The families of four private security contractors killed in Fallujah in March 2004 have filed a ground-breaking lawsuit charging Blackwater USA with fraud and wrongful death. Blackwater has fought to have the case dismissed by claiming that all liability lies not with the company but the U.S. government.
In an expose in the new issue of the Nation magazine, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill tells the story of the struggle of the four families of the slain Blackwater contractors to hold those responsible for their deaths accountable.
We speak with Jeremy Scahill as well as Katy Helvenston, the mother of Scott Helvenston who was killed in Fallujah, and the attorney in the case, Marc Miles. [includes rush transcript]
This month marks the two-year anniversary of the first US siege of Fallujah, in which at least 600 Iraqis were killed. The U.S. attack was sparked by the gruesome killing of four private contractors inside Fallujah.
The men were working for Blackwater USA, one of the biggest security firms operating in Iraq.
Altogether an estimated 20,000 non-Iraqi civilian contractors are now working for the United States inside Iraq. About 6,000 of these are security contractors.
According to Department of Labor statistics, at least 425 U.S. civilians have died in Iraq including at least 22 Blackwater contractors.
These men and women are never included in the death tolls provided by the Pentagon or reported on in the media.
While the Iraq war has helped the company Blackwater USA see its profits soar, the company is facing a major battle here at home–this time in court.
The families of the four men killed at Fallujah have filed a lawsuit charging the company with wrongful death. Blackwater has fought to have the case dismissed by claiming that all liability lies not with the company but the U.S. government.
In an expose in the new issue of the Nation magazine, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill tells the story of the struggle of the four families of the slain Blackwater contractors to hold those responsible for their deaths accountable. The article is called "Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater"
One of the people profiled in the story is Katy Helvenston, the mother of 38-year-old Scott Helvenston, who was killed on that day in Fallujah. In a moment she will join us along with her attorney Marc Miles who is representing the families, Marc Miles.
But first we begin by going back to March 31 2004 — the day Scott Helvenston and three other Blackwater contractors drove into Fallujah. This is an excerpt from Frontline’s program "Private Warriors," a documentary on the role of private military contractors working in Iraq.
- Private Warriors, excerpt of PBS Frontline documentary.
For more on this ground-breaking lawsuit, we are joined by the three guests:
- Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist and former Democracy Now producer. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. His latest article "Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater" appears in the new issue of The Nation.
- Katy Helvenston, mother of Scott Helvenston.
- Marc Miles, attorney for the families of the four Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: This is an excerpt from _Frontline_’s program Private Warriors, a documentary on the role of private military contractors working in Iraq.
MARTIN SMITH: But the men were uneasy. One team member, former Army Ranger Wes Batalona, complained to a friend that the team had never worked together before.
HAROLD VIDINHA, Security Contractor: Wes was very upset because you’re breaking your team, and you’re putting people — different people together. That’s what’s very upsetting. And then you are sending them in undermanned.
MARTIN SMITH: Contractually, Blackwater was to supply two SUVs with three guards per vehicle. Instead, the men set out at 8:30 in the morning with just two men per car, each short a rear gunner. They were escorting three empty trucks on their way to pick up some kitchen equipment at a base west of Fallujah. They were vulnerable — and obvious. The commander responsible for Fallujah was Marine Colonel John Toolan.
COL. JOHN A. TOOLAN, U.S. Marines: Contractors were easily identified on the roads because they were all in brand-new SUVs — 2004 SUV, tinted windows. So they were easy to pick out. And the insurgents knew that it was a fairly easy mark.
MARTIN SMITH: Around 9:30 a.m., they approached the center of town. Insurgents would ambush them from behind. All four guards were shot and killed. The insurgents made their own video of the aftermath.
HAROLD VIDINHA: The first thing that came up was a camera bouncing toward this SUV, and it went right into the car. There he was. I mean, that’s — I knew it was him from his looks, everything. I mean, clear as day. You know, at least I know he wasn’t burned alive. He was dead.
MARTIN SMITH: By the time the press arrived, a mob had set the cars on fire.
COL. JOHN A. TOOLAN: Unfortunately, it was going out on CNN. And we knew that this was a key component of the insurgent strategy: Get the pictures out, make it look like they’re winning. It was clear.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from _Frontline_’s program Private Warriors, documentary on the role of private military contractors working in Iraq. We’re joined in our New York studio by Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute. We’re also joined by Katy Helvenston, the mother of Scott Helvenston, who was killed that day, March 31, 2004 in Fallujah. Also with us, attorney Marc Miles, who joins us from studio in Irvine, California. And we welcome you all to Democracy Now!
Jeremy, let’s begin with you. Lay out this story.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, as we got a few of the facts of the case from the clip that we just played from Frontline, but I also want to say that the four men — I just want to say their names: Scott Helvenston, of course, is Katy’s son; then there was Mike Teague; Jerko Zovko, who was known as Jerry; and then Wes Batalona, who was talked about there. All four of these men were veterans of the U.S. military, of Special Forces. Scott Helvenston, Katy’s son, was the youngest Navy Seal ever. He went through the rigorous Navy Seal program at age 17. The other guys were Army Rangers, and they were all very, very experienced combat soldiers. And like thousands and thousands of people in this war, their financial situation was one of the motivations that brought them to Iraq, where they could — some of these guys would make $600 a paycheck in the United States, and they could make $600 a day by going to work for Blackwater or DynCorp or other companies. Katy, of course, can talk about how Scott ended up going there.
But one thing to stress here, and this is what the lawsuit alleges, it’s not just wrongful death, it’s also fraud. The lawsuit alleges that these men were defrauded, because Blackwater failed to provide them with the basic minimal guarantees of their contract, among them that they would be in armored vehicles, that they would have heavy weapons, something like a SAW Mach 46 machine gun that could fire up to 850 rounds per minute, and it’s very key. The State Department regulations call for six people to be on a security detail in Iraq, because of the security situation, while these men were sent out with only four.
And to understand what all of these shortcomings that day resulted in, you have to go back to March 31, 2004, and actually Marc Miles, the lawyer, can talk about some things that happened before that, as well. But when these four men ended up in Fallujah that day, they were in Pajero jeeps that were not armored at all. They didn’t have a rear gunner. And so, literally, the people that killed them were able to walk up and open fire on them. Had they had a rear gunner, had they had armored vehicles, a very strong case could be made that they never would have been killed.
Now, back in the United States, these killings were taken as a threat or a challenge to America’s resolve in the White House and immediately became a sort of turning point in the war. It was the event that sparked the U.S. siege of Fallujah, in which hundreds and hundreds of Iraqis were killed, many of them who had nothing to do with this whatsoever — women, children, others.
But while the families were grieving, Blackwater viewed it as a profit opportunity. The day after the killings, Erik Prince hired the Alexander Strategy Group — it’s a now-disgraced lobbying firm, but it once was very powerful; it was Tom DeLay’s private lobbying firm, basically — hired the Alexander Strategy Group to manage the newfound fame of Blackwater. And by the end of the year, the company’s president, Gary Jackson, was bragging of what he called a "staggering" 600% growth, and so Blackwater’s prospects were very, very strong while the families were grieving.
And so, we have seen Blackwater really sort of embody the war profiteering in this war on terror. These four guys were sent out without armor, without the adequate guns, without adequate personnel, and Blackwater takes it as a moment to say, 'Hey, we're famous now. Let’s take this opportunity.’ Now, just recently, last month, Cofer Black, who is a former C.I.A. and State Department official that Blackwater hired up, was in the country of Jordan announcing that Blackwater was interested in essentially farming out its services to the highest bidder to engage in overt combat missions. Blackwater is scooping up lucrative Homeland Security contracts. They made a killing off of New Orleans. They charged the government $400,000 for 14 guys for 28 days in September of 2005 — 14 guys, $400,000 for 22 days in September.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Jeremy, in your article, you talk about some of the contracts that you were able to get copies of, where actually Blackwater was subcontracting to others, but in their contract they deleted certain provisions of the protections of these men, and the men actually complained about it, the superiors complained about it. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. And this is something that I actually think Marc Miles would be very good on, but just in short, in studying this case, you sort of look at the pyramid scheme that exists in these war zones, where Blackwater is paying these guys $600. At the top, the federal government could be getting billed as much as like $2,000 — $1,500 to $2,000 for these men.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Per day.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Per day. But they were getting paid — like Scott Helvenston was getting paid $600 a day. Blackwater, in turn, was billing a Kuwaiti company more than $800 for Scott Helvenston’s services, and then that Kuwaiti company, in turn, billed a Cypriot company called E.S.S., which was the company that provides catering services to military operations, basically the U.S. military bases. And then the reports are that E.S.S. had a contract with Halliburton — with K.B.R., the subsidiary of Halliburton. K.B.R. has denied any relationship to this and won’t talk about it anymore. But it just shows sort of the breakdown. It goes through multiple hands, at least three or four layers per contract.
And so, in that whole pyramid scheme, what you saw was Blackwater had a subcontract with this Kuwaiti company, and the Kuwaiti company had the contract with E.S.S., so the contract with E.S.S., the company that provides the catering services, said explicitly because there is a very serious security situation in Fallujah — it actually names Fallujah as one of the cities — these men need to be traveling in armored vehicles. And it goes through all the other ones. There should be three men per team. Well, Blackwater then, when they cut their subcontract with this Kuwaiti company for this deal, kept intact the entire part of the contract that went over the security provisions, except for one word: armored. They deleted the word "armored." And Marc Miles says that in doing that, Blackwater was able to save $1.5 million.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk to Marc Miles and also with Katy Helvenston. And when we come back from break, Katy, I want to ask you if Scott felt ready to go out on that day, March 31, 2004. We’re talking about a groundbreaking lawsuit that has been filed against Blackwater. And I do want to say we invited Blackwater on the program today. They wrote back to us and said, "Out of respect for the families and the integrity of the judicial proceedings, I cannot join you. Regards, Chris Taylor of Blackwater."
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about a groundbreaking lawsuit against Blackwater on behalf of the families of the four contractors who were killed on March 31, 2004 in Fallujah, the famous photographs of two of them hanging from the bridge over the Euphrates. We’re joined by Jeremy Scahill, who did the piece for The Nation magazine, out today, "Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater," appearing in the new issue; Katy Helvenston with us, mother of Scott Helvenston —- today, she is speaking out in a national broadcast live for the first time -—; and Marc Miles, attorney for the families of the four men, the Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah. Marc Miles, why is this lawsuit groundbreaking?
MARC MILES: Well, it’s important and it’s groundbreaking and it’s precedent-setting, because we’re working in such a unique situation here, where we have private American companies working within a war zone. The problem is that they’re working outside of the military structure, and therefore they’re not subject to court-martial or any particular chain of command, while at the same time they’re working within a country, such as Iraq, which really doesn’t have a civil justice system or a police force, which would be able to hold American private security contractors accountable or liable for any of the conduct that they do over there. So what this lawsuit is about, it’s about creating accountability for those firms, those private military firms that are working in Iraq, and it’s also not only about holding Blackwater accountable for these four deaths, but it’s also about sending a message to the other private security firms out there that they cannot cut costs to increase their bottom line and put lives at risk.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Marc Miles, Blackwater can claim that the men who sign on with them know exactly the kind of dangers that they’re going into, that they signed contracts that recognized the possible dangers and loss of life or injury that they may suffer. So, why would you think that under U.S. laws the company should be held responsible for what happens over there in Iraq?
MARC MILES: Because what happened here is — the issue is framed in the context of: Did these folks know what they were getting into? Did they assume the risk? And I presume that that’s the defense that Blackwater is going to make. However, when you’re talking about an assumption of the risk, you’re talking about a calculated assumption of risk. They assumed the risk based upon a number of representations that Blackwater gave to them.
Blackwater said that they would be operating in armored vehicles. They told them that they would be operating in teams of no less than six, where you would have three individuals in each vehicle — a driver, a navigator and a rear gunner who has a 180-degree view of the rear to protect from behind. They were told that they were able to do a risk assessment of every trip, and if the threat was too dangerous, that they could decline the mission. They were told that they were able to do a pre-trip inspection of the routes and be able to familiarize themselves with the area before going on routes.
And so, did they assume the risk? Yes. But they assumed it based upon certain representations by Blackwater. Those were all misrepresentation. They were not provided with the six folks that they were supposed to have in each vehicle. They were not provided with the armored vehicles or able to do the pre-trip inspection or the risk assessment. And so, they didn’t know what they were getting into.
And it all stems back to the point: if these folks had known that Blackwater was going to cut costs and was going to not provide them with everything that they were promised, would they have still done it? And I think we can look to a situation such as a new firefighter. A new firefighter goes through the academy, is shown all these big hook-and-ladder trucks and pumpers and engines, all this equipment, and then is told to run into a burning building where a family is inside, but is given nothing other than a squirt gun. Okay, that may be an overbroad analogy there, but the same principle applies. They knew what they were getting into based upon the representations by Blackwater. They didn’t find out that they were lied to until they got into Baghdad and basically had no option but to go forward.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Katy Helvenston. And, Katy, I know this is difficult for you, and it’s the first time you’re speaking out in a live national broadcast, but I would like to step back for a minute and have you tell us about your son Scott. Tell us about your family, why he went into the military, and then what you understand about what he understood about the mission he went out on on March 31.
KATY HELVENSTON: Scotty’s daddy died when he was seven, and my youngest son was a year old, and I raised them, and so money was always an issue. And both the boys knew that if they were going to go through college, they had to figure out a way. I would support them in any way I could, but they had to figure out how to get through college. Well, Scotty chose the military, and he wanted to continue his education through that. He was exceptional. He was an incredible athlete his whole life. He was ranked 12th in the nation in tennis. He was a great golfer. He swam like a fish. I mean, Scotty excelled at anything he attempted, and he always had to be the best. He wouldn’t accept anything but the very best, and he became a Navy Seal, and he considered that the best. Well, he was a Navy Seal for about 12 years, and he resigned from the Navy, and times got tough. There is not a whole lot of jobs out there for ex-Special Forces guys, and obviously he didn’t realize that at the time. But he chose to go with Blackwater, because they had a two-month contract, and he did not want to leave his children more than two months.
AMY GOODMAN: He has two kids.
KATY HELVENSTON: He has two beautiful children, and he was an incredible father.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, he was on television before he went to Iraq, is that right?
KATY HELVENSTON: Yes, he was Demi Moore’s personal trainer for the G.I. Jane movie, and he ended up playing a small role on the film, because the guy that was supposed to play the Navy Seal instructor was terrified of the ocean. And Scotty finally went to casting, and he said, "This guy is just not going to work, because he will not get in the water." So, Scotty did play a small role. He did some stunt work on the movie, but mostly he trained the cast of G.I. Jane how to behave like Navy Seals.
AMY GOODMAN: And then he was in a Survivor-like program called Combat Missions?
KATY HELVENSTON: Yes, and Mark Burnett produced that movie. It was one of these reality TV things. And at that point, Scotty was desperate for money, and he went in there. And only the one person that survived the thing, and the whole team had to survive, so if someone on a team didn’t make it through, then the whole team was pretty much eliminated. That was an experience, and the way that show was produced, there was a lot of editing, and it really didn’t happen the way it was produced. But, anyway, that’s another story. Scotty chose Blackwater, because they had a two-month contract, and he could be back home. He had a job waiting for him, but he needed to make some money in those two months.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, even in the training period at Blackwater, he began to find problems in terms of the quality of the training that was going on?
KATY HELVENSTON: Well, apparently he had the audacity to suggest that maybe there was a better way of running these certain missions, in that the people who were subcontracting out with Blackwater would actually survive the mission. And this Justin McQuown was the instructor there at Moyock, and he was outraged that Scott had the audacity to even suggest that there was a better way.
AMY GOODMAN: Moyock in North Carolina, where Blackwater is based.
KATY HELVENSTON: Yes. And so, Scotty got over to the Middle East, and he was in Kuwait City for about a week, and then he was sent up to Baghdad, and all of a sudden, this same guy, Justin McQuown is Scott’s boss. And he came up to Scott’s room a couple days before Scott was murdered and got into an altercation, and he took Scott’s gun away from him. He had two men with him that held Scotty down. He didn’t want to give up his gun. He said, you know, "I have to have my gun." And they took that away from him. And that night he was ordered to change teams and go into Fallujah.
AMY GOODMAN: What did he think he was going to be doing?
KATY HELVENSTON: He was told that he was going to be security for the ambassador, Paul Bremer. And the people he had been with in Kuwait City, all of a sudden he was no longer working in that team. He was taken out of that team and put in with men that were wonderful, good people, but he had never met them, he had never worked with them.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And how unusual is it to take someone out of their team and assign them to another team and send them out on a mission?
KATY HELVENSTON: I was told that it’s unheard of.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: A couple things here. People should understand, Scotty Helvenston wasn’t even in Iraq for more than 48 hours before he was sent to Fallujah. That, in and of itself, is quite unusual, that these guys would not get a chance to acclimate themselves to the very hostile environment that they’re going to be operating in.
But Katy mentioned the name of a guy named Justin McQuown, and I think it’s important to kind of back up for a second and explain who he is, because it’s a key part of this lawsuit. On the one hand, you have the allegations that Blackwater systematically defrauded these men by not providing them with the armored vehicles, the weapons, the adequate personnel for the mission, the opportunity to do a pre-trip risk assessment, etc., all the things that Marc Miles has laid out. But then, the other component to this is that the lawsuit alleges that this Blackwater manager, Justin McQuown, because of his personal animosity toward Scott Helvenston — the lawsuit and Katy characterize it as Justin McQuown resented Scott. He was an extremely accomplished Navy Seal, was popular with other guys, and it seems very plausible that he viewed Scott Helvenston as a threat.
Justin McQuown’s nickname, according to documents we’ve gotten and to other people who were in Kuwait and Iraq at the time, was "Shrek," after the green ogre character, and it doesn’t sound like he was too popular of a guy and really sort of targeted Scott Helvenston. And there are other people that have talked to Katy and Marc that have affirmed all of this.
And what’s important here is that the lawsuit alleges that because of Justin McQuown’s personal animosity toward Scott Helvenston, he intervened to have only four men sent, that only four were sent on Justin McQuown’s order that day, instead of six, and the other two were held back to perform clerical duties in the Blackwater facility in Baghdad. And this becomes very important, as Marc Miles talks about, because you have to prove intent.
And there’s all sorts of — Scott speaks to us posthumously through his email, and I just want to read from this. A few nights before Scott was killed, and actually the night before he left Kuwait to go to Baghdad, he sent an email to the owner, president and upper management of Blackwater, and the subject of that email was "extreme unprofessionalism." And in this email, which we have, he is complaining about Justin McQuown, who he refers to as "Justin Shrek." Scott Helvenston apparently thought his actual name was "Shrek" and was referring to him as "Justin Shrek" throughout the email. But he says he was, quote, "very manipulative, duplicative, immature and unprofessional."
And Scott describes how his original team leader tried to appeal to Justin McQuown not to reassign Scott Helvenston at the last second, that this was an insane thing to do. You don’t just stick a Navy Seal on a brand new team with guys and send them into a combat zone. And Scott wrote in this email to Blackwater, that "I think [that my team leader] felt that there was a hidden agenda. ’Let’s see if we can screw with Scott.’" Those were like the last words that Scott Helvenston basically wrote before being sent over there to Baghdad.
And the email, it’s incredible, because Scott sort of makes all these apologetics. He says, you know, basically says, ’I’m not the kind of guy who would normally complain about anything, but this has gotten so extreme that I want to raise this with you.’ And so, you have a convergence of Justin McQuown’s alleged interventions that led to these guys being sent out the way they were, and Blackwater — the allegations of Blackwater systematically defrauding these guys.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Marc Miles, on the day then that these four Blackwater employees are killed, they’re sent into Fallujah. You raised a whole issue of the contract that required a risk assessment on their part and an overview of the mission that they were involved in. What happened that day, as far as you have been able to understand and as your lawsuit alleges?
MARC MILES: Well, what we’re going to prove at trial is that because Blackwater essentially cut corners and because of this personal animosity that Justin McQuown had with Scott Helvenston, they weren’t allowed to gather intelligence and do the pre-tip inspection and all of the things that they were told that they would be allowed to do and that is actually represented in the contracts for the mission that they were doing work under.
And so, what happened that particular day from the evidence that I’ve accumulated is that they were basically told to escort three flatbed trucks, which I understand were going to pick up some kitchen equipment, far different from what Scott Helvenston had understood, that he would be guarding an ambassador. Instead, kitchen equipment, actually empty trucks that were going to get kitchen equipment.
So they were to escort these two E.S.S. trucks from a city of Taji to an army base, which is on the west side of Fallujah. And so, what happened is they set out on their mission, but because they didn’t have G.P.S., because they didn’t have maps of the area, because they weren’t able to do a pre-trip inspection of the route, they didn’t necessarily know where they were going, so they essentially got lost. And, in fact, the first day that they set out, they were so lost and it was getting late that they ended up staying at an army base on the east side of Fallujah.
AMY GOODMAN: Marc, I just want to interrupt for one second. You said they had no map?
MARC MILES: That’s correct. In fact, from what I understand, and folks that we have talked to, they had asked for a map shortly before going out on their mission, and basically the individual who was in charge of handing out the maps said, "It’s too late for a map now," and sent them on their way. And that’s the type of conduct at Blackwater that we’re dealing with. They got so lost that first day that they had to spend the night in a different camp, somewhere that they weren’t even intending on going. And at that point, they were on the east side of Fallujah.
Now, they were ultimately to get to the other side of Fallujah. Unfortunately, what they didn’t know was that there was a much safer route that took them around the north side of Fallujah. They could have easily traveled this route in a single day, and it would have been extremely less dangerous. But because they didn’t have a map, they didn’t have G.P.S., and, in fact, funny story, I think they had G.P.S. units, but Blackwater didn’t provide them with the maps to go in the G.P.S. units for the Middle East. So, essentially, they had G.P.S. units for the United States, which doesn’t do a lot of good over there. Anyway, there was a safer route that they could take north of the city that would take them about three hours to get to the other side. But instead, they missed that turnoff, and they ended up driving straight through the center of Fallujah, and it was as they got through the middle of town that they got stuck in traffic, that they were ultimately ambushed.
AMY GOODMAN: Katy Helvenston, when did you last speak to your son Scotty?
KATY HELVENSTON: It was probably 24, maybe 30-some hours before he was murdered.
AMY GOODMAN: So, March 30?
KATY HELVENSTON: He did call me that morning from — I assume it was from that base that he stopped at. And I had turned off the ringer on my bedroom phone, and he left this message, and he said, "Mom, I’m okay. I’ll be home soon." He said, "I’m going to spoil you." And, you know, he was already dead by the time I got that. The thing was — see, I mean, they wouldn’t even give him a map. If he had had the armored vehicle, if he had had the rear gunner, if he had been familiar with the area... He asked. He said, "Give us a map." And they said, "You’re going to have to wing it."
AMY GOODMAN: How did you hear that Scott had died?
KATY HELVENSTON: I was in my home office doing research, and I was on the computer and I had CNN on. And the noon news, it had this — just all of a sudden it caught my attention, and I looked over there, and I thought, "Oh, my god," you know. And I had no idea it was Scotty, but I saw this burning vehicle, and I just said, "This is insane." And I switched stations. I didn’t want to watch it.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they say it was Fallujah?
KATY HELVENSTON: They said Fallujah, and I said, well, Scotty, he’s in Baghdad. And they said "contractor," and I was thinking of maybe they were working on the pipelines, oil lines or something. I was thinking of construction when they said "contractor." And a couple hours later, they said "security contractors," and I said, "My god, Scotty is a security contractor, but he’s not in Fallujah. He’s protecting Paul Bremer." But the day went on, and all of a sudden it was Blackwater. They said "Blackwater."
JUAN GONZALEZ: When were you officially notified that it was him?
KATY HELVENSTON: I called Blackwater at about 7:00 at night. When they finally said "Blackwater," I thought, and I just looked up on the internet and got an 800-number, and I called them, and I said, "My name is Katy." I said, "Scotty Helvenston is my son. Is he okay?" And they said they didn’t know. And I said, "What do you mean you don’t know?" And they said, "We don’t know." And I said, "Well, don’t you know where your employees are?" And they said, "Not really."
And I was on the phone. I called every hour and talked to them for like 15, 20 minutes, and Scotty had been so good about calling me and emailing me, and I kept thinking, you know, he would have called me and let me know he was okay, because he knew how worried I was. And finally, about midnight, I just started — I started when Scotty was born, and I went through his entire life to some other unknown person on the other end at Blackwater, because I knew he was gone, and at 3:00 in the morning they finally said, "He’s gone."
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, Katy. And then, when we come back, I want to ask you about your request for an incident report from Blackwater to understand what had taken place and also about a memorial service that Blackwater held, and we’ll continue this discussion. Katy Helvenston’s son Scott Helvenston is one of the four men who died, the security contractors working for Blackwater on March 31, 2004 in Fallujah. The pictures are famous at this point of what happened to them on that day. We’re talking to Katy Helvenston, Scott’s mother; Jeremy Scahill, who’s breaking the story today in The Nation magazine; and Marc Miles, the attorney for the families of the four Blackwater employees.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about a groundbreaking lawsuit against Blackwater, the security contractor in Iraq. We are speaking with the mother of one of the four men who were killed in Fallujah, March 31, 2004, Katy Helvenston; Jeremy Scahill has written a piece, an article in The Nation magazine called "Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater;" and Marc Miles, the attorney for the families of the four Blackwater contractors. I did want to ask you, Katy Helvenston, about the email that we got from Blackwater, from Chris Taylor, who said, "Out of respect for the families and the integrity of the judicial proceedings, I cannot join you." Your response?
KATY HELVENSTON: I think that’s total garbage. They have no respect for the families. They have no respect for me or the other mothers or brothers or children.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened when you asked for an incident report for what happened to your son?
KATY HELVENSTON: Well, I was — initially I was stunned that I actually had gotten through to Erik Prince.
AMY GOODMAN: The head of Blackwater.
KATY HELVENSTON: And I was just literally stuttering. I couldn’t believe I was talking to the man.
AMY GOODMAN: You just made a phone call?
KATY HELVENSTON: I was given a number. They said it was the direct line. And five seconds after I connected to that line, Erik Prince was on the phone. And I was just literally dumbfounded. And I said, "I want an incident report on Scotty." And I said, "I want a copy of his contract that he signed with you." And he said, "Why?" And I said, "I just want to know what happened." He said I could — he would get it to me in the next few weeks. And I said, "Well, you’ve already written a report. Why can’t I have it tomorrow?" And I said, "Are you going to rewrite it for my eyes only?" I mean — and I never did get that report. I did get a call a few days later, and they all of a sudden were going to have this grand memorial.
AMY GOODMAN: When was it after the killing? The killing was March 31. Was this months later, weeks later?
KATY HELVENSTON: It was months.
AMY GOODMAN: Months later. So they announced there was going to be a memorial service after you made the call to the head of Blackwater, asking for an incident report.
KATY HELVENSTON: And I had called — I did several follow-up calls, and I said, "I still don’t have that information."
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, at what point did you communicate with the other families of the men who died that day, and how did you decide that you needed to pursue legal action?
KATY HELVENSTON: Well, Jay Price, who writes for the News & Observer out of the Raleigh-Durham area, had come down and talked to me, and he wrote a series of articles. And I think there were ten in all. And I’m reading these articles, and all of a sudden —
JUAN GONZALEZ: And this is a series of articles about this incident?
KATY HELVENSTON: That exact incident. It wasn’t just a compilation of everything that was going on. It was about what happened to Scotty and Jerry and Mike and Wesley. And I’m thinking this isn’t even close to what Blackwater told me. This is not even close. And so, I called a really good friend of mine, and they were godparents to both my children. Bill’s a judge in Tampa, and I called Bill, and I said, "Bill, I think I need to get an attorney." And he said, "Yeah, you sure do."
And so, then I started — I had never read any articles. My family wouldn’t let me read any of the articles, they were so graphic. But they had put all of the news stuff in a closet, and I pulled it out, and I got the names of the other three families. And I just got on the internet, and I tracked them down, and I said, "I have an attorney, and what happened was not right, and I want to pursue this." And I said, "Do you want come on board with me?" And they said, "Hell, yeah," because they had been trying to do the same thing. Blackwater had told all of us that none of us wanted to communicate with each other. They had done everything in their power to keep us apart.
AMY GOODMAN: But you did meet at the memorial service.
KATY HELVENSTON: Well, I had been in contact with the Zovkos, primarily out of Cleveland, prior to that. And I had actually flown up there one weekend and spent the weekend with them. But Blackwater was not aware of that. They had guards on each one of the families.
AMY GOODMAN: At the memorial service?
KATY HELVENSTON: Well, not just at the memorial service. At our rooms. They were standing outside our rooms when we got up in the morning. They had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us.
AMY GOODMAN: You were all staying in a hotel?
KATY HELVENSTON: Yeah. And each family was assigned a guard, literally, and it was — to me, it was just so bizarre, because we were being watched 24/7.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you all in the same hotel?
KATY HELVENSTON: Yeah. Initially they put us in separate hotels.
AMY GOODMAN: Each of you in separate hotels?
KATY HELVENSTON: Yeah. And I called them, and I said, "That’s just not acceptable. You know, I need to meet with these people."
AMY GOODMAN: And so, were you able to talk out of the presence of the guards?
KATY HELVENSTON: In the rooms on the balcony, because we had gotten so paranoid, we thought maybe the rooms were tapped or something.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, what was the memorial service itself like?
KATY HELVENSTON: It was a brand-new area. There was a manmade pond with brand-new bark, you know, cypress bark. They had some rocks that they had kind of shaved off, and they had the name of each one of the men. There was a local minister that spoke, and then Erik Prince spoke. But we couldn’t hear anything, because there were these two helicopters that were flying, I mean, just a couple hundred foot over our heads. We couldn’t hear anything that was being said.
AMY GOODMAN: They were buzzing you?
KATY HELVENSTON: Yeah, and all this fresh bark that had just been laid was just flying all over the place. And the guard that was in charge of me, I said, "You know, you really need to do something about these helicopters." You know, and he left for a minute or two, and finally the helicopters went away. Erik Prince refused to speak to me.
AMY GOODMAN: At the memorial service for your son?
KATY HELVENSTON: He refused to even speak to me. I went up to him, and I tried to shake his hand. And he did say, "Well, it’s nice to meet you," and then he turned around and left.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the other families? Would he speak to them?
KATY HELVENSTON: Well, Donna Zovko and her husband Joe was there, and her son Tommy and his wife and kids were all there. And they did approach the Zovkos and asked if they would meet Erik Prince in his office, and they did. And Erik had a check for the Zovkos. And Donna, she misunderstood where this money was coming from. And they, at that time, asked specifically for the incident report and a copy of the contract. And she was told that they would have to sue Blackwater to get that information.
AMY GOODMAN: Who told her this?
KATY HELVENSTON: Donna Zovko and her son Tommy.
AMY GOODMAN: And who told them that they would have to sue?
KATY HELVENSTON: Erik Prince told them that they would have to sue Blackwater to get that information. So Donna — and I think the check was like — it was quite a bit of money. It was like $19,000-something. Donna got so mad, she just tore up the check and threw it at Erik Prince, and I thought, "You go, girl!" But we’ve never gotten the report, obviously.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Marc Miles, I would like to ask you, obviously there have been about 425, now, Americans who have been working for contractors who have been killed in Iraq. Is it your sense that this is an isolated situation that happened with these men, or are you exploring the possibility that there have been systematic problems with the way these contractors have been handling security?
MARC MILES: I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other incidents like this. We have seen numbers in the range of 20,000 to 30,000 contractors working in Iraq. And if you stop and you think about it, that’s the size of some small towns here in America. And just like any town in America of 20,000 to 30,000 folks, you’re going to have situations where there are crimes committed and wrongful conduct. Now, imagine that every person in that small town in America has guns and is running around with weapons. Surely there are other instances like this one with wrongful conduct involved, but, of course, we haven’t seen one single prosecution coming out of any contractors in Iraq, and that is essentially the entire focus of the litigation here.
This is about holding Blackwater accountable and about creating accountable and sending a message to other private military firms operating over there. The real problem here is that we have corporate America involved. And so, corporate America is primarily concerned with their bottom line. And that may work for some companies that are manufacturing staples or shoes or something along those lines, but what Blackwater doesn’t understand here is that the commodity that they’re dealing with is not a paper clip or a staple, but it’s actually human life, and so what we want to do is we want to create a situation where these companies are held accountable. Blackwater and this lawsuit is going to be the first of its kind, and it’s going to go forward, and we’re going to go into trial and prove all of the allegations that we’ve set forward. But I can imagine that there may be other lawsuits to follow if these companies don’t shape up and actually realize what they’re dealing with here.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, unfortunately, we were not able to get Blackwater on, writing us the letter and saying no. You did the piece, the investigation into this case. Did you have luck getting Blackwater responding?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I was very diligent in trying to get Blackwater to make any comment. I said, "I’ll take any statement you want to give." I wanted to interview Justin McQuown. I wrote an email to Gary Jackson, the president of Blackwater. And then I finally got one email back from Chris Taylor, who you guys also were dealing with, who’s the Blackwater vice president. And he wrote me back and said, "Hi, Jeremy, I’m the appropriate person to deal with on this," and he said he would entertain my questions and go over them with counsel. So I sent Blackwater about 23 specific questions, and from that first email that Chris Taylor sent me, I never heard back. I sent them, I think, seven or eight more emails, including one that just said, "If you don’t comment, you’re not going to be represented in the piece, other than what I can find in the media, because these are very serious allegations, and it looks bad for you to not say anything about it.
In fairness, though, Justin McQuown’s lawyer William Crenshaw did issue a statement to me, in which he said that there were numerous serious inaccuracies in the piece, and then he said that on behalf of his client Justin McQuown, that he wanted to extend his sympathy to the families and called it regrettable that anyone would imply that Justin McQuown had anything to do with the tragedy of what happened in Fallujah.
One point that I want to make, though, that I think is important is Katy Helvenston talks about the way that Erik Prince and others from Blackwater have dealt with these families. Erik Prince comes from a major powerful Republican family in Michigan. His family is linked in with Richard DeVos, the Amway founder who basically funded the Republican revolution of the 1990s. Erik Prince, himself, for this piece — I worked with the Center for Public Integrity, and we put together a profile of Erik Prince’s family’s political contributions. Erik Prince and his late wife gave $275,000 since 1989 to various political candidates, not a single penny ever to a Democrat. Now, that’s not unusual for, you know, a lifelong Republican to give that kind of money. It is unusual, though, for the head of a company to cast its lot entirely with one party, and it has paid off, because Blackwater literally is making a killing right now, to the point where Gary Jackson, the president of Blackwater, after Bush won the election in 2004, sends out an email to Blackwater’s mailing list that says, "Bush wins, four more years!! Hooyah!!"
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go for a minute — we only have a few minutes — to a comment of President Bush about private military contractors operating in Iraq. On April 17, President Bush spoke at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. After his talk, he took questions from students at the school.
STUDENT: My question is in regards to private military contractors. The Uniform Code of Military Justice does not apply to these contractors in Iraq. I asked your Secretary of Defense a couple of months ago what law governs their actions. Mr. Rumsfeld —
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I was going to ask him. Go ahead. Help.
STUDENT: I was hoping your answer might be a little more specific. Mr. Rumsfeld answered that Iraq has its own domestic laws, which he assumed applied to those private military contractors. However, Iraq is clearly not currently capable of enforcing its laws, much less against — you know, over our American military contractors. I would submit to you that in this case, this is one case that privatization is not a solution. And, Mr. President, how do you propose to bring private military contractors under a system of law?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, I appreciate that very much. I wasn’t kidding. I was going to — I pick up the phone and say, Mr. Secretary, I’ve got an interesting question. This is what delegation —- I don’t mean to be dodging the question, although it’s kind of convenient in this case, but never—- I really will. I’m going to call the secretary and say you brought up a very valid question, and what are we doing about it? It’s — that’s how I work.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Bush at Johns Hopkins, answering — no, not a reporter’s question — a student’s question. Katy Helvenston, your response?
KATY HELVENSTON: I was appalled at first that he would joke about such a serious issue. Right now, it’s my understanding that U.S. law doesn’t apply, because it did not happen in the U.S.; military law doesn’t apply; and Iraqi law, well, there is no Iraqi law, and so, as things stand now, they literally can get away with murder. And Bush jokes about it. He thought that was a really funny thing to — and he was so glib and just blew it off.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I think, just in closing, you know, this is such an incredible tragedy, and what’s clear from this — the allegations in this lawsuit is that it really appears like it was preventable. And I think that, you know, when we talk about Iraq corruption, a lot of times it’s Halliburton overcharged for this or Bechtel did this. This is life and death we’re talking about here, and as Marc Miles says, the commodity that Blackwater deals in is human beings.
But then, there’s something else that all too often gets left out of the mix here, and that is that tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in this war, and they don’t have a voice in the legal system here. And so, this lawsuit represents the first whack at the giant’s legs, and if it’s successful, it will reverberate around the war profiteer community.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, thank you for being with us. Your article, "Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater," appears in The Nation magazine today, and we will link to it at democracynow.org. Katy Helvenston, thanks for joining us, and condolences on the death of your son Scott. Marc Miles, attorney for the families of the four Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah, March 31, 2004.