Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill joins us now in our firehouse studio. Author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His latest article is "Obama’s Mercenary Position." It appears in the upcoming issue of The Nation magazine.
Jeremy Scahill reports Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will not "rule out" using private military companies like Blackwater Worldwide in Iraq. Obama also has no plans to sign on to legislation that seeks to ban the use of these forces in US war zones by January 2009. Despite their antiwar rhetoric, both Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton have adopted the congressional Democratic position that would leave open the option of keeping tens of thousands of US troops in Iraq for many years. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: “A senior foreign policy adviser to leading Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has told The Nation [magazine] that if elected Obama will not ‘rule out’ using private security companies like Blackwater Worldwide in Iraq.” That’s the lead sentence from a new article by independent journalist Jeremy Scahill. The adviser to Obama also said that the Illinois Senator does not plan to sign on to legislation that seeks to ban the use of these forces in US war zones by January 2009, when a new president will be sworn in.
AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill joins us now in the firehouse studio, is author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His latest article in The Nation is called "Obama’s Mercenary Position." It appears in this issue of The Nation.
Welcome to Democracy Now! So, what did you find out, Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I started looking at Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s Iraq plans, and one of the things that I discovered is that both of them intend to keep the Green Zone intact. Both of them intend to keep the current US embassy project, which is slated to be the largest embassy in the history of the world. I mean, I think it’s 500 CIA operatives alone, a thousand personnel. And they’re also going to keep open the Baghdad airport indefinitely. And what that means is that even though the rhetoric of withdrawal is everywhere in the Democratic campaign, we’re talking about a pretty substantial level of US forces and personnel remaining in Iraq indefinitely.
In the case of Barack Obama, I wanted to focus in on what his position is on private military contractors, particularly armed ones like those that work for Blackwater. And the reason I focus on Obama instead of Hillary on this is because Barack Obama has actually been at the forefront of addressing the mercenary issue in the Congress. In February of 2007 — this was way before the Nisoor Square massacre, where Blackwater forces killed seventeen Iraqis and wounded twenty others — in February of 2007, Barack Obama sponsored legislation in the Senate that sought to expand US law so that —
JUAN GONZALEZ: This is just after he got into the Senate, right?
JEREMY SCAHILL: This was in 2007. This was a year ago. And so, this was a major piece of legislation by Obama, and it was done in concert with Representative David Price from North Carolina in the House, a Democrat. And Obama’s legislation basically said we realize that there are loopholes in the law that allow Blackwater and other contractors to essentially get away with murder, and so what we need to do is make it so that US law applies to not only Defense Department contractors, but State Department contractors like Blackwater. If they murder someone in Iraq, we can prosecute them back in the United States.
Now, that legislation hasn’t passed at this point, and it may never pass. I mean, the fact is that the Bush administration actually issued a statement opposing that legislation, and I want to read to you what Bush said. He said that law would have, quote, “intolerable consequences for crucial and necessary national security activities and operations."
And so, I started to look at this reality. Obama is saying he wants to keep the embassy. Obama is saying he wants to keep the Green Zone. Obama is saying he wants to keep the Baghdad airport. Who’s guarding US diplomats right now at this largest embassy in the history of the world? Well, it’s Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp; it’s these private security companies.
And so, I started talking to some of the Obama campaign people. And it really took days for them to actually get back to me and provide someone to talk to me on the record. I started doing interviews with some of his people, and they said, “We can’t answer these questions.” And so, finally I talked to a senior foreign policy person, who said, yes, the reality is that we can’t rule out, we won’t rule out, using private security forces. And I said, well, Senator Obama has identified them as unaccountable, and the reality is, his law may not pass before he takes office, if he wins, and so Obama could potentially be using forces that he himself has identified as both unaccountable and above the law. Long pause. Right.
And so, the situation right now is that Obama seems to have painted himself into a corner on this issue, because the reality is, Obama’s people are saying, well, we’re going to increase funding to the State Department’s Diplomatic Security division. They say, ideally, the people we want to be guarding US diplomats in Iraq will be fully burdened US government employees who are accountable to US law. But the irony right now is that the war machine is so radically privatized that there are about 1,100 mercenaries doing diplomatic security in Iraq right now. There are only 1,400 diplomatic security agents in the entire world, and only thirty-six of them are in Iraq.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, let me ask you, in terms of this whole issue of mercenaries in general, I mean, are we facing the possibility that a Democratic president would in essence reduce the troops but increase the mercenaries?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Juan, this is a great question, and it was one of the reasons why I started looking at this. I want to read you a quote here. Joseph Schmitz, who’s one of the leading executives in the Blackwater empire, recently said this: "There is a scenario where we could as a government, the United States, could pull back the military footprint, and there would then be more of a need for private contractors to go in.” So apparently these contractors see a silver lining in that scenario. You know, the reality is, right now, that these forces are one of the most significant threats to Iraqis in the country. I mean, we’ve seen scores of incidents where they’ve shot at them, etc.
But as you know, Juan, this is a bipartisan industry. I mean, Bill Clinton really gave rise to this phenomenon of the military contractors. We know that Dick Cheney was running Halliburton in the ’90s. Who was giving Dick Cheney all of those contracts? Well, it was Bill Clinton. And the Democrats have long been good for the war contracting industry. There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton is the number one recipient of campaign contributions from the defense industry. Number two is John McCain. Obama is number four. Chris Dodd is ahead of him. It’s very interesting. It’s a bipartisan phenomenon.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk beyond the mercenaries, beyond the military contractors, about their policies in Iraq. I wanted to turn to an excerpt of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Cleveland, Ohio. This is NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, Tim Russert.
TIM RUSSERT: You both have pledged a withdrawal of troops from Iraq. You both have said you’d keep a residual force there to protect our embassy, to seek out al-Qaeda, to neutralize Iran. If the Iraqi government said, “President Clinton or President Obama, you’re pulling out your troops this quickly? You’re going to be gone in a year, but you’re going to leave a residual force behind? No. Get out. Get out now. If you don’t want to stay and protect us, we’re a sovereign nation. Go home now," will you leave?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, if the Iraqi government says that we should not be there, then we cannot be there. This is a sovereign government, as George Bush continually reminds us.
Now, I think that we can be in a partnership with Iraq to ensure the stability and the safety of the region, to ensure the safety of Iraqis and to meet our national security interests. But in order to do that, we have to send a clear signal to the Iraqi government that we are not going to be there permanently, which is why I have said that as soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we will initiate a phased withdrawal, we will be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. We will give ample time for them to stand up, to negotiate the kinds of agreements that will arrive at the political accommodations that are needed. We will provide them continued support.
But it is important for us not to be held hostage by the Iraqi government in a policy that has not made us more safe, that’s distracting us from Afghanistan, and is costing us dearly, not only and most importantly in the lost lives of our troops, but also the amount of money that we are spending that is unsustainable and will prevent us from engaging in the kinds of investments in America that will make us more competitive and more safe.
TIM RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, if the Iraqis said, “I’m sorry, we’re not happy with this arrangement; if you’re not going to stay in total and defend us, get out completely” — they are a sovereign nation —- you would listen?
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Absolutely. And I believe that there is no military solution that the Americans, who have been valiant in doing everything that they were asked to do, can really achieve in the absence of full cooperation from the Iraqi government. And -—
TIM RUSSERT: Let me ask —- let me ask you this, Senator. I want to ask you -—
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: And they need to take responsibility for themselves. And —
TIM RUSSERT: I want to ask both of you this question, then. If we — if this scenario plays out and the Americans get out in totality and al-Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell, do you hold the right, in your mind as American president, to re-invade, to go back into Iraq to stabilize it?
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: You know, Tim, you ask a lot of hypotheticals. And I believe that what’s —
TIM RUSSERT: But this is reality.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: No — well, it isn’t reality. You’re — you’re making lots of different hypothetical assessments.
I believe that it is in America’s interests and in the interest of the Iraqis for us to have an orderly withdrawal. I’ve been saying for many months that the administration has to do more to plan, and I’ve been pushing them to actually do it. I’ve also said that I would begin to withdraw within sixty days based on a plan that I asked begun to be put together as soon as I became president.
AMY GOODMAN: Senators Clinton and Obama debating in Cleveland on Tuesday. By the way, we invited both foreign policy advisers both from the Obama and from the Clinton camp to talk about their positions on private contractors as well as on Iraq, and they both declined. Jeremy, their positions?
JEREMY SCAHILL: First of all, Russert’s question is sort of a false question. He shouldn’t have asked that — if Iraqi government says you should leave. What Russert should have said to them is, over 80 percent of Iraqis, conservatively, say they want the United States out now; will you respect the will of the Iraqi people? Of course, that question is not going to be asked by Tim Russert or Brian Williams on one of these debates. But the reality is, listening to Obama and Clinton, they’re giving the impression that what they’re going to do is immediately begin a total withdrawal of US forces.
Now, I’ve looked very carefully at both of their Iraq plans, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have lifted much of their Iraq plans from two sources. One is the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, and then the other is the 2007 Iraq supplemental, which was portrayed as the Democrats’ withdrawal plan. And both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have a three-pronged approach to what they see as a longer-term presence in Iraq. They say that US personnel are going to remain in the country to protect diplomats and other US officials in the country. And we’ve already talked a bit about that with Obama. Hillary Clinton appears to be taking the same approach on that. Number two is that they want to keep trainers in place that will train the Iraqi military. At present, there’s 10,000 to 20,000 US trainers, all of whom will require security, so that’s a substantial force. And then the third is that they’re saying that they want to keep a force in place to, quote, "strike at al-Qaeda," in the words of Barack Obama’s Iraq plan.
When the Institute for Policy Studies did an analysis of what this would mean, they said it’s 20,000 to 60,000 troops, not including contractors. And right now we have a one-to-one ratio with contractors and troops in the country. 20,000 to 60,000 troops indefinitely in Iraq, this is something that over the course of ten years the Congressional Budget Office says could cost half-a-trillion dollars. This doesn’t include the fact that you have to have troops bringing supplies in and out of Iraq. It doesn’t include the troops that Obama and Clinton are going to keep in Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and elsewhere. I mean, this is actually a pretty sustained indefinite occupation that’s going to be on the table if either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are in office and take power.
And I mean, you know, the reality is that now would be the time for people to raise these issues, and yet no one is talking about this. It’s “Oh, yeah, Barack Obama is going to withdraw troops from Iraq.” Well, not exactly. He’s actually looking at keeping a pretty sizeable deployment. The other thing about them is they’re both calling for an increase in the number of troops in the permanent US military. In the case of Obama — and Juan, you’ve brought this up recently on the show — in the case of Obama, he says 90,000 new troops. Well, that’s going to be a $15 billion increase in military funding just for those troops to be in the United States, not including their deployment.
The other thing is that Obama is saying he wants to increase the US occupation of Afghanistan by 7,000 troops. What’s interesting is that we see Hillary Clinton, in her Iraq rhetoric, trying to move to the left; Obama, I think, now feeling that he’s going to be facing John McCain, is moving to the right. I mean, his rhetoric talking about striking at al-Qaeda in Iraq, yes, he pointed out the irony of McCain criticizing him for that because there was no al-Qaeda in Iraq before Bush invaded, but Obama is sort of adopting their language now. And in his plan, the idea of striking at al-Qaeda in Iraq, I mean, who is al-Qaeda in Iraq? I mean, what — the Iraqi resistance is largely Iraqis who are attacking US troops. And so, Obama is — he’s sort of positioning himself for this debate to make himself seem tough against John McCain.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I wanted to ask you specifically about this whole question of the increase in troops, because when I asked Samantha Power, as his foreign policy adviser, about this issue, she talked about the US military being stretched and the need for even in peacekeeping to have what she called "boots on the ground" and that weren’t sufficient. But the reality is obviously that there are many American troops in other parts of the world, like South Korea, like Japan, like, to some degree, Europe, that are not being — not — doing nothing else except occupying those countries, and they could be redeployed if the Army needed more troops.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, what that indicates, I think, is that Obama is going to have an interventionist, expansionist foreign policy. I mean, that certainly was the policy of the Clinton administration. I mean, in fairness, though, Barack Obama, more than Hillary Clinton and certainly more than John McCain, who’s talking about having troops in Iraq for a hundred years, Obama is talking about trying to increase the UN presence in Iraq. He’s trying to bring in regional countries. I mean, he has a pretty serious diplomatic plan for Iraq. The problem is that it doesn’t cancel out his military plan.
On the case of the increase in troops, what Obama’s people told me is that we need these 90,000 troops desperately, because our troops need a rest. Some of them are serving three, four tours over in Iraq, and so we need to get them in there. But the reality is, you don’t get 90,000 troops and then be able to deploy them overnight. So, clearly, they’re thinking about this for years and years to come. I think the reality is that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton are actually going to be in the business of permanently ending the US occupation of Iraq. That’s a deadly serious issue, and it needs to be front and center on this campaign.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, thanks very much for joining us. Jeremy has written the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It’s just been announced that he’s won a George Polk Award — his second — for this book. Congratulations. You’ll be on Bill Maher this week?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Next Friday.
AMY GOODMAN: Next Friday, talking about these issues.