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2008-11-19

Steve Fainaru on "Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq"

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Steve Fainaru, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, where he covered the Iraq war from 2004 to 2007. He won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his stories on private military contractors. His new book is Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq.

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Top Justice Department prosecutors are reportedly reviewing a draft indictment against six Blackwater security guards who opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square more than a year ago killing seventeen Iraqi civilians. The indictments would mark the first time armed private contractors from the United States face justice. We speak to Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post correspondent Steve Fainaru about his new book Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN:

The pact recently approved by the Iraqi cabinet that allows 150,000 US troops to stay in Iraq ’til 2011 could have a significant impact on the role of private military contractors deployed in the war. According to the Wall Street Journal, the draft Status of Forces Agreement, known as SOFA, appears to end immunity from local Iraqi law for private military contractors. If the pact is approved by the Iraqi parliament, contractors would fall under the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts and would be subject to prosecution.

This comes as top Justice Department prosecutors are reportedly reviewing a draft indictment against six Blackwater security guards who opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square more than a year ago, killing seventeen Iraqi civilians. The Associated Press reports senior Justice Department officials are said to be considering manslaughter and assault charges against the guards. The indictments would mark the first time armed private contractors from the United States face justice.

Meanwhile, the State Department is reportedly preparing to hit Blackwater with a multi-million-dollar fine for allegedly shipping as many as 900 automatic weapons to Iraq without the required permits.

President-elect Barack Obama has been a staunch critic of private military contractors operating in Iraq and is the sponsor of the leading Democratic legislation in the Senate to bring more effective regulation and oversight to the war industry. But he has stopped short of seeking an outright ban on using armed contractors in Iraq. In March, after he delivered a speech on the economy here in New York at Cooper Union, I asked, well, then-Senator Obama if he would call for a ban on private military contractors.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Would you call for a ban on the private military contractors like Blackwater?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA:

    I’ve actually —- I’m the one who sponsored the bill that called for the investigation of Blackwater and those folks, so -—

    AMY GOODMAN:

    But would you support the Sanders one now?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA:

    Here’s the problem: we have 140,000 private contractors right there, so unless we want to replace all of or a big chunk of those with US troops, we can’t draw down the contractors faster than we can draw down our troops. So what I want to do is draw —- I want them out in the same way that we make sure that we draw out our own combat troops. Alright? I mean, I -—

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Not a total ban?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA:

    Well, I don’t want to replace those contractors with more US troops, because we don’t have them, alright? But this was a speech about the economy.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    The war is costing $3 trillion, according to Stiglitz.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA:

    That’s what — I know, which I made a speech about last week. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:

Today, we’re joined by one of the leading journalists covering private military contractors in Iraq. Steve Fainaru, is a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, where he covered the Iraq war from 2004 to ’07. He won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his stories on private military contractors. His book is just out this week; it’s called Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq.

Steve Fainaru, welcome to Democracy Now!

STEVE FAINARU:

Thanks very much. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN:

What about this news coming out about the possibility of the indictments against Blackwater mercenaries and the fines against the company?

STEVE FAINARU:

Well, to be honest with you, I’m quite skeptical about the indictments. You know, I want to see what they look like when they come out, exactly what — if in fact they are handed up, what do they say? What are these people being charged with? And then, how aggressively are these cases going to be pursued?

I think, from the beginning, this case has been extremely problematic. When the Nisoor Square shootings occurred, the FBI took two weeks before it arrived in Iraq to investigate the case. There was limited immunity that was granted to some of the Blackwater contractors in the immediate aftermath by the State Department. And then, I think the larger question is, exactly how do you prosecute these cases? Under what law? It’s never been clear exactly what law applies to private security contractors in Iraq. And I think, frankly, that’s the biggest problem.

My understanding of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which I believe would be the law under which these guys would be prosecuted, requires the prosecution to take place in the state in which the person who’s accused resides. So, if in fact we’re talking about six separate indictments, we could be talking about six separate prosecutions occurring in six different states. And then, of course, there are issues with evidence. There are issues with exactly what the charges are going to be. There are questions of interviews and witnesses and how exactly do you do this. So I think it’s extremely problematic.

AMY GOODMAN:

What are “big boy rules”?

STEVE FAINARU:

Well, it’s a — “big boy rules” is an expression that I first heard when I was reporting on a story in which a private contractor who worked for a company called Triple Canopy, which shares a State Department contract with Blackwater, one of their contractors announced to three of his colleagues, who were traveling with him that day, that he really wanted to shoot someone. And that day, according to these three colleagues, they were traveling on the airport road in Baghdad, and while they were passing a civilian taxi, this contractor, according to these three guys, fired into the windshield of this passing civilian taxi. When that happened, there was no real legal mechanism by which to deal with the situation. And as I was reporting the case, I heard from other contractors that they used this expression "big boy rules." And what it really meant was that there were no rules for private security contractors in Iraq, and they operated under basically their own system of justice.

AMY GOODMAN:

Your shirt is actually hitting your mike. If you could pull it, that’s great. That’s good. I want to ask you about the group of contractors — and you made a decision to call them “mercenaries.” Do they call themselves mercenaries?

STEVE FAINARU:

I did, I did. Some of them, of course, do; most of them don’t. For me, it was a very conscious decision to use the word "mercenaries," because I feel like we should call this process exactly what it is, that when you look at the Geneva Conventions and the definition of “mercenaries,” we’re talking about people who are not part of the armed force that’s participating in the conflict. They are people who are — their primary motivation is money. They’re being paid to take place in — to take part in hostilities. And so, I think that the practice is clearly — it clearly falls under that definition. Now, many people don’t agree, but I feel strongly.

And I’ve also always felt that the term "private security contractors" never really has done justice to exactly what the scope of what’s going on in Iraq with these people. We’re talking about tens of thousands of hired guns who are running around Iraq in a war zone. They are being fired upon. They’re returning fire. They’re killing people, and they’re being killed. And the term "private security contractor,” it could apply to anybody. It could apply to a Brink’s guard. It could apply to somebody who’s standing in front of a 7-Eleven. And I never really — I felt like it obfuscated — I felt like it obscured the reality of what was happening.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, tell us about the group that you were embedded with and what happened to them. This was in 2006. You were the last reporter, one of the last people to see them alive.

STEVE FAINARU:

Right. Well, while I was working for the Washington Post, we wanted to find out what this culture was and why these people were there, who they were. And so, I embedded with a private security company called Crescent Security Group that operated out of Kuwait City. I traveled into Iraq with these people. We were — their primary mission was to protect supply convoys on Iraq’s main highway. And so, I traveled into Iraq. We traveled up to Nasiriyah, and then we traveled back to the Iraq-Kuwait border. I interviewed them. I found out what they were about.

And one of the things that was most striking about this company was — you know, in the book, I call it basically the Kmart of private security, where, you know, if you have Blackwater sort of at the high end of the security spectrum — traveling in heavily armored vehicles, working for the State Department, paying their contractors $20,000 a month — you had companies like Crescent Security Group, who were paying their contractors $7,000 a month, they had a lot less experience, there were enormous problems with the company.

I came home. Before I had even written my story, the people that I had spent time with were kidnapped on the same highway where we had been traveling. They were missing for sixteen months, and last April their bodies turned up in southern Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN:

First, their fingers cut off.

STEVE FAINARU:

First, their fingers were delivered to the air base in Basra as evidence that — from an informant, that he knew where the bodies were. And then, about a month later, the bodies were delivered to the air base at Basra.

AMY GOODMAN:

How did they get involved with these mercenary companies? You came to know these men well.

STEVE FAINARU:

Right. Well, it’s interesting, because I really didn’t know what to expect when I got there. And one of the things that I found that was most striking — and this was striking throughout our time investigating these companies in Iraq — was that they were an incredibly diverse group, that everybody had their own sort of story about why they should be in Iraq. The primary motivation was money. Everybody was there — that was the number one reason for being there. But when you got sort of beyond that, there were all kinds of other — there were all kinds of other issues that were in play.

The main character of the book, Jon Cote, had been in the 82nd Airborne, and he had done a tour in Afghanistan and Iraq. And when he got out, he enrolled at the University of Florida to study accounting. He was like the least likely accounting major in the history of accounting. And what he found — when he got out, he found that he just simply could not cope, that his experience in the military had put him in a sort of a place in his life where he just couldn’t adapt to civilian life. He clearly had post-traumatic stress. And so, one of his — his scout leader from the Army offered him a job to make $7,000 a month driving supply convoys — guarding supply convoys in Iraq. And he took the job, just thinking that, you know, this was some way — this was a way for him to get more money for college. He had financial problems. And so, he went back.

AMY GOODMAN:

And what happened afterwards? And their attitudes when they were there? And their feelings about what they were doing in Iraq?

STEVE FAINARU:

Well, I think it was varied. In Jon’s case, I think he realized very quickly that he had gotten into a situation that he simply was not prepared for. The company that he was working for was corrupt. They were smuggling weapons and liquor back and forth across the Iraq-Kuwait border. They were fabricating military IDs that they were using on their — that they were giving to their Iraqi employees to get onto US military installations. They were traveling in these pickup trucks in, you know, an extremely dangerous environment. And he decided to go home, after a couple of — three months. He decided he had enough and had told his friends and his family that he was planning to go home. But before he could, it was too late.

Other guys, I found, simply thrived on the life. You know, they were adrenaline junkies. They lived for this stuff. There was another guy that I met, John Young, who — he had been in the — he was forty-four years old. He had been in the Army in the 1980s. When he got out of the Army, he sort of drifted around to different jobs, never really feeling like he was totally content. He tried to reenlist in the military and injured himself during basic training. And so, when this job came along, he did it. And even after nearly getting shot in Baghdad, he still felt like — he said, “This is me. You know, this is what I do.” And I think there were a lot of people like that in Iraq, you know, who were drawn by the opportunity. They were making maybe ten times as much money as they could have made in the United States. They were addicted to the action, and they took the job.

AMY GOODMAN:

You describe one guy from, I think it was, Triple Canopy, talking about wanting to kill someone.

STEVE FAINARU:

Yeah, it’s a chilling story, and I think it points up a lot of different issues. You know, he announced in an almost off-handed way —

AMY GOODMAN:

Where were you?

STEVE FAINARU:

What’s that?

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you?

STEVE FAINARU:

When this occurred?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

STEVE FAINARU:

Well, I wasn’t with the individual. I heard about the story later and then interviewed the people who were — all the people who were in the truck. But he announced to his three colleagues that he wanted to kill someone, and then he went out on Iraq’s —- on Baghdad’s airport road and fired into the windshield of a taxi. And I think what the case pointed up -—

AMY GOODMAN:

Killing the people inside, killing the driver?

STEVE FAINARU:

Well, it was not clear, because they simply drove off. The car, according to the witnesses, you know, sputtered to a stop on the side of the road. The witnesses saw bullet holes in the windshield. When they got back to the base, you know, there was a lot of confusion about what to do. Ironically, there was a Fijian guy who was on this team who was paid a tenth of what the American contractors who were in the same vehicle were being paid. He went to a Fijian supervisor and told him about what had happened, because he was disgusted. But the Fijian supervisor basically was afraid to go to his American supervisors and tell them what had happened. And so, the other two guys were also not sure what to do. They were afraid to come forward. Finally, after two days, they came forward, and they told the company what had happened. And the company’s response was to fire not only them, but the man who was accused of firing into this truck — or into this taxi.

One of the things I think that case points up is that there was no legal mechanism to pursue it any further. Nor was there any incentive for the company, really, to pursue it any further. The company, Triple Canopy, went to the director of security for the Green Zone and basically told him in a very vague way, you know, what had happened: there was a questionable shooting incident that took place on Baghdad’s airport road. And that’s really basically all they told him. And when I interviewed him, he told me basically that he said to the company, you know, “Look, this is not my job. You know, this is not something that I deal with.” He brought in a JAG officer, and, you know, the case was simply not pursued.

The two guys who were fired ultimately sued in Fairfax County Circuit Court, arguing that had been fired for essentially reporting a criminal act. Triple Canopy argued that the reason they were fired was because they had not reported this incident immediately. A jury upheld the company’s contention that, on technical grounds, they were within every right to fire the two guys who reported the incident, but at the same time the jury condemned the company for what it said was its business practices and the way it conducted its investigation.

AMY GOODMAN:

What surprised you most in your reporting on mercenaries in Iraq — we just have about, oh, thirty seconds, a minute — for you, as you wrote this book, Big Boy Rules?

STEVE FAINARU:

Well, two things. One was the enormity of it. When I — I had been covering the military for fourteen months, and I’d see these guys around. And when I finally — when I started reporting it, you realize that there were hundreds of companies like Blackwater that were running around Iraq. I think the other thing that was really striking was that the Bush administration, because of its failure to provide enough troops, had essentially farmed out the responsibility for deciding who can kill and die for our country to private companies that were there and who had been created simply to make money off the war.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, Steve Fainaru, thanks so much for being with us. Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq is his book. And congratulations on winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

STEVE FAINARU:

Thank you very much.

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