By Jeremy Scahill
(Cont'd) Blackwater Rising
Sun Apr 8, 2007 01:22

Blackwater Rising
Inside the world's most powerful mercenary army
By Jeremy Scahill
Published: Thursday March 15th, 2007

Then the incident came up at the February 7 Congressional hearing. As the session was drawing to a close, Representative Kucinich raced back into the room with what he said was a final question. He entered a news report on the incident into the record and asked Blackwater counsel Howell if Blackwater had flown the contractor out of Iraq after the alleged shooting. “That gentleman, on the day the incident occurred, he was off duty,” Howell said, in what was the first official confirmation of the incident from Blackwater. “Blackwater did bring him back to the United States.”

“Is he going to be extradited back to Iraq for murder, and if not, why not?” Kucinich asked.

“Sir, I am not law enforcement. All I can say is that there’s currently an investigation,” Howell replied. “We are fully cooperating and supporting that investigation.”

Kucinich then said, “I just want to point out that there’s a question that could actually make [Blackwater’s] corporate officers accessories here in helping to create a flight from justice for someone who’s committed a murder.”

The War on the Hill

Several bills are now making their way through Congress aimed at oversight and transparency of the private forces that have emerged as major players in the wars of the post-9/11 period. In mid-February Senators Byron Dorgan, Patrick Leahy and John Kerry introduced legislation aimed at cracking down on no-bid contracts and cronyism, providing for penalties of up to twenty years in prison and fines of up to $1 million for what they called “war profiteering.” It is part of what Democrats describe as a multi-pronged approach. “I think there’s a critical mass of us now who are working on it,” says Congressman Price, who represents Blackwater’s home state. In January Price introduced legislation that would expand the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 (MEJA) to include all contractors in a war zone, not just those working for or alongside the armed forces. Most of Blackwater’s work in Iraq, for instance, is contracted by the State Department. Price indicated that the alleged Christmas Eve shooting could be a test case of sorts under his legislation. “I will be following this and I’ll be calling for a full investigation,” he said.

But there’s at least one reason to be wary of this approach: Price’s office consulted with the private military lobby as it crafted the legislation, which has the industry’s strong endorsement. Perhaps that’s because MEJA has been for the most part unenforced. “Even in situations when U.S. civilian law could potentially have been applied to contractor crimes, it wasn’t,” observed P.W. Singer, a leading scholar on contractors. American prosecutors are already strapped for resources in their home districts—how could they be expected to conduct complex investigations in Iraq? Who will protect the investigators and prosecutors? How will they interview Iraqi victims? How could they effectively oversee 100,000 individuals spread across a dangerous war zone? “It’s a good question,” concedes Price. “I’m not saying that it would be a simple matter.” He argues his legislation is an attempt to “put the whole contracting enterprise on a new accountable footing.”

This past fall, taking a different tack – much to the dismay of the industry—Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reserve lawyer and former reserve judge, quietly inserted language into the 2007 Defense Authorization, which Bush signed into law, that places contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), commonly known as the court martial system. Graham implemented the change with no public debate and with almost no awareness among the broader Congress, but war contractors immediately questioned its constitutionality. Indeed, this could be a rare moment when mercenaries and civil libertarians are on the same side. Many contractors are not armed combatants; they work in food, laundry and other support services. While the argument could be made that armed contractors like those working for Blackwater should be placed under the UCMJ, Graham’s change could result in a dishwasher from Nepal working for KBR being prosecuted like a U.S. soldier. On top of all this, the military has enough trouble policing its own massive force and could scarcely be expected to monitor an additional 100,000 private personnel. Besides, many contractors in Iraq are there under the auspices of the State Department and other civilian agencies, not the military.

In an attempt to clarify these matters, Senator Barack Obama introduced comprehensive new legislation in February. It requires clear rules of engagement for armed contractors, expands MEJA and provides for the DoD to “arrest and detain” contractors suspected of crimes and then turn them over to civilian authorities for prosecution. It also requires the Justice Department to submit a comprehensive report on current investigations of contractor abuses, the number of complaints received about contractors and criminal cases opened. In a statement to The Nation, Obama said contractors are “operating with unclear lines of authority, out-of-control costs and virtually no oversight by Congress. This black hole of accountability increases the danger to our troops and American civilians serving as contractors.” He said his legislation would “re-establish control over these companies,” while “bringing contractors under the rule of law.”

Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House intelligence committee, has been a leading critic of the war contracting system. Her Iraq and Afghanistan Contractor Sunshine Act, introduced in February, which bolsters Obama’s, boils down to what Schakowsky sees as a long overdue fact-finding mission through the secretive contracting bureaucracy. Among other provisions, it requires the government to determine and make public the number of contractors and subcontractors (at any tier) that are employed in Iraq and Afghanistan; any host country’s, international or U.S. laws that have been broken by contractors; disciplinary actions taken against contractors; and the total number of dead and wounded contractors. Schakowsky says she has tried repeatedly over the past several years to get this information and has been stonewalled or ignored. “We’re talking about billions and billions of dollars—some have estimated forty cents of every dollar [spent on the occupation] goes to these contractors, and we couldn’t get any information on casualties, on deaths,” says Schakowsky. “It has been virtually impossible to shine the light on this aspect of the war and so when we discuss the war, its scope, its costs, its risks, they have not been part of this whatsoever. This whole shadow force that’s been operating in Iraq, we know almost nothing about. I think it keeps at arm’s length from the American people what this war is all about.”

While not by any means a comprehensive total of the number of contractor casualties, 770 contractor deaths and 7,761 injured in Iraq as of December 31, 2006, were confirmed by the Labor Department. But that only counts those contractors whose families applied for benefits under the government’s Defense Base Act insurance. Independent analysts say the number is likely much higher. Blackwater alone has lost at least twenty-seven men in Iraq. And then there’s the financial cost: Almost $4 billion in taxpayer funds have been paid for private security forces in Iraq, according to Waxman. Yet even with all these additional forces, the military is struggling to meet the demands of a White House bent on military adventurism.

A week after Donald Rumsfeld’s rule at the Pentagon ended, U.S. forces had been stretched so thin by the “war on terror” that former Secretary of State Colin Powell declared “the active Army is about broken.” Rather than rethinking its foreign policies, the Administration forged ahead with plans for a troop “surge” in Iraq, and Bush floated a plan to supplement the military with a Civilian Reserve Corps in his January State of the Union address. “Such a corps would function much like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them,” Bush said. The President, it seemed, was just giving a fancy new title to something the Administration has already done with its “revolution” in military affairs and unprecedented reliance on contractors. Yet while Bush’s proposed surge has sparked a fierce debate in Congress and among the public, the Administration’s increasing reliance on private military contractors has gone largely undebated and underreported.

“The increasing use of contractors, private forces or as some would say ‘mercenaries’ makes wars easier to begin and to fight—it just takes money and not the citizenry,” says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has sued contractors for alleged abuses in Iraq. “To the extent a population is called upon to go to war, there is resistance, a necessary resistance to prevent wars of self-aggrandizement, foolish wars and in the case of the United States, hegemonic imperialist wars. Private forces are almost a necessity for a United States bent on retaining its declining empire.”

With talk of a Civilian Reserve Corps and Blackwater promoting the idea of a privatized “contractor brigade” to work with the military, war critics in Congress are homing in on what they see as a sustained, undeclared escalation through the use of private forces. ”’Surge’ implies a bump that has a beginning and an end,” says Schakowsky. “Having a third or a quarter of [the forces] present on the ground not even part of the debate is a very dangerous thing in our democracy, because war is the most critical thing that we do.”

Indeed, contractor deaths are not counted in the total U.S. death count, and their crimes and violations go undocumented and unpunished, further masking the true costs of the war. “When you’re bringing in contractors whom the law doesn’t apply to, the Geneva Conventions, common notions of morality, everything’s thrown out the window,” says Kucinich. “And what it means is that these private contractors are really an arm of the Administration and its policies.”

Kucinich says he plans to investigate the potential involvement of private forces in so-called “black bag,” “false flag” or covert operations in Iraq. “What’s the difference between covert activities and so-called overt activities which you have no information about? There’s no difference,” he says. Kucinich also says the problems with contractors are not simply limited to oversight and transparency. “It’s the privatization of war,” he says. The Administration is “linking private war contractor profits with warmaking. So we’re giving incentives for the contractors to lobby the Administration and the Congress to create more opportunities for profits, and those opportunities are more war. And that’s why the role of private contractors should be sharply limited by Congress.”

Jeremy Scahill, an award-winning investigative journalist and correspondent for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, is a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. He is the author of the new book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books).


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