TOPICS > Nation

Security Contractors Questioned After Blackwater Shooting

September 18, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the past two days, public anger has been mounting in Iraq over the deaths on Sunday of at least nine Iraqis, allegedly killed by private security guards accompanying a State Department convoy in Baghdad. The guards were working for the American firm Blackwater USA.

IRAQI CIVILIAN (through translator): We see the security firms or the so-called American security firms doing whatever they want in the streets. They beat citizens and scorn them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A dozen other Iraqis were wounded in the firefight in western Baghdad. Accounts differ on who fired first. This injured man said…

IRAQI CIVILIAN (through translator): They shot randomly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iraqi government blamed the Blackwater personnel and ordered all the firm’s contractors to leave the country. It also ordered an investigation of all private contractors whom the government licenses.

The North Carolina-based Blackwater USA provides most of the security for the U.S. embassy personnel in Iraq, with nearly 1,000 contracted employees. It is one of the largest private security firms in Iraq.

Company officials insisted their employees acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack: “These civilians reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were, in fact, armed enemies and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki late yesterday to express regret, and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said today an investigation is underway.

But at the same time, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and other State Department officials have insisted the Blackwater guards were essential to their security in Baghdad.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: There is no alternative except through contracts. And I would have to say that the capability and courage of the individuals who provide security under contract is worthy of respect of all Americans.

"Highly paid for high-risk work"

Doug Brooks
International Peace Operations
I think all the contractors are pretty important. The security companies essentially relieve the military of doing a lot of sort of static security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the U.S. and Iraqi laws applying to private contracts are murky. There are more than 182,000 individual contractors of many nationalities working for the U.S. government in Iraq, doing an assortment of jobs, with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 in security work. And while there have been several incidents with them being accused of shooting Iraqis, none has been prosecuted to date.

Security contractors are highly paid for high-risk work. One of the most horrific attacks of the war came in Fallujah in March of 2004, when four Blackwater employees were ambushed and killed. Chanting crowds hanged their charred bodies from a bridge.

This afternoon, Blackwater officials said they had yet to receive word from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior to stop work, and their contractors are still in the country.

For more on all of this, we get two views. Jeremy Scahill is author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army." He also reports for the Nation magazine and for the independent radio program, "Democracy Now." And Doug Brooks is founder and president of the International Peace Operations Association. It is a trade organization for military service companies.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

And, Doug Brooks, to you first. Blackwater is saying it has not been told to leave the country. The Iraqi government is saying, yes, that their license has been revoked. Whichever is happening at this moment, how important is Blackwater and these other security companies to the American war effort?

DOUG BROOKS, President, International Peace Operations Association: Well, I think all the contractors are pretty important. The security companies essentially relieve the military of doing a lot of sort of static security. We have a smaller military than we have had in the past, and it's a very capable military, but there's no reason you should have combat troops guarding gates and things like that. So you use a lot of contractors. And I think it's important to remember, even with the security contractors, most of them are Iraqis. Now, Blackwater does a lot of high-end...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of them are Iraqis?

DOUG BROOKS: Most of them are Iraqis. And Blackwater does a lot of the high-end security, so it has to use Americans with clearances and so on. But for most contractors for convoys, for site protection and stuff, you'll see mostly Iraqis doing the work.

The role of private contractors

Jeremy Scahill
The Nation Magazine
What's different now is that the Iraqi government seems to be asserting itself and standing up, not just to any company in Iraq, but to what is the official mercenary company of the U.S. occupation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeremy Scahill, how important are these private contractors, whether it's Blackwater or the others to this overall effort?

JEREMY SCAHILL, The Nation Magazine: Well, Judy, the Bush administration failed to build the coalition of willing nations to occupy Iraq, and so instead it built a coalition of billing corporations. And as you said, there are now private contractors in Iraq than there are official U.S. soldiers. So, actually, the U.S. military is the junior partner now in this coalition that's occupying Iraq.

These are extraordinary developments, but there's nothing particularly new over what's happened over the last 48 hours, because Blackwater itself has been engaged in numerous firefights with Iraqis over the years. In fact, for four years of occupation, we've seen numerous instances of U.S. mercenaries opening fire on Iraqis.

What's different now is that the Iraqi government seems to be asserting itself and standing up, not just to any company in Iraq, but to what is the official mercenary company of the U.S. occupation. They guard Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I mean, telling Blackwater they have to leave the country is essentially saying, "We're going to expel the bodyguards of the senior U.S. officials."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Doug Brooks, we hear him saying that there have been numerous firefights over the last four years. If that's what's happened, has any action been taken against these security firms, these other firms when that's happened?

DOUG BROOKS: Well, essentially, they have rules that they operate under as a security company. Militaries have rules of engagement, ROEs, which are secret, which are aggressive, and allow them to use force and proactively to carry out their mission.

But security companies is a thick line, and security companies have rules for the use of force, RUF. And what it means is they're allowed to defend themselves, they're allowed to defend whatever they've been contracted to protect, whether it's a convoy or a politician or an organization or whatever, and they are allowed to protect Iraqi civilians under imminent threat. And that's it.

So it's a very different sort of role. They're lightly armed compared to the military, but they have a very specific, specialized role. And, yes, they do get -- they do end up protecting whatever they're hired to protect quite often.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what's happened in the past when there have been complaints against them?

DOUG BROOKS: There is different ways of holding companies accountable. A company can be held accountable contractually through the U.S. government. It can be held accountable through those various rules, as far as the federal acquisition regulations and DFARS and so on. There's different ways to hold companies accountable.

For individuals, this has been improving. And this is something that our association is working with Congress on. You can actually bring individuals back to the United States for trial, not local nationals, not Iraqis, but you can bring back people from other nationalities to the United States to try them for felonies.

Governing private contractors

Jeremy Scahill
The Nation Magazine
We had Blackwater contractors in Najaf shooting at Iraqis and saying it was like a turkey shoot. So this is a big problem. It's like a Wild West atmosphere in Iraq right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jeremy Scahill, how clear are the laws that govern these private contractors?

JEREMY SCAHILL: It's interesting. You hear Doug say that they can be held accountable. The fact is that they have not been held accountable. Not in one single instance has a mercenary been charged with any crime against an Iraqi in four years of occupation, not under the Iraqi law, because the United States gutted the Iraqi legal system. At a time when it said it was handing over sovereignty, they were saying, "You can prosecute these contractors for crimes committed in your country."

They haven't been held accountable under the court martial system, nor have they been held accountable under civilian law inside the United States. So either we have tens of thousands of Boy Scouts working in Iraq as mercenaries or something is fundamentally rotten with the system.

And I think that this is something that the industry likes to hide behind. They say, "Well, there are laws," and they look really good on paper. The fact is that the political will to prosecute these mercenaries has simply not been there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just to be clear, what are you saying they have done that they should be held accountable for?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, for instance, we had an incident that occurred last Christmas Eve, where an off-duty Blackwater contractor is alleged to have shot and killed a bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president. Blackwater responded to that by whisking that contractor out of Iraq and back to the United States. Now, Blackwater said it fired that individual and is cooperating with the Justice Department investigation, but so far nothing, to my knowledge, has happened to that individual.

There was a similar incident to the one that happened on Sunday involving Blackwater last may, this past May, where on back-to-back days Blackwater contractors engaged in firefights just outside of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. We had Blackwater contractors in Najaf shooting at Iraqis and saying it was like a turkey shoot.

So this is a big problem. It's like a Wild West atmosphere in Iraq right now. And finally attention is being paid to it and the Iraqi government is asserting itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Doug Brooks, from your perspective, what has happened in these incidents? And why have they or have they not been held accountable?

DOUG BROOKS: There needs to be due process. And when there's an incident that occurs that appears to be outside the rules of use of force, then there needs to be some sort of accountability. And this is something our industry supports.

You're not going to get perfect accountability. You're operating in what's called a complex contingency operation. There's no legal system. There's very little in the way of governmental system. So you have to find a way that you can hold contractors accountable when there's a problem.

And this is something we actually support from our side that good accountability is good for our industry. And we've been backing this. And, again, we've been working with Congress on this. We've been -- Congressman Price has been particularly good on this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you agreeing that they have not always been held accountable?

DOUG BROOKS: I think it could be done better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's talk about the specific -- quickly, the specific incident on Sunday. You've got sources presumably inside Blackwater. Are they shedding any more light on what happened?

DOUG BROOKS: There seems to be a lot of different versions of the event. It seems, you know, as somebody once -- or someone I talked to today was saying that, you know, the Iraqi government responded within two hours to an incident, which is a record speed. So some question there may be some political aspect behind this.

The Ministry of Interior, of course, has a really interesting reputation in terms of working with militia groups and things like that. So there may be some other factors involved that we're not quite clear on. I think there's a couple of -- at least two investigations underway. We're looking forward to seeing how those pan out, before I think we'd make any other...

Diplomatic investigation

Doug Brooks
International Peace Operations
The private security companies are involved in a proportionately smaller number of incidents than the military is. And the military, of course, is much better armed, and so there's more problems with the civilian casualties in these events.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the State Department announced they're doing a diplomatic investigation, as well as the Iraqi government investigation.

Jeremy Scahill, you've got sources inside Iraq. You've been talking to them. Are they shedding any more light on this?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think that the main concern right now -- Doug Brooks talks about how there needs to be due process. There has been a systematic failure to allow Iraqis due process when they're the victims of crimes.

And the fact of the matter is that Blackwater says that it only engages in defensive operations. The fact is that you can't get more offensive than occupying someone else's country. And Blackwater has put its forces at the vanguard of that operation.

And Iraqi lives are put at a far lower value than the American lives that Blackwater is protecting, and this is just the most recent incident. And it's tragic to see the Iraqi civilian with bullet wounds in that hospital room talking about being fired upon by these Blackwater operatives. I think that this system needs to be reined in and brought under control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are these -- go ahead.

DOUG BROOKS: I was just going to say, if I could take issue with that, many of our companies or most of our companies actually have a number of Iraqi employees. And one of the chief concerns of these companies is taking care of their employees.

There's been numerous instances where employees' families have been threatened and so on, and the companies have stepped forward to make sure that they're taken to safety. And one of the key issues that we're looking at now is the whole asylum issue. I think this is -- we do take our Iraqi employees very seriously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning, if they're accused of something and they're found...

DOUG BROOKS: No, meaning that if they're threatened by militias or whatever that the companies do take care of them.


There are -- back to you, Jeremy Scahill, quickly -- there are these two investigations underway. How much confidence do you have that eventually we'll get to the bottom of this, we'll know what happened on Sunday?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I think that we may see the beginning of some kind of prosecution. It's going to be token, and it's going to be symbolic. I think that this incident has brought it to the forefront, and I think that the Bush administration, especially if it wants to keep Blackwater in the country, is probably going to have to take some kind of a step against the company.

Doug Brooks talks about how these companies have concern for their Iraqi employees. What about concern for the Iraqi civilians who were killed over the course of these past four years by these unaccountable mercenaries in Iraq? That's something these people never want to talk about.

DOUG BROOKS: I think you need to have the most professional people you can get in the field. And when the government actually contracts these companies, if you look in their contracts and stuff, they're very careful about what sort of training these people have to have.

And I think you'll see that, when you look at the statistics, the private security companies are involved in a proportionately smaller number of incidents than the military is. And the military, of course, is much better armed, and so there's more problems with the civilian casualties in these events.

But in any case, there's a lot of combat in urban areas. And when you're attacked in an urban area, it is very dangerous. It's a war zone. And these companies are operating in that war zone. And there's always going to be problems. Now, the companies -- good companies will step forward and do the right thing, and that's something we encourage, from an IPOA perspective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to have to leave it there, gentlemen. Doug Brooks here in Washington, Jeremy Scahill joining us from New York. We appreciate it. Thank you both.

DOUG BROOKS: Thank you.