In an exclusive interview with Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill, Congressman Henry Waxman, chair of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, calls on Sen. Barack Obama to cancel the private military firm Blackwater’s Iraq contract if Obama is elected president. Serious questions remain about what Obama will do with this massive private shadow army in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
In an exclusive interview with Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill, Congress member Henry Waxman, chair of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform committee, has called on Senator Barack Obama to cancel the private military firm Blackwater’s Iraq contract if Obama is elected president. Waxman’s committee is the top investigative body in the Congress and has been leading multiple investigations into the firm’s activities. In recent months, Obama has indicated he intends to continue using private military companies as part of his foreign policy and specifically in Iraq.
Waxman’s call comes as newly revealed federal documents obtained by USA Today show US spending on armed private contractors like Blackwater is on the rise. This year alone, the US State Department will spend more than a billon dollars on armed contractors. That’s a 13 percent increase from 2007. A State Department official revealed contractors “will increasingly take over...former military roles and missions, increasing [the] numbers of private security.”
As Barack Obama prepares to make the war in Iraq a centerpiece of his campaign against John McCain, serious questions remain about what Obama will do with this massive private shadow army in Iraq. Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill filed this report.
When you talk to people here at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, it’s taken as a fait accompli that, if elected president, Senator Barack Obama is going to end the Iraq war swiftly.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I’ve been against it 2002, 2003, 2004, ’5, ’6, ’7, ’8, and I will bring this war to an end in 2009, so don’t be confused.
But it’s not hard to be confused by Senator Obama’s statements on Iraq. Cut through the fiery rhetoric, and the devil is in the details. While Obama’s plan starkly differs from that of his rival, John McCain, Obama’s Iraq policy in reality is one of downsizing and rebranding the occupation, not entirely ending it.
One aspect of Obama’s Iraq plan that has received little corporate media attention is what he plans to do with for-profit war corporations, particularly mercenary companies like Blackwater. While Obama has consistently been very critical of these companies, calling them unaccountable, above the law, and a danger to US troops and Iraqi civilians, his own Iraq plan will necessitate using them in Iraq. Indeed, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers told me earlier this year that Obama, quote, “cannot and will not rule out using these companies.”
Obama representatives say he will not sign onto legislation sponsored by Representative Jan Schakowsky and Senator Bernie Sanders to ban the use of Blackwater and other armed contractors in US war zones. Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, has not signed onto the legislation either. Instead, Obama has sponsored his own legislation that seeks to regulate the industry and hold contractors accountable under US law.
He articulated his position in a brief interview with Democracy Now! in March.
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?
Inside the convention, several lawmakers we spoke with expressed serious concern about the continued use of these companies. Here is Washington Congressman Jim McDermott.
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: One of the biggest problems that Barack Obama is going to have is turning the government back into a civil service and getting rid of all the private contractors. The private contracting thing is the most erosive thing that this administration has done. Now, it started, to be fair, under Clinton. Most of us never thought of what would happen. But now you look at all the things that are being run by private contractors, you simply cannot be handing money to a private contractor who is not under the law of that country or the law of this country and can do anything they want. They’re really — they’re rogue outfits.
As we walked the halls of the Pepsi Center, we ran into the man who serves as the top investigator in the US Congress: California Representative Henry Waxman. He is the chair of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Waxman has been on the warpath against Blackwater for years.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN:
The Blackwater Company is in trouble, because they try to treat their employees as if they’re independent contractors. They have done a job that’s been considered very poor, and they’re under criminal investigation for some of the work that their troops have done. And so, they’re going to be investigated much further by the Congress and people in the administration and good people like you on the outside.
Last question: should Senator Obama win, do you think he should cancel that contract with the WPPS?
REP. HENRY WAXMAN:
Yes. Yes, I don’t see any reason to have a contract with Blackwater. They haven’t lived up to their contract, and we shouldn’t be having these private military contracts. We should use our own military.
Henry Waxman’s call to cancel Blackwater’s contract is significant. It’s the first time he has stated this publicly, and it was quickly endorsed by other Democrats here in Denver.
REP. MARCY KAPTUR: I would join Congressman Waxman, Chairman Waxman, in that call, and I thank him for his leadership on this issue.
Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio is on the House Appropriations Committee. She has investigated the widespread use of these companies.
REP. MARCY KAPTUR: I would ask the new president to abide by the tried and true method of regular force, with no contracting out, to have a complete review and to reassume those responsibilities by our military that should be done by regular force and to take a look at some of the intelligence leaks and difficulties we’ve had with contractors falling over one another in theater.
One of Henry Waxman’s colleagues on the Oversight Committee, Vermont’s Peter Welch, has also monitored the Blackwater issue closely.
REP. PETER WELCH: Blackwater is terrible, and the money we pay them. They went from $700,000 in 2003, when the war began, to over a billion dollars by 2007. It’s just an incredible waste of taxpayer money. It dishonors the Code of Military Conduct. Our soldiers are over there. They abide by rules. Blackwater doesn’t.
But the bottom line question here is the war policy and whether we should be in it — we shouldn’t — and whether we should be outsourcing it when we do go to war, and we shouldn’t be. So, frankly, I think there should be very strong handcuffs put on this whole outsourcing question, but particularly with these private security contractors like DynCorp and Blackwater.
With Blackwater — regarding Blackwater specifically, the Bush administration renewed their contract for another year. So if Senator Obama becomes president, Blackwater has part of that WPPS contract. Given their record, do you think that that contract of that specific company should be cancelled?
REP. PETER WELCH: Yes, I do. You know, Blackwater’s conduct — and it’s, in my view, profiteering — shouldn’t be tolerated.
NEWS CLIPS: Blackwater guards fired on civilians...Eleven Iraqis were killed in a shootout with Blackwater contractors...Blackwater basically started shooting without being provoked, without any kind of reason...After the shooting Blackwater guards simply drove away.
While much of the focus on Blackwater has centered around the company’s killing of civilians in Iraq, like the Nisoor Square shootings last September when Blackwater forces gunned down seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, that is hardly the only concern lawmakers expressed. Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who some analysts said was among the candidates being considered as a possible running mate for Barack Obama, has been investigating the use of companies like Blackwater in training US military forces inside the United States.
SEN. JIM WEBB: We have a situation now where, in the Department of the Navy, a civilian, a relatively mid-ranking civilian, can let a contract for up to $78 million, basically on their own initiative, with only one level of review before it. It doesn’t even go to the Secretary of the Navy, much less to the Congress. You know, I was on the Defense Resources Board for four years, and I was Secretary of the Navy, and I can tell you, that was not happening when I was in the Pentagon. So, we’re going to get more accountability in this. It needs to happen, and we need to shift away from this over-reliance on those kinds of issues.
BLACKWATER ADVERTISEMENT: When you’re in law enforcement, the military, or need to use personal defense, you’ve got to be good. But sometimes the only thing that will enable you to succeed or survive is being the best. Blackwater Training Center is dedicated to making you the best. When you face your moment of truth, we want your Blackwater training to see you through. Blackwater is the largest training facility in the world and provides…
Blackwater does a robust business in training US military forces here in the US, both at its 7,000-acre North Carolina compound and in its new facility in San Diego, just a stone’s throw from the US-Mexico border. According to Senator Webb, Blackwater’s contract with the US Navy is worth more than $63 million.
SEN. JIM WEBB: I’m particularly concerned about tactical training of active-duty military people here in the United States. What Blackwater was doing in San Diego was to build a mock-up of a ship and then train active-duty Navy military people in terms of how to take down a ship if they had a problem on it. Well, excuse me. That’s what the active-duty military is supposed to do. I didn’t have an independent contractor teach me how to patrol when I was going through Marine Corps basic school. So this thing has gotten way off track, not only in terms of Iraq, which you’re asking about, but in terms of here and in terms of the disciplinary environment in which they work.
BLACKWATER ADVERTISEMENT: Bottom line, when you face your moment of truth, your Blackwater training will see you through.
This summer, Senator Webb aggressively hounded the Pentagon on this issue, going so far as to hold up four civilian nominations until he got responses to his questions. Eventually, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a review of the privatization of military training. As for what Barack Obama should do with Blackwater if elected president, Webb had a different take on it than Representative Henry Waxman.
Do you think that, though, that Senator Obama should cancel Blackwater’s contract with the State Department, because it will be there if he wins? What should he do on Blackwater specifically?
SEN. JIM WEBB: I’m not — I mean, I’m not in a position right now to say that Blackwater’s contract specifically should be cancelled. I think all of them should be aggressively reviewed and, you know, have standards put on them, and I think Blackwater, like other companies, ought to compete.
Despite the Nisoor Square massacre, multiple congressional investigations and a criminal investigation by the FBI that could yield indictments of Blackwater operatives, the Bush administration renewed Blackwater’s contract in April for an additional year, meaning the company’s future in Iraq will likely be in the hands of the next president.
Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, raised questions about the renewal with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In a letter earlier this summer, he said the decision to renew Blackwater’s contract, quote, “fueled the perception that the Bush administration is allowing private security contractors to act with impunity in Iraq.”
We tried to chase Senator Kerry down inside the Pepsi Center.
Senator Kerry, should Blackwater be banned? Senator Kerry, you’ve been aggressive on Blackwater recently. Do you think they should be banned?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I’m not having a press conference right now. I’ve got to get to an airport, because I have to go to a funeral.
Just answer the one question. I know you know about this.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I need to — I need — I’m not doing this right know. That’s all.
It’s a simple yes or no. Do you think they should be banned — Blackwater, the mercenary company — from operating in Iraq?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: No, I don’t think they should be banned. I think they need to operate under rules that apply to the military and everybody else.
But it’s OK if Senator Obama continues to use them, if he wins the presidency?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: You guys, I’m not — this is not the moment.
While some Democratic lawmakers here in Denver are calling on Obama to cancel Blackwater’s contract, others are backing him on his plan to bring more oversight and accountability to the private military industry.
But here’s the reality: if Obama wins in November and he decides to keep these companies on the US payroll, armed private companies like Blackwater would go from being Bush’s mercenaries in Iraq to Obama’s. As commander-in-chief, their crimes would be his responsibility.
For Democracy Now!, this is Jeremy Scahill, with Jacquie Soohen, in Denver.
I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!
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