award-winning investigative journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, has announced his resignation as the company’s CEO. The move comes weeks after the company changed its name to Xe in an attempt to rebrand the firm. Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, assesses the latest developments. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go from the issue of whether there are a permanent bases, which he did not address, to another issue he didn’t address: mercenaries, or the paramilitaries, the private contractors. I had a chance to question Senator Obama a year ago when he was on the campaign trail. He spoke at Cooper Union here in New York. As he was walking out, I asked him why he wasn’t calling for a total withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in accordance with the 70 percent of Iraqis who say they want the US out.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Obama, quick question: 70 percent of Iraqis say they want the US to withdraw completely; why don’t you call for a total withdrawal?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I do, except for our embassy. I call for amnesty and protecting our civilian contractors there.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve said a residual force —
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Yeah, but —
AMY GOODMAN: — which would be tens of thousands of troops.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, no. I mean, I don’t think that you’ve read exactly what I’ve said. What I said is that we do need to have a strike force in the region. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in Iraq; it could be in Kuwait or other places. But we do have to have some presence in order to not only protect them, but also potentially to protect the territorial integrity.
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 mean, 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: That’s Senator Barack Obama a year ago at Cooper Union here in New York. Lawrence Korb, I know you have to leave for another appointment, but I did want to ask about the mercenaries, about the private contractors. They number, what, about the same as the US soldiers right now in Iraq.
LAWRENCE KORB: Troops, yeah. That’s correct. But again, as you draw down the troops, you’ll need less of them, because one of the things that they’re doing is providing logistic support, you know, for the troops, and you will need, obviously, less of that.
Remember, under the Status of Forces Agreement, they no longer have immunity. If these people act up again, they are going to be subject to the Iraqi justice system. And obviously, you’re going to need some sort of private contractors to guard the number of personnel that are in the country in this embassy. And again, I would not have built such a big embassy, but it is there, and hopefully, over the years, we can get that back to a normal size, if we ever get back to having a normal relationship with Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lawrence Korb, I want to thank you for being with us, from the Center for American Progress, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. And, Jeremy Scahill, if you would just stay with us for a few more minutes, I want to stay on this issue of the private contractors.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Can I say something about what —- about this issue first? I mean, on the issue of the US embassy, I think that the Obama administration should turn it over to the Iraqi people and let them decide what they want to use that massive city within their city for. And the fact is that -—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about like a four mile square area in downtown Baghdad.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, you’re talking — yeah, you’re talking about a small city unto itself that’s going to have 1,200 employees and hundreds of CIA operatives, was the initial plan for it. And all these people are going to necessitate deadly and lethal security. So that would be a real message of change to send to the Iraqi people, to say this was an embassy built on slave labor as part of an illegal occupation of your country —-
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you say “slave labor”?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Because there were people that were brought in. It was essentially indentured servitude. There were people that were brought in from other countries that worked on the construction of that project, much like Africans abducted from the African continent and brought here as slaves, they and their descendants were building the White House in this country. Here we are, years later, with the US government having the embassy built largely on labor that was forced labor or dramatically underpaid labor by people that were essentially forced by their economic conditions or by being taken into the country under false pretenses to participate in the construction of that embassy. And this is the subject of a major congressional investigation that I don’t know is going to go anywhere now that Obama is in the White House.
But on the issue of the contractors, I mean, what you asked Obama about a year ago is very, very important, because Obama said in his answer to you that he didn’t want to draw down contractors at a faster rate than he drew down US troops. So, even when Obama is talking about 50,000 troops remaining in the country, presumably that would mean 50,000 contractors to support them. So we’re always talking about deflated numbers when we hear them come out of the mouths of administration officials.
On the issue of the mercenaries, though, the armed security contractors, Blackwater, the company formerly known as Blackwater, now, you know, called Xe, which is -— you know, I mean, it’s very, very interesting, this —-
AMY GOODMAN: Spelled X-e.
JEREMY SCAHILL: X-e -— you know, in the midst of a major rebranding campaign. What happened with Blackwater is that the Obama administration, through the State Department, informed Xe, Blackwater, that they were not going to renew their highly lucrative contract in Iraq. I think this was a result, in large part, of massive public pressure. I think that activists and concerned people and journalists who were exposing this really made it politically untenable for the Obama administration to at least publicly continue that kind of a relationship with this company, Blackwater, and I think the people who took this seriously should take heart in that.
Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, did make a pledge on the campaign trail that she was going to endorse legislation to ban Blackwater’s operations, and she took a lot of heat for that. Whether or not this was a decision that she influenced, I don’t know. I mean, it seemed like it was sort of a cynical decision on the campaign trail aimed at outflanking Obama from the left. But the fact is that Blackwater’s contract has not been renewed.
Having said that, Blackwater is firmly entrenched in Afghanistan, continues with many lucrative US government contracts, has now changed its name. Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater and the CEO, this week announced that he was stepping down as the CEO but will remain as the chairman. So, you know, I mean, Erik Prince is not in control of Blackwater, the same way that Vladimir Putin is not in control of Russia; he is in control of it, he just isn’t officially the head of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, wait. So, let’s explain all of this. Let’s really talk about Blackwater now. I think it astonished many when first they heard that Blackwater’s new name would be Xe.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Xe, right.
AMY GOODMAN: X-e.
JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s a kind of gas.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, that Erik Prince was stepping down as CEO.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: But his position now?
JEREMY SCAHILL: He’s the chair, remains the chairman of Blackwater. And he appointed a guy named Joseph Yorio, who was a former vice president at the international shipping company DHL, to be the president of Blackwater. And what’s interesting about that is Erik Prince has consistently said that his vision for Blackwater is that it’s going to be like the Federal Express of the national security apparatus. So he didn’t hire a FedEx VP; he went with DHL, which has more of an international reputation. It’s all very fascinating. But —-
AMY GOODMAN: Erik Prince is still there.
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, Erik Prince, right, he stepped down from the running of the day-to-day operations of Blackwater, but he’s still the owner, and he’s still the chairman of the company. He still has his private intelligence company that is marketing CIA-type services to -—
AMY GOODMAN: Headed by...?
JEREMY SCAHILL: — Fortune 1000 corporations. Well, it’s been headed by Cofer Black and Robert Richer, both CIA veterans, although in Prince’s statement announcing his stepping down, he indicated that there have been sweeping either resignations or departures at the company. Gary Jackson, the president of Blackwater, is out. This was a guy who just a few months ago had said that they would have to carry him out of Blackwater if he was ever going to leave there, essentially saying he was going to be at that company for life. He’s gone. Other vice chairmen have left. Other people — there’s clearly been a major shake-up there.
AMY GOODMAN: And their symbol is changed.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, their symbol — well, now they don’t even call — it used to be that Blackwater was the name of all of Prince’s network of security companies and training companies. Now they’ve changed the name of their training facilities just to the "US Training Center." That’s what it’s called. And instead of the sort of more sexy, you know, red-and-black bear paw in the sniper scope logo, they now have this crude drawing, that looks like it was like done by a high school art student, of an American bald eagle with a yellow beak. I mean, it’s really strange. Maybe Prince stopped spending money on all of these PR firms or rebranding agencies or what have you. But it all appears very crude.
One thing that hasn’t been crude, though, is that Blackwater clearly has learned at least some semblance of a lesson about the power of activist campaigns and bringing out into the light their activities, because there’s been a group operating under the banner of Blackwater Watch for a couple of years now, and it’s from San Diego, where they have it, to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, all the way to North Carolina, Blackwater’s home state. And they have blackwaterwatch.net. A year ago, Amy, last April, Blackwater registered the domain names for Xe Watch dot org, dot com, dot net, as a — this was a year before they basically even announced that the company was changing its name, although Blackwater Watch now has rebranded itself, and they call themselves Xe Watch, but they’re still operating at blackwaterwatch.net.
So, I think that Blackwater got what it needed from Iraq. It made a lot of money. It secured a reputation that, in its world, is actually a good reputation, because they may have killed a lot of people, but they never lost a principal, as they say.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to talk about “killed a lot of people.” Let’s go back to Nisoor Square.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: I think people will be surprised to hear that Blackwater is not banned from Iraq by the Iraqi government.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. Well, I mean, the fact is, and Mr. Korb said this earlier when he was on, that the immunity has been taken away. I will believe that the immunity has been taken away from these killers when the first one of them appears in Iraqi court. The fact is, the US government is not going to hand over its citizens, especially former Navy Seals working for these kinds of companies, to an Iraqi court. It’s just not going to happen. So, you know, the Iraqi government can talk until it’s blue in the face about not renewing licenses and all that; the US has made it clear, Democrat and Republican, that it’s going to do what it needs to do to protect its forces and personnel in Iraq, and if that meant keeping Blackwater there, the Obama administration would keep Blackwater there.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you explain, though, if Barack Obama says he’s keeping 50,000 troops — there’s a lot of troops leaving then — why doesn’t he have enough troops to protect the embassy? Why do mercenaries, do private contractors, have to protect the embassy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, this is a debate now that, as a result of the radical privatization of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security division — that’s where these mercenary companies primarily work; they work for the State Department doing what’s called diplomatic security. There has never been a mission of the size of this for diplomatic security.
This actually — this program started in the ’90s. When the US restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti, they hired private companies through the State Department to serve as his protective force and to protect US diplomats that were going in there with Aristide. That started this whole mercenary industry being a part of the US State Department. So, Bush turned it into a paramilitary force in Iraq, and what that meant was that the people that were specifically trained to do this kind of executive protection were largely private contractors. And so, the State Department does not currently have full-time employees that would be able to do that job, and the military has said it doesn’t want to be body guarding US diplomats. So the US has painted itself into a corner. The Democrats have aggressively funded this program, along with the Bush administration. And, of course, it started and expanded under Clinton. And so, it’s now a Catch-22. The Obama administration says it wants to make them all full-time employees. It will take years to do that. Private contractors are going to be in Iraq for a very long time.
AMY GOODMAN: And you mentioned Afghanistan, but, of course, not only private contractors. There is a surge going on now that President Obama has announced, talking about escalating the war in Afghanistan. Just before we went on air, word of a car bomb exploding outside the main US military base in Kabul, wounding three people on Wednesday. The Taliban have claimed responsibility. The blast outside the main base at Bagram wounded three civilian contractors working for a US company, wasn’t clear what the nationalities of the three were.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, the last thing I’ll say is this: You can look at the direction of US policy like this: We have a president now who said he’ll use preemptive military action inside of the borders of another country without informing the leadership of that country, if he deems it’s in the interests of the US, as in the case of Pakistan; a president who’s just delivered what, for all practical purposes, sounded like the victory speech of the previous president for his war based on lies and illegal acts of aggression, and who is surging, beyond the wildest hopes of the Republicans, in Afghanistan, putting more troops than almost any other politician was calling for, and is going to get the US further just sunk into the hole of a very violent and bloody war of occupation in Afghanistan.
This is, once again, an imperial presidency, and I think it’s cause for great, great concern. And unfortunately, the spines of many people that actually have the ear of Obama seem to have been surgically removed now that he is president. And I think it’s very disturbing that people don’t speak truth to power. This is a very dangerous course this president is continuing.
AMY GOODMAN: The alternative in Afghanistan?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think that, you know, Representative Marcy Kaptur, who you had on recently discussing the fact that people should squat in their homes if these banks are trying to take their homes away from them and say, “Produce the note,” I think put it best when she said that President Obama should call Russia and ask them what happened in Afghanistan. I think the United States has no respect for self-determination or independence of these countries. And I think that there are international diplomats who have wide experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan whose counsel should be sought out, because the United States should be about the business of paying reparations to these countries that it has participated in the destruction of and looking for regional diplomatic solutions that inherently are non-military in their scope and are aimed at actual self-determination for the people of those countries. There’s no internationalization of US policy. There’s no listening to indigenous voices. It’s been military solutions first.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, I want to thank you for being with us. I think it’s interesting, Jeremy, the book for which you won the George Polk Award, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, when it came out in paperback, it was going to be released on the day that Erik Prince’s book, long delayed, was also going to be released, but they pulled it.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Yeah, I haven’t — there were a couple of times that Erik Prince’s book was supposed to come out. Instead, this executive producer at CNN, Suzanne Simons, who’s been an apologist for the mercenary industry, she seems to have written it for him. Her book comes out in June. I think it’s called Master of War.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, thanks for being with us. Jeremy Scahill, award-winning investigative journalist, author of the New York Times bestseller Blackwater and Democracy Now! correspondent.