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2007-12-10

What is Blackwater’s Role in the 2008 Presidential Race?

Guests

Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist, Democracy Now correspondent, author of "Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army."

Scott Horton, New York attorney specializing in international law and human rights. He is a contributor to Harper"s Magazine where he writes the blog No Comment. He served as chair of the International Law Committee at the New York Bar Association.

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Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney cited Cofer Black, the former head of Counterterrorism at the CIA, as his advisor on issues involving prisoner interrogation during a recent presidential debate. Black is now the vice chairman on private military firm, Blackwater. We speak with Jeremy Scahill, author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army," about Romney and Black, as well as State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard and his brother’s ties to the company. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

We turn now to the latest in the unfolding controversy surrounding the private military contractor Blackwater. On Friday, the State Department’s top investigator was forced to resign, following the disclosure his brother sat on Blackwater’s advisory board. Inspector General Howard Krongard had initially denied his brother’s ties to the company. Current and former State Department officials have previously accused Krongard of thwarting probes into contracting waste and crimes in Iraq, including alleged arms smuggling by Blackwater guards.

Meanwhile, after initially indicating it would let Blackwater’s contract expire in May, State Department officials are now raising the likelihood of a renewal. The acting head of US diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, has reportedly told Blackwater it will be judged on its actions “from here on out.” That would preclude from consideration the September shooting deaths of seventeen Iraqi civilians by Blackwater guards in Baghdad.

In his latest piece in The Nation magazine, independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill writes that Blackwater isn’t taking any chances on keeping its lucrative deals. Scahill says Blackwater has launched a major rebranding campaign aimed at winning new government contracts far beyond Iraq. And it’s also playing a role in the presidential race, establishing deep ties to Republican hopeful Mitt Romney.

Jeremy Scahill joins me now in the firehouse studio, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Welcome, Jeremy.

JEREMY SCAHILL:

Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s take these one by one. First, Krongard resigning — how significant is this, and who was he?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, this is very significant. I mean, Cookie Krongard, as his nickname was, Howard Krongard, was the top official at the State Department responsible for investigating waste, fraud and abuse. And he was directly responsible for investigating Blackwater, because Blackwater works for the US State Department.

One of the original scandals that erupted with Krongard was when Henry Waxman raised the prospect that Krongard had been stifling a Justice Department criminal investigation into allegations that Blackwater involved in some kind of an arms smuggling operation in Iraq. Krongard, instead of assigning a seasoned liaison to work with the Justice Department from the State Department, actually assigned his congressional liaison and media person. And Waxman says that that ultimately caused a delay of about two weeks in the investigation. So he was already under fire at the time.

Now, I have to say, before Cookie Krongard appeared before Waxman’s committee a couple of weeks ago, where it was revealed that his brother Alvin “Buzzy” Krongard was in fact a paid consultant to Blackwater, had been — had accepted a position as a paid consultant to Blackwater on the company’s advisory board, the Krongards were familiar to me. I, in fact, had written in my book about Buzzy Krongard. He wasn’t just a guy who joined Blackwater’s advisory board as a paid consultant in the midst of this scandal. He was one of the central people at the Central Intelligence Agency responsible for getting Erik Prince’s men from Blackwater into the mercenary business. Buzzy Krongard, at the time that Blackwater jumped into the mercenary business in 2002, shortly after 9/11, he was the number three man at the CIA, the executive director. He was a hunting buddy of Erik Prince. And he was the one who got Blackwater — was central to getting Blackwater its first mercenary contract that we know of, which was a $5 million black contract to go into Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. Erik Prince went over with that initial team. So, there was a prolonged five-plus-year relationship between Blackwater and the brother of the man who then would ultimately be responsible for investigating potential crimes or allegations of misconduct on the part of Blackwater.

Now, an interesting side note to this is that apparently the Krongard brothers hate each other, and they actually have tried to wheel that out as a defense in this case. But it would be an extraordinary coincidence that the man responsible at the CIA for getting Blackwater into the mercenary business with the US government, his brother just happens to be the guy investigating the company or supposed to be investigating the company and accused of failing to do so at the very moment when a cornucopia of scandals present themselves.

AMY GOODMAN:

Now, after initially indicating that it would let Blackwater’s contract expire in May, the State Department is now saying, acting head of US diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, that Blackwater will be judged on its actions “from here on out”?

JEREMY SCAHILL:

Well, then that probably means that a lot of Blackwater people will be going to jail. I mean, the reality is that on — and that’s not going to happen — the reality is that on December 3, Blackwater released a job posting seeking snipers and more protective security specialists because of an extension of its State Department contract. So apparently Blackwater knows something that has not been revealed publicly, because they’re hiring new guards under their WPPS contract, their State Department contract, which is how they work in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN:

Let’s go to the campaign. I want to play Mitt Romney’s comments at the Republican CNN/YouTube debate last month. In an exchange with Senator John McCain, Romney refused to say whether he thinks waterboarding is torture.

    MITT ROMNEY: I did not say and I do not say that I’m in favor of torture. I am not. I’m not going to specify the specific means of what is and what is not torture so that the people that we capture will know what things we’re able to do and what things we’re not able to do. And I get that advice from Cofer Black, who is a person who was responsible for counterterrorism in the CIA for some thirty-five years. I get that advice by talking to former generals in our military. And I don’t believe—

    ANDERSON COOPER: Time.

    MITT ROMNEY: I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me, as a presidential candidate, to lay out all of the issues one by one—

    ANDERSON COOPER: Time.

    MITT ROMNEY: —get questioned one by one: Is this torture? Is that torture?

AMY GOODMAN:

Mitt Romney. Jeremy Scahill?

JEREMY SCAHILL:

Right. Well, it’s interesting that Mitt Romney brings up Cofer Black and wheels him out in his defense of his refusal to label waterboarding torture and says we’re not going to tell the enemies what we’re going to do to them when I’m president. Anyone who knows anything about the career of Cofer Black, who’s the number two man at Blackwater, the head of their new private intelligence company called Total Intelligence Solutions, none of the things that Mitt Romney is saying will come as a surprise. For much of the past year, Cofer Black, who currently remains the number two man, the vice chairman of Blackwater Worldwide, he has been Mitt Romney’s senior advisor on counterterrorism. And so, when you hear Mitt Romney refuse to call waterboarding torture and say things like, we’re not going to talk about the tactics we’re going to use, and call for a doubling of Guantanamo, you have to understand that the man who’s telling him to say these things, who’s advising him on these policies, is one of the biggest thugs to serve in US government.

I mean — and the other thing is that Cofer Black, what Mitt Romney said about him was a dramatic exaggeration. He said he ran — he was responsible for counterterrorism at the CIA for thirty-five years. Well, first of all, Black was only in the CIA for twenty-eight years, and he only ran the counterterrorism program for three of those. But nonetheless, Cofer Black was in charge of counterterrorism at one of the most crucial times in recent history. On 9/11, it was Cofer Black who was head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. This is a man who was seemingly obsessed with corporal mutilation. He would talk about having flies crawling across the eyeballs of America’s enemies, putting skulls on pikes, whacking off heads with machetes, bringing heads, severed heads, back in cardboard boxes on dry ice of bin Laden to present to President Bush. He was the man responsible for escalating the use of Bill Clinton’s extraordinary rendition program, the US government-sanctioned kidnapping and torture program.

And now he apparently is one of the key people in the Romney campaign. I mean , if Mitt Romney became president, it raises the prospect of Blackwater’s lucrative business under Bush looking like a church bake sale.


AMY GOODMAN:

How significant is Cofer Black to Mitt Romney’s campaign?

JEREMY SCAHILL:

I think he’s incredibly significant. And the fact is that when John McCain goes after Mitt Romney on this issue, which McCain has been pretty forceful on, having been tortured himself, and one of the only Republicans who really is speaking out against it in a clear way, the fact that he tries to wheel out Cofer Black in response to McCain saying, “Well, you should talk to people like Colin Powell,” indicates that not only does Romney get his advice from Cofer Black, but he seems to want to use him as a propaganda tool, as well. And let’s be clear here, Cofer Black, while working with the Romney campaign, also is running a private intelligence company, Total Intelligence Solutions, is one of the key people behind the scenes at Blackwater and one of the major figures in this world of private security and private intelligence, one the dons of the industry.

AMY GOODMAN:

Jeremy Scahill, talk about the re-branding of Blackwater.

JEREMY SCAHILL:

Yeah. Well, I mean, the industry itself, the mercenary industry, has been engaged in a re-branding campaign to take this old dirty profession of soldiers, you know, for hire and remake it as a peacekeeping operation. Blackwater has undergone a major overhaul of its website. It’s no longer called Blackwater USA; it’s called Blackwater Worldwide. Their logo, which used to be a bear paw in a sniper scope, is now a bear paw surrounded by two half-ovals. It almost looks reminiscent of the United Nations logo. No longer are Blackwater mercenaries referred to even as “personal security operatives” or “personal security details;” they are “global stabilization professionals.” And so, the terms that are being wheeled out — on the Blackwater website, you can purchase a teddy bear with a Blackwater t-shirt on it, a onesie for your infant. It comes in both blue and pink.

And recently, Blackwater paratroopers staged a dramatic aerial landing not in Baghdad or Kabul, but in San Diego at halftime of the San Diego State-BYU football game, where they came down in parachutes with the Blackwater flag. They actually at one point inadvertently dragged the American flag on the ground, which has gotten the attention of some bloggers. And it’s interesting that Blackwater did this in San Diego, their paratroopers landing on the field, because they’re fighting back major fierce local resistance to their attempt to open an 824-acre mercenary camp based right on the US/Mexico border.

But Blackwater’s business, in many ways, Amy, has never been better. They’re being considered for part of a $15 billion contract with the Pentagon to operate in the so-called war on drugs. They recently got a $92 million contract to operate flights for the Pentagon in Central Asia. The intelligence company is growing. They have a maritime division with a 184-foot vessel that has been fitted for paramilitary use. They recently test-flew their unmanned airship, called the Polar 400, which they’re marketing to the Department of Homeland Security. And also, they’re making —

AMY GOODMAN:

Along the border, to be used?

JEREMY SCAHILL:

Yes, to monitor the US/Mexico border. But they’re also saying it could be used by government and non-government entities alike. They also are making an armored vehicle called the Grizzly, which they’re sort of portraying as the most versatile armored vehicle in history, combining the durability of an armored vehicle with the versatility of an SUV. And Erik Prince intends to have that vehicle modified so that it would be legal for use on US highways and roads.

AMY GOODMAN:

Potrero, where this controversy is taking place, whether they’ll set up a base there, used — Blackwater used the fires in California, helped some people out there?

JEREMY SCAHILL:

Right. Well, Amy, look, Blackwater really jumped into the domestic operations component of its business in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They started a whole new division of the company for domestic operations. I think Blackwater sees disaster response as a gateway, one of the gateways, into a massive Homeland Security budget and that the Department of Homeland Security, like all agencies of the federal government, is being radically privatized. 70% of the US national intelligence budget — sixteen intelligence agencies — 70% of that budget is in the hands of private contractors. The Border Patrol is — it faces the prospect of being privatized. DynCorp, one of Blackwater’s competitors, has said it wants to put boots on the ground as privatized border patrol.

Blackwater is a very innovative, cutting-edge company, and they are sticking their fingers into every pot that they can get them into, and Homeland Security is a major one. And one of the gateways into it, like Darfur for international peacekeeping, is to say, “We can be the first responders. We can respond to the hurricanes, the floods, the fires.” It’s a gateway.

AMY GOODMAN:

And what is the problem you see with that?

JEREMY SCAHILL:

Well, there’s a number of problems. I mean, first of all, it raises serious constitutional questions about, are the civil liberties of individuals being protected that Blackwater comes in contact with? But on a deeper level, it has to do with how we distribute resources in this country. If the poor are left to drown and starve and the rich can then hire their private fire departments or have private utilities, that means that in this country you have to be a person of means to be entitled to services that the government normally provides. And so, this radical privatization agenda ultimately is a pulling out of the rug from the most needy people in the society.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re talking to Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Blackwater. Scott Horton also joins us. He teaches law at Columbia Law School. He participates in the blog “No Comment” at Harper’s Magazine and was the chair of the International Law Committee at the New York Bar Association. What do you see as the issue of Blackwater here, the problem of Blackwater here?

SCOTT HORTON:

Well, I think Jeremy puts his finger right on it. It really is — it’s a massive privatization of national security operation, including intelligence operations. But we have a major aspect of it that’s now in focus in Congress, and that’s the accountability problem. If we look at the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq today, we see that US men and women in uniform, if they do something wrong, there’s a proper accountability process for it, including discipline and court-martial. If it’s Blackwater or if it’s another contractor, nothing happens. It’s effective impunity. And, in fact, we have thousands of recorded incidents out there that have gone without punishment of any kind. At most, the employee who’s involved gets fired and sent back to the States. But then, frequently enough, they’re back on another plane, back working for a different contractor in Iraq or Afghanistan within a matter of weeks.

AMY GOODMAN:

And, Jeremy, the status of the September 16th killings that took place in Baghdad?

JEREMY SCAHILL:

Where seventeen Iraqis were killed, twenty-four others wounded. And actually those — some of the victims’ families and survivors are suing Blackwater, not just for wrongful death, but for war crimes under the Alien Tort Statute. And what’s interesting now is that there is the federal grand jury that’s been convened, and we understand it’s looking at a number of cases, not just at this case. But some witnesses and potentially people who were involved with the shooting in Nisoor Square have testified in front of the grand jury.

And we understand from media reports — this is a grand jury that was convened in Washington, D.C. — we understand from media reports — and maybe Scott can add to this — that there potentially could be an attempt to prosecute as many as three of the Blackwater individuals involved at Nisoor Square. And the way that they would most likely be prosecuted is under US civilian law, called the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, essentially saying that contractors commit a crime abroad, they can be prosecuted criminally for that at home. The problem is, is that the law was written in a way that it applies only to contractors accompanying the Armed Forces or working directly for the Armed Forces. Blackwater works for the State Department. And so, some legal observers say it’s like trying to cram a square into a circle, and if they go forward with this prosecution under a law that doesn’t exactly appear to apply to Blackwater, that it ultimately could be a step backwards. Now, Congress is trying to amend that so that it would apply to Blackwater, but it can’t be applied retroactively. And many of the legal experts I’ve talked to say there almost literally is no law that could be applied to Blackwater, except war crimes. And, I mean, that’s something that Scott has been looking at.

AMY GOODMAN:

Scott Horton?

SCOTT HORTON:

Well, that’s exactly correct. I’ll just say, first, if they go forward with this prosecution, this will be the first time ever that the Department of Justice has prosecuted a security contractor in Iraq with respect to a crime involving violence against locals. That’s never happened before, notwithstanding thousands of incidents. If they do it and they go forward with the prosecution on the basis of the MEJA alone, then I think there is — you know, there’s a serious question as to whether or not it’s going to apply. I’m not quite sure I come out exactly where Jeremy does. I think there is a basis for saying that it’ll cover them. The question is not whether they’re DOD contractors, but whether or not they’re involved in the contingency operation. And there, of course, they’re going to say that their function is just to provide security for Department of State personnel. I think you could look at it fairly and say, no, they’re really a part of this overall operation in Iraq. But the bottom line is, really, it’s a war crime question. There clearly is jurisdiction and a basis to act against them under the War Crimes Act. But the Bush administration doesn’t want to go there, doesn’t want to touch that. I think they’ve made that point clear.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, we’re going to leave it here. I want to thank you very much, Jeremy Scahill, for joining us, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Scott Horton, I’d like to stay after break, as we talk about the CIA tapes that the CIA has destroyed of interrogations.

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