THE RISE OF THE WORLD'S MOST POWERFUL MERCENARY ARMY, published by Nation Books. He is also an award-winning investigative journalist and correspondent for DEMOCRACY NOW!.
According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, there are between 160,000 and 180,000 private contractors in Iraq, including about 30,000 armed security forces. Blackwater employees represent about 1000 of these armed contractors. There were only about 9,200 total private contractors during the Persian Gulf War.

Few Americans had even heard of Blackwater before March 31, 2004, when four of its contractors were ambushed and brutally killed in Falluja, and days later, a US siege of the region began. It was "what would be one of the most brutal and sustained US operations of the occupation," explains Scahill, who believes the US Military response to the killings sets a dangerous precedent.
Before the September 16, 2007 confrontation, Blackwater employees had been implicated in similar incidents involving questionable force, including in December 2006, when a drunk Blackwater contractor allegedly shot and killed a bodyguard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. The contractor was subsequently fired by Blackwater, yet was sent back in the region with another private firm.

polish ambassador ambush "[State Department] officials said that Blackwater's incident rate was at least twice that recorded by employees of DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, the two other United States-based security firms that have been contracted by the State Department to provide security for diplomats and other senior civilians in Iraq," writes THE NEW YORK TIMES.

Still, as Blackwater's founder Eric Prince reminded Congress a few weeks ago, "Blackwater personnel are subject to regular attacks by terrorists and other nefarious forces within Iraq." As the WALL STREET JOURNAL reports, "The company has said it has done 16,000 missions for the State Department since June 2005, using its weapons just 1% of the time." And recently two Blackwater helicopters helped evacuate the Polish Ambassador to Iraq after his convoy was attacked.

But questions about accountability still abound: when mistakes are made, to which rule of law should contractors answer, military or US criminal law? Officials in the State and Defense Departments are currently debating this very question.

Blackwater's State Department contract expires next May, and according to the AP, officials in the Department intend to "ease out" Blackwater since many share "a mutual feeling that the Sept. 16 shooting deaths mean the company cannot continue in its current role." Yet according to the WALL STREET JOURNAL, even if Blackwater was forced to leave Iraq, they would simply be replaced by another private security firm, since the State Department does not have the personnel available to step in:

"'There's just no way our system could handle trying to get hundreds of new people trained and sent to Iraq,' said a State Department official. 'That would be a multiyear process.'"

Guest photo by Robin Holland

Published on October 19, 2007

Related Media:
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The Moyers Clip File: Iraq Stories
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References and Reading:
State Department Contracted Security Firms in Iraq: Blackwater Reporting by Jeremy Scahill: Blackwater CEO, Erik Prince, on CHARLIE ROSE, October 15, 2007

60 MINUTES: Lara Logan interviews Erik Prince, October 14, 2007

NPR: Melissa Block interviews Erik Prince on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, October 18, 2007

Blackwater Tops Firms in Iraq in Shooting Rate
By John M. Broder and James Risen, THE NEW YORK TIMES, September 27, 2007
"The American security contractor Blackwater USA has been involved in a far higher rate of shootings while guarding American diplomats in Iraq than other security firms providing similar services to the State Department, according to Bush administration officials and industry officials."

House Oversight Committee: Private Security Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan
Watch the Congressional hearing from October 2, 2007 that discusses Blackwater and the recent civilian killings on Sept. 16. Read Erik Prince's testimony (pdf).

Democracy NOW
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, March 20, 2007

Revolving Door to Blackwater Causes Alarm at CIA
By Ken Silverstein, HARPERS, September 12, 2006
"How did Blackwater rise so high, so fast? The 'war on terrorism' got the ball rolling for the firm, but one suspects that political connections played a big part as well."

Blackwater: Inside America's Private Army
Explore this Pulitzer Prize Finalist series from THE VIRGINIAN PILOT about Blackwater.

State Dept. Intercedes in Blackwater probe
By Peter Spiegel, LA TIMES, September 26, 2007
"A House panel reveals a letter telling the firm not to disclose information about its Iraq operations without the administration's OK."

U.S. Military and Iraqis Say They Are Shut Out of Inquiry
By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Michael R. Gordon, THE NEW YORK TIMES, October 11, 2007
"Nearly four weeks after the deadly shootings at a central Baghdad square involving the Blackwater USA private security firm, American military officials and Iraqi investigators say the F.B.I. and State Department are refusing to share information with them on their investigation into the killings."

TPM Muckraker: Posts on Contractors
Josh Marshall and his team have been following the contractors story and here are many of the recent posts from their investigative reporting blog, TPM Muckraker.

NEW YORK TIMES: Blackwater Navigator
A list of resources about Blackwater USA as selected by researchers and editors of THE NEW YORK TIMES.

Building Blackwater
By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Dana Hedgpeth, WASHINGTON POST, October 13, 2007
"Founder Seeks 'Better, Smarter, Faster' Security As History, Iraq Shape the Firm's Fortunes."

OP-ED COLUMNIST; Hired Gun Fetish
By Paul Krugman, THE NEW YORK TIMES, September 27, 2007
"Yes, the so-called private security contractors are mercenaries. They're heavily armed. They carry out military missions, but they're private employees who don't answer to military discipline. On the other hand, they don't seem to be accountable to Iraqi or U.S. law, either. And they behave accordingly."

House Bill Would Allow Prosecution of Contractors
By David M. Herszenhorn, THE NEW YORK TIMES, October 4, 2007
"With the armed security force Blackwater USA and other private contractors in Iraq facing tighter scrutiny, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill today that would bring all United States government contractors in the Iraq war zone under the jurisdiction of American criminal law."

FRONTLINE: Private Warriors | PBS | June 21, 2005
"What are the Dangers in bringing in the private sector to prosecute the war?"

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