Visit Your Local PBS StationPBS HomePBS HomePrograms A-Z TV Schedules Support PBSShop PBSSearch PBS
Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts TV Schedule

October 19, 2007

Bill Moyers talks journalist Jeremy Scahill, Part 1

BILL MOYERS::Welcome to the JOURNAL.

You could not miss Erik Prince this week. The founder and top gun of Blackwater usually keeps a low media profile. But there he was all over the place, in acarefully orchestrated campaign to put the best face on a bad situation.

Erik Prince is the man who assembled a private army in Iraq with tax dollars, providedby the U.S. Government — you. Earlier this month, after some of his soldiers of fortune gunned down 17 innocent Iraqis and wounded 27 others in what the Armyfirst called an unprovoked attack, Prince was called before Congress to give an accounting. Here's one of the exchanges.

REP. DANNY K. DAVIS (D-IL): You do admit that Blackwater personnel have shot and killed innocent civilians, don't you?

MR. PRINCE: No, sir. I disagree with that. I think there's been times when guys are using defensive force to protect themselves, to protect the packages, trying to get away from danger, there could be ricochets, there are traffic accidents, yes.

REP. D. DAVIS: According to a document we obtained from the State Department, on June 25th, 2005, Blackwater guards shot and killed an innocent man who was standing by the side of the street. His death left six children alone with no one to provide them support. Are you familiar with this incident?

MR. PRINCE: I'm somewhat familiar with that incident. I believe what happened, that was a car bomb — or a potential car bomb had rapidly approached our convoy. I believe our guys shot rounds at the car, not at the driver, to warn them off.

REP. D. DAVIS:State Department described the death as, and I quote, "the random death of an innocent Iraqi." Do you know why Blackwater officials failed to report this shooting and later tried to cover it up?

MR. PRINCE: I can clarify that fully, sir. Thanks for asking that question. There was no cover-up.

BILL MOYERS:Soon after Prince had ducked and weaved his way out of the Congressional line of fire, Iraqi officials were calling for Blackwater to leave their country. Prince's P.R. advisers then launched a round of press interviews where Prince, armed with this video of his men rescuing a Polish diplomat in Baghdad, could make his case on his terms.

ERIK PRINCE:"I'm an American working for America. Anything we do is to support U.S. Policy. You know the definition of a mercenary is a professional soldier that works in the pay of a foreign army. I'm an American working for America...."

Lara Logan frequently puts herself in harm's way, covering the war in Iraq. Erik Prince proves as elusive as the insurgents.

LARA LOGAN:So why is it so wrong then? Why is there this perception that exists about Blackwater?

ERIK PRINCE:General misunderstanding because we've not been able to communicate what we do and don't do these last few years.

CHARLIE ROSE:Do you think there has been knee-jerk reporting about what happened on September 16?

ERIK PRINCE:Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS:As he was spinning the story to the press, he was also blaming the press.

ERIK PRINCE:I don't know that the media has given them due process the last couple of weeks...You know that when the guys get it right 99 times out of 100...

BILL MOYERS:Prince stuck to his well-rehearsed talking points, no matter where he showed up.

ERIK PRINCE:You have to understand, bad things in Iraq generally don't happen by themselves... Bad things don't usually happen by themselves in Iraq...In hundreds of other attacks against us, bad things generally don't happen by themselves...

BILL MOYERS:In the game of spin, repetition is the winner...

LARA LOGAN:You want more oversight...

ERIK PRINCE:We absolutely want more oversight. We welcome the accountability... We support accountability as long as there is due process.

BILL MOYERS:One subject he evaded time and again was his close ties to people in high places who hand out the government contracts that pay for his private army.

CHARLIE ROSE:You give a lot of money to the Republican Party, fair amount.

ERIK PRINCE:Relative to a lot, not very much but -

CHARLIE ROSE:"This is America. You are allowed to do and support whoever you want to. Your sister, her husband ran for governor of Michigan. Your mother is a very enthusiastic supporter of causes as well as, I assume, the Republican Party as well. Your sister supported George Bush 41. And you supported Pat Buchanan. Why was there that split?

ERIK PRINCE:You know, I was at Hillsdale College as an economics major, very much a free market guy. And I would say it was mostly a disagreement over taxes.

BILL MOYERS:So what was and wasn't said in this spectacle of spin? For some answers we turn to a one-man truth squad who has been reporting on Blackwater and Erik Prince's influence. Jeremy Scahill is an independent investigative journalist who wrote this recent bestselling book: BLACKWATER: THE RISE OF THE WORLD'S MOST POWERFUL MERCENARY ARMY.

Jeremy Scahill is a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. He's reported from Iraq, the Balkans and Nigeria, among other places, he's a co-winner of the George Polk Award For Investigative Reporting. Good to see you.


BILL MOYERS:From watching the interviews, what was the message that you think Prince was trying to get out?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, let's remember, this is a guy who prior to the September 16th shooting in Baghdad had only done one television interview ever. And it was right after 9/11 on Fox News with Bill O'Reilly. And during that interview, he said that after 9/11, the phone's been ringing off the hook at Blackwater.

Other than that, this is a guy who hasn't really appeared in public. So, it was unusual to see him, A, appear before the Congress. And B, do this blitzkrieg of interviews. I think the message was very clear. He was trying to say we're a patriotic American company. That we're Americans protecting Americans. We want accountability for our industry.

But there is also something that sort of reminded me of Jack Nicholson in A FEW GOOD MEN where he's talking about 'I eat my cereal, you know, meters away from Cubans who want to kill me.' Where Erik Prince uses terms like the bad guys and our blood runs-- runs red, white and blue.

BILL MOYERS:And nobody talks like that in normal life do they — our blood runs red, white and blue.

JEREMY SCAHILL:Right. It's almost I think part of the point here was to say, look, you don't understand really, American people, what we're doing for you. While you're enjoying comfort here in the United States, we're over there protecting our-- men in women in uniform, our diplomats. I think that there's a way that he wants to increase the mystique about the company and the operations of Blackwater.

BILL MOYERS:But do you think he was motivated and his PR firm was motivated in part because he didn't do that well before Congress at the recent hearings into this investi-- into this shooting?

JEREMY SCAHILL:I think that Blackwater has made a very serious strategic error in how they've handled their publicity for years. And now, we're seeing the company go on the offensive. I think Erik Prince held his own in front of the Congress. And I attribute it largely to the fact that it appeared as though the Democrats didn't really do their homework on him.

I mean, here you have the man who owns the company providing the largest private army on the US government payroll in Iraq. A billion dollars in contracts. Twenty-seven of his men killed in Iraq. We don't know how many people he killed. No private actor in the occupation of Iraq has had more of a devastating impact on events in Iraq than Blackwater. And I just felt watching that hearing, and I went down for it, that many of the Democrats hadn't done their homework.

BILL MOYERS:Well, they-- well, they were reading the report at the time that he was testifying, right?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Right. And you see them flipping through the pages. And it appeared as though a lot of the members were just sort of paging through it while Erik Prince was testifying.

BILL MOYERS:If you go to the CBS News Web site reporting on Lara Logan's interview with him, what the headline says is "Blackwater chief welcomes extra oversight". Could that have been the message? Hey, look, this was a terrible thing that happened over there. But we really want you, the State Department, government, military, to hold us more accountable.

JEREMY SCAHILL:Right. But I mean, there's a very Orwellian vibe to all of this. I mean-- let's remember here, Blackwater says they're not a mercenary company. They're in the peace and stability industry. We're in the business of peace because peace matters.

BILL MOYERS:Peace and stability. Is this how the industry promotes itself?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Oh, yeah. The mercenary trade association, Blackwater recent left it. But they've been a leading member and funder of it. It's called the International Peace Operations Association. And their logo is a cartoon sleeping lion. I mean, it's so incredibly Orwellian.

And I think this idea that they want accountability, this has been a line they've been pushing for years. I mean, Erik Prince said it was excellent that the democratic legislation passed through the House that was allegedly about contractor oversight. And the reason why Blackwater endorses it is because it looks great on paper. There are gonna be laws that govern the use of private military companies. But in reality, it's totally unenforceable.


JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, the idea behind it is that US civilian law is going to apply to contractors on the battlefield. And the Democratic plan says, let's send an FBI field office over in Baghdad monitoring 180,000 contractors.

I mean, there are more contractors in Iraq right now than there are US soldiers. And so the idea is that the FBI is gonna go around Iraq. They're gonna be investigating crimes of contractors. Interviewing witnesses, presumably in very dangerous places.

And then, they're going to arrest the individual in question. Bring them back to the United States. And then, prosecute them in a US civilian court. All of this coming from the Bush Justice Department.

I mean, I've never heard a more insane plan. And so, what that bill will give Erik Prince and other mercenary companies the opportunity to do is to sit down and say, there are laws that govern us. We're accountable under US law.

But they know well that it only exists on paper. And that there will be a few token prosecutions. It's impossible to monitor the activities of 180,000 personnel.

BILL MOYERS: Prince says he welcomes the investigation the investigate by the State Department and the FBI. But Blackwater has guarded, is guarding the State Department and has guarded the FBI. How can they--

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well Bill, listen. when Nancy Pelosi goes over to Iraq, she's guarded by Blackwater. I mean, Blackwater's guarded, I think, 90 Congressional delegations -- when they go over there. And so, if you wanna go over and you wanna investigate a company as a member of Congress and you wanna look into the role of these companies and you're being guarded by them, what is that gonna do to the integrity of your operation?

BILL MOYERS:We're gonna have to pause a moment and say right here... As you talk, I realized just how much you have studied this group and it's in your book very well posed. But what got you interested in this as a journalist?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, I had gone-- I started going to Iraq in 1998. And I went in in the weeks leading up to the Clinton administration's attack on Baghdad in December of '98. And I had actually spent a fair bit of time in the city of Fallujah.In fact, I had camped out there in the desert just outside of Fallujah in the summer of 2002 was the last time I'd been in the city. And it was a place that I knew well. And-- and on March 31st, 2004 when four Blackwater operatives were ambushed and killed in Fallujah, their bodies dragged through the streets, burned, strung up from a bridge.

BILL MOYERS:I remember seeing those and they're horrifying. And the American public recoiled.

JEREMY SCAHILL:Right. And I mean, and initial reports on it were that civilian contractors had been killed. And the image that was portrayed was that these were sort of like water specialists or engineers that were being dragged through the streets.And then, it emerged that in fact they were these mercenaries working for a private company called Blackwater USA. And we watched as the Bush administration then began to escalate the rhetoric. And it became clear that they were gonna lay siege to the city of Fallujah

And what happened in the aftermath is well known. The US military was ordered to destroy the city. Hundreds of Iraqi civilians were killed. A number of US troops. And I began from a very simple question.How on earth were the lives of four corporate personnel — not US soldiers, not humanitarian workers. But how were the lives of these four corporate personnel worth the death of an entire Iraqi city? That siege had an incredibly devastating impact on events on the ground in Iraq. It gave rise to the Iraqi resistance. Fueled it. Attacks escalated against US forces. And it was-- it was really the moment that the war turned over the deaths of these four Blackwater guys.

BILL MOYERS:Now, how would our diplomats be protected if it weren't for the private security contractors? The army is stretched thin. Isn't there a role for these people?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, I think that the fact is that the US military has not historically done the job that Blackwater is doing. That was done through diplomatic security. And the role for these companies is envisioned as protecting diplomats in all these countries around the world.But in Iraq, you're talking about an occupation of a country. And without these private sector forces, without companies like as Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Dyncorp, the occupation wouldn't be tenable.


JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, right now in Iraq, there are 180,000 contractors operating alongside 170,000 US troops. So it's effectively a doubling or more than doubling of the occupation force.What this does is it subverts the citizenry in the United States. You no longer have to have a draft. You don't have to depend on your own citizens to fight your wars. You can simply hire up the poor of the world to work for American and British companies occupying another country.

BILL MOYERS:What do these private contractors, their guys, make compared to American soldiers on the ground?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Well it varies widely depending on the company, depending on their role, depending on their nationality.If you're a former Navy Seal or a Delta Force guy working for Blackwater, you can make about 600 dollars a day for your work in Iraq. I mean, we're talking six figure salaries. Some of these guys working for private military companies make as much as General Petraeus if not more.


JEREMY SCAHILL:He makes about $180,000 a year. Average troops in the ground, some of these kids are being paid forty thousand dollars a year to be in the exact same war zone as Erik Prince's men from Blackwater. And they're wearing the American flag on their shoulder, not the Blackwater logo.

BILL MOYERS:Didn't I read somewhere that one of our generals said we couldn't be here without Blackwater and these other companies? We couldn't be occupying. Or something to that effect?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Yeah. I mean, well, General Petraeus himself has been guarded by private contractors in Iraq. I mean, what message did that send when the general who's overseeing the surge in Iraq is guarded at times not by the US military, but by private forces.

BILL MOYERS:What message does that send?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, I think it sends a message that the United States military is essentially a subservient player to a corporate army in Iraq.

BILL MOYERS:I don't read that. I read it that Blackwater is the corollary to the-- complement to the the military.

JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, Erik Prince likes to describe Blackwater as the sort of Federal Express of the national security apparatus. He says if you want a package to get somewhere, do you send it through the post office or do you send it through FedEx?

But the fact is, the US military is the junior partner in the coalition that's occupying Iraq to these private companies. There are over 170 mercenary companies like Blackwater operating in Iraq right now. That's almost as many nations as are registered at the UN. And I think this isn't just about Iraq. It's also looting the US treasury.

BILL MOYERS:What does it say that this industry has become so essential, this peace and stability industry —these mercenaries as you call them.

JEREMY SCAHILL:Right. Well, I think we're in the midst of the most radical privatization agenda in our nation's history. We of course see it in schools. We see it in the health care system, in prisons. And now, we're seeing it full blown in the war machine. What I ultimately see as the real threat here is that the system of the very existence of the nation state I think is at stake here. Because you have companies now that have been funded with billions of dollars in public money using that money to then build up the infrastructure of private armies some of which could take out a small national military. And the old model used to be if a company wants to go into Nigeria for instance and exploit oil, they have to work with the juntas forces in order to do that. Now, you can just bring in your own private military force.

BILL MOYERS:Is it conceivable to you that these private contractors could be-- could wind up fighting the war against drugs in Columbia? Fighting the terrorists--

JEREMY SCAHILL:They already are.


JEREMY SCAHILL: Dyncorps for years, which is a massively publicly traded mercenary outfit, has been in Colombia for years. They've been in the Balkans. They're all over the place.

BILL MOYERS:Under contract to...?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Under contract with the US government. The Colombian government receives 630 million dollars a year to fight the so-called war on drugs. Of that 630 million dollars, half of it goes to US war contractors.They're in Bolivia. They're in Ecuador. They're in Colombia. Blackwater recently won a fifteen billion dollar contract that it's gonna share with four other companies to fight terrorists with drug ties.

BILL MOYERS:Look, these-- the journalists we saw, all good journalists, some of them my friends. I admire them. But I was struck that no one confronted Prince about the specifics of his private army. How do you explain that?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, I'm not sure why they didn't do it. I feel like some of these interviews that have been done with him would make the barons of the Soviet media empire blush with embarrassment for how this was handled.

I mean, this is a man who is building up nothing short of a parallel national security apparatus. He not only has his Blackwater Security which is what's deployed in Iraq. He has a maritime division, an aviation division. He recently started his own privatized intelligence company called Total Intelligence Solutions — that's headed by a thirty year veteran of the CIA, the man who led the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Cofer Black, who oversaw the extraordinary rendition program. This is the man who promised President Bush that he was gonna have his operative in Afghanistan chop off Osama Bin Laden's head, place it in a box with dry ice and then have it hand delivered to President Bush. He's now the number two man at Blackwater USA. He's the vice chairman of the company.

Blackwater has just won a 92 million dollar contract from the Pentagon to operate flights throughout central Asia. This is a company that is manufacturing surveillance blimps and marketing them to the Department of Homeland Security. Their own armored vehicle called the Grizzly. I mean, Blackwater's gonna be around for a very long time.

BILL MOYERS:And yet, Prince told Charlie, in effect, you know, we're just a very robust temp-agency. Sort of like Kelly girls.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I really don't know what to say to that. I mean what, are they just answering phones somewhere? No, these are guys that have worked inside of Afghanistan. They've been responsible for so much death and destruction in Iraq. And it's sort of-- it's the sanitizing of the role of Blackwater.

Well, I mean, Erik Prince likes to portray Blackwater as this sort of apple pie operation, all-American operation. And yet, his company has recruited soldiers from all around the world and deployed them in Iraq. Chilean commandos some of whom trained and served under Augusto Pinochet.

BILL MOYERS:The dictator.

JEREMY SCAHILL:The dictator of Chile, were hired up by Blackwater. They worked with a recruiter who had been-- a Chilean recruiter who had been in Pinochet's military. And they hired up scores of Chileans, brought them to North Carolina for evaluation and then sent them over to Iraq. Chile was opposed to the occupation of Iraq. Was a rotating member of the security council at the time of the invasion opposing it. It said no. We won't join the coalition of the willing. And so, Blackwater goes in and hires up soldiers from a country who's home government is opposed to the war. And deploys them in Iraq. That's a subversion of the sovereignty of the nation of Chile. Blackwater has hired Colombian soldiers and paid them 34 dollars a day to be in Iraq as well. They've hired Bulgarians, Fijians, Poles. So, I'm not quite certain what Erik Prince is talking about. In fact, his very definition of mercenary describes Blackwater, which is a professional soldier serving a foreign power. That's the definition Prince provides.

BILL MOYERS::But he objects to that term, mercenary, doesn't he?

JEREMY SCAHILL: He says its slanderous.

BILL MOYERS:I was intrigued to learn that the PR-agency that is handling Prince, Burson-Marsteller , is also the guy who heads - the CEO is also Hillary Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn.


BILL MOYERS:Mark Penn. Sort of-- he's been called Hillary's Rove. What-- I know something about how this system works. How a PR company comes to you and says hey I've got this client that would like to be on air here. Here's how we'd like to do it.And then, you see the same thing in being repeated from show to show to show — like Hillary Clinton was on all five of the Sunday morning talk shows recently. What have you learned about how the system works between the political and media elites?

JEREMY SCAHILL:Well, I mean, PR-companies are also mercenaries and I know oftentimes work for the highest bidder. I think it's interesting that--

BILL MOYERS:They're not shooting people though.

JEREMY SCAHILL:No, no, no. But they're mercenaries in the sense that they'll rent their services out to anyone. And once you're defending Erik Prince, you're working for him, then you become part of his sort of mercenary operation. I also think that it was a strategic choice to go with the company with Mark Penn because of his connection with the democrats and Hillary Clinton.

But let's, lets remember here we're talking about Blackwater right now because we have a Republican administration. For so many years, we had a Republican dominated Congress. Blackwater is certainly the beneficiary of the Republican monopoly in government. But this system has been bi-partisan for a very long time.

When Hillary Clinton's husband was in the White House, he was an aggressive supporter of the privatization of the war machine. Bill Clinton used mercenary forces in the Balkans. Who do we think gave Dick Cheney's company all of those contracts during the Nineties? We talk about Halliburton. It was Clinton. It was the Clinton administration. And and, Blackwater may be an extraordinary Republican company. But they're gonna be around when there's a Democrat in office.

BILL MOYERS:None of these-- none of my colleagues seem to want to press Prince on his, deeply on his political connections. What can you tell us about those connections?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, there are two things at play here. There's the funding of congressional candidates. And Erik Prince has given over a quarter of a million dollars to Republican candidates. He's also given money to the Green Party to defeat Democratic candidates in the 2006 election cycle. So, he's a pretty committed supporter of the Republican party.

But what I think is more interesting is Erik Prince's connection to radical religious right organizations. I mean, he comes from a family where his father built up a very successful manufacturing empire called Prince Manufacturing. And the invention that they were best known for is the now ubiquitous lighted sun visor. You pull down the visor in your car and it lights up. You have a bit of Blackwater history riding around in your vehicle. And so, Prince grows up in this household where he watches his father using that business as a cash generating engine to fuel and fund the rise not only of the Republican revolution of 1994, but also of several of the core groups that make up the radical religious right.

His dad gave the seed money to Gary Bauer to start the Family Research Council. They were very close to James Dobson and his Focus on the Family Prayer Warrior Network. Erik Prince was in the first team of interns that Gary Bauer took on in Washington at the Family Research Council. And Erik Prince's sister Betsy married Dick Devos, heir to the Amway Corporation fortune, the owners of the Orlando Magic basketball team. And together, these two families merged in a kind of marriage that was commonplace in the monarchies of old Europe. And together, they formed this formidable behind the scenes power player in radical right wing politics in this country.

And Erik Prince as a young man goes down, he interns in George H. W. Bush's White House but complains it's not conservative enough for him. And so, he backs Pat Buchanan in his insurgency campaign in 1992. So, these are sort of the people that peppered the landscape of young Erik Prince's life. He also interned for Dana Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan.

BILL MOYERS:Now a congressman from California.

JEREMY SCAHILL:And now a congressman from California. In fact, what's interesting is Rohrabacher issued a defense of Erik Prince after his congressional testimony and said that Erik Prince is gonna go down in history as a hero, just like Oliver North.

Read part two of the transcript.

Moyers Podcasts -- Sign Up for podcasts and feeds.
Our posts and your comments
Newsletter   For Educators   About the Series   Bill Moyers on PBS   Feedback

© Public Affairs Television 2007   Privacy Policy   TV Schedule   DVD/VHS    Terms of Use   FAQ