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Blackwater USA Takes Congressional Hot Seat as Landmark Hearing Probes Mercenary Firm’s Role in Iraq

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The private security company Blackwater admitted on Tuesday for the first time that one of its employees shot and killed an Iraqi guard inside the Green Zone in December. The disclosure came during a landmark hearing on the role of private contractors in Iraq. Among those to testify was Katy Helvenston. Her son Scott was one of the four Blackwater employees killed in Fallujah in 2004. Katy Helvenston joins us to talk about why she wants Blackwater held accountable for her son’s death. We’re also joined by Jeremy Scahill, author of the forthcoming book, “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: The private security company Blackwater admitted on Tuesday for the first time that one of its employees shot and killed an Iraqi guard inside the Green Zone in December. Blackwater removed this worker from Iraq the next day, before criminal charges could be filed. The case raises new questions about whether contractors can be held legally accountable for misconduct. Congressman Dennis Kucinich questioned Blackwater’s general counsel, Andrew Howell, during a congressional hearing on the role of private contractors in Iraq.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Yes, Mr. Chairman. I’m going to submit for the record a story that was in the January 11, 2007, edition of The Pilot newspaper, and it relates to — the headline says, “Iraq Killing Tracked to Contractor Could Test Laws.” Now, the question is this, Mr. Howell: Are you familiar with a December 24th shooting, involving one of your employees who shot and killed an Iraqi security officer, and — are you familiar with that?

ANDREW HOWELL: I’m familiar with some aspects of it, yes, sir.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Did your company order that man back to the States?

ANDREW HOWELL: That gentleman, on the day the incident occurred, he was off duty. Blackwater did bring him back to the United States, and our client also understandably directed that he be off the project immediately. His security clearance was revoked, and there is other activity going on, sir.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Is he going to be extradited back to Iraq for murder? And if not, why not?

ANDREW HOWELL: Sir, I am not law enforcement. All I can say is that there is currently an investigation by, as I understand it, the FBI and the Department of Justice of the incident that day. And we are fully cooperating and supporting that investigation. And what action they’ll take, sir, I can’t say.


REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Thank you, Mr. Kucinich, because Mr. Welch has been waiting, and if you have further questions, if you would submit it in writing.

AMY GOODMAN: Critics of Blackwater have complained its employees are not accountable under Iraqi or U.S. law. Wednesday’s hearing on private contractors began with testimony from the relatives of the four Blackwater contractors who were brutally murdered in Fallujah in March of 2004. After being shot, the men’s bodies were dragged through the streets and mutilated. Two of the corpses were strung from a bridge. The families of the four men are now suing Blackwater, alleging the men were sent into Fallujah unprepared.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A day before the men died, a co-worker wrote an email to company officials, urging them to send new equipment to Iraq. The content of the email was released yesterday. It read, in part, “I need new vehicles… I need Ammo… I need Glocks and M4s… all the client body armor you got… Guys are in the field with borrowed stuff and in harm’s way.”

Henry Waxman, the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, questioned Blackwater’s general counsel about the email.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Three issues and questions: whether the vehicles were hardened sufficiently to protect them, whether they had the ammunition and equipment needed to protect themselves, and thirdly, the question also is whether they had a third person to be a tail gunner. Can you tell us whether they had what they needed in all three of those areas?

ANDREW HOWELL: Yes, sir. With regards to the armored vehicle question, there was certainly desire to have some sort of armored vehicles on this project, meaning the ESS project as a whole, but, again, it doesn’t follow therefrom that each mission involved an armored vehicle, and, in fact, close review of the contracts reveal that it was specifically contemplated that there would be other vehicles, which had had some sort of protection added, that would be used on the project. Beyond that, the armored vehicle question, the vehicle that they went out in that day was believed appropriate, based on the mission, by everyone involved, or the mission, I don’t believe that it would have been carried out at that point. And the armored vehicle, whether it would have affected the events of that day is another question.

With regard to the third person, the protocol for the type of mission the men were on that day — and, again, we’re bordering on things that could place — could involve operational security of not only our folks, but service members — the mission they were on that day, at that point in time, given the threat as it was known on the ground in Iraq, the norm was not to have the third person.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Well, Mr. Powell, obviously, in his email was expressing concern. I guess my general question is when Blackwater sends private forces into a war zone, do you have an obligation to equip them adequately? And I assume you would have to say yes. Then, my next question is, did Blackwater meet this obligation in Fallujah?

ANDREW HOWELL: Yes, we did.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: I just want to conclude by reading this quote again, but “Guys are in this field with borrowed stuff and in harm’s way with a client which I’m very uncomfortable with, given the upcoming events, with 5 million Shia moving into Karbala in five days. I have requested hard cars from the beginning and from my understanding, an order is still pending.” Why, I ask?

AMY GOODMAN: Henry Waxman, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, questioning Andrew Howell, the general counsel for Blackwater. Wednesday’s hearing began with testimony from Katy Helvenston. Her son Scott was killed in Fallujah. We’ll come back to her after break. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Wednesday’s hearing began with testimony from Katy Helvenston. Her son Scott Helvenston was one of the four Blackwater employees killed in Fallujah. Katy joins us now from Washington, D.C. With us here in our firehouse studio is Jeremy Scahill. He’s a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute and author of the forthcoming book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Before we go to Katy, Jeremy, can you just talk about the significance of this hearing that was chaired by Henry Waxman in Washington yesterday?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, this was an extraordinary development in a story that really began on March 31, 2004, when the four Blackwater private soldiers were ambushed and killed in Fallujah, some of their lifeless bodies hung from a bridge, and it was really a moment that turned the war. The Iraqi resistance exploded. The U.S. laid siege to Fallujah, killing hundreds and hundreds of people, displacing tens of thousands of others, destroying some 90,000 buildings inside the city of Fallujah. And it really defined the era that now exists in Iraq.

And an extraordinary thing that has come of this is that the families of these four men who were killed, on the one hand, yes, they hold the Iraqis who killed their loved ones responsible, but more than that, they hold Blackwater responsible. They say that their men were sent in there without appropriate armor, personnel, weapons. Well, three years later, they are still in the process of suing Blackwater. Blackwater hasn’t turned any documents over to them and refuses to give them any answers as to what happened that day.

And yesterday was yet another extraordinary turn of events. Blackwater was essentially pulled kicking and screaming in front of Henry Waxman’s committee. See, Blackwater enjoyed this Republican monopoly on government for so long. They kept them away from these kinds of hearings, for the most part. And yesterday, they were finally forced to face their accusers for the first time. And Blackwater’s legal counsel, Andrew Howell, was in the gallery during the testimony of Katy Helvenston and others.

Just one point, this really — what we’ve seen — is an undeclared surge over the last several years, where the Bush administration has deployed some 100,000 contractors. According to the Government Accountability Office, 48,000 people work for private security firms in Iraq. I would call them mercenary firms. And so, really, as Congress debates the surge, we have this undeclared surge. And what we really saw yesterday was a human face on the real crisis that has been created with this unprecedented privatization agenda in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the very Republican-connected firm, Blackwater. Actually, that was an issue in yesterday’s hearing.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, the Republicans sort of, rather than really paying close attention to what the relatives of these four men killed were saying, chose to focus on sort of two primary things: One, they were accusing the law firm, Callahan & Blaine from Santa Ana, California, that represents these four families in the lawsuit against Blackwater, of being some kind of Democrat powerhouse law firm, and what’s ironic about it is that Dan Callahan, the owner of the firm, has actually given more money to Republicans than Democrats; and then the second thing that they focus on, they called it a legislative show trial and a sort of payola scheme, where somehow Dan Callahan had orchestrated this hearing, because he has given $3,000 to Democratic candidates.

But then, the other side of it is that several congresspeople tried to make the point with Blackwater, you know, ’You’re accused by the lawyers for these families of being an extremely Republican company,’ and, of course, Andy Howell said, ’That’s not true. We have people of all political stripes.’ Well, I’ve obtained the campaign finance records of the leading figures at Blackwater. They have just given beaucoup bucks to Republican campaigns, never a penny to a Democrat, but money to the Green Party to defeat Democrats. So there’s no question. Blackwater is as Republican and right-wing Republican as a company could get, and basically their heyday is over. Henry Waxman is the chair of this committee, and, you know, when they say to him it’s classified information, Waxman points out to them he’s the congressman and they are the private company.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Katy Helvenston in Washington, you were among the family members who gave powerful testimony in the hearing yesterday. What did you tell the members of Congress, and how did you feel they responded to your concerns?

KATY HELVENSTON: I feel, generally speaking, they responded very well. There was one gentleman — I’m not sure what state he was from — he definitely gave me a hard time, and I didn’t appreciate it too much.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I think that was Chris Shays of Connecticut.

KATY HELVENSTON: Well, no. Actually, no, Chris Shays was actually — he gave me a little bit of a hard time, but it was the guy, the dark-headed guy. I don’t know where he was from.

AMY GOODMAN: Katy Helvenston, are you referring to Darrell Issa from California —


AMY GOODMAN: — who raised some questions about your testimony?

KATY HELVENSTON: Yes, that’s his name. Had a short night. I apologize for my voice. I’ve got laryngitis, so just bear with me.

AMY GOODMAN: Katy, can you talk about why you testified and why you’re suing Blackwater USA?

KATY HELVENSTON: Well, my ultimate goal is —- it’s definitely not the money. I will not receive a penny. I would like to make sure that Blackwater never gets another government contract. And -—


KATY HELVENSTON: They’re corrupt. They do not care for their employees’ lives. Every decision they make is based on the dollar. And for every employee that dies, they’re replaced by 10 more within minutes, others standing in line to take these jobs, not knowing the harm’s way that they are going to be put in.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, Darrell Issa taking on these family members who lost loved ones in Fallujah, the four Blackwater employee families; explain what happened.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, what happened is that Representative Jan Schakowsky, who really has been one of the leading proponents of implementing some sort of system of contractor oversight and reform, is not on the committee, but she was allowed to sit in on the hearings. And during the course of his questioning, Darrell Issa chose to make his sort of prize issue at the beginning who wrote the statement that Katy Helvenston delivered during the hearing yesterday. And the statement, of course, was a compilation of the thoughts of all four of the families and then was pulled together, but what Issa was saying is, 'Your lawyer wrote this for you, didn't he?’ And so, Jan Schakowsky objected to that, and she said, you know, 'This is basically reprehensible that you would suggest that these four women wouldn't be able to put together their own statement,’ and she basically condemned his statement. But while she was condemning Issa’s statement — Issa had left the room — he kept coming in and out, in and out. And so, he wasn’t even there to hear the entirety of Jan Schakowsky’s remarks. So he flies back into the room after an aide tells him that Schakowsky had said something about him, and without knowing exactly what she had said, he erroneously characterizes what Jan Schakowsky had actually said about him and then demands that Schakowsky’s remarks be struck from the record — stricken from the record.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Katy Helvenston, when Congressman Kucinich questioned the attorney for Blackwater about the killing of an Iraqi security guard in the Green Zone, to what degree have the families been at least attempting to unearth some of this information that you’ve gotten and passing it on to these members of Congress so that they have some knowledge, basic knowledge, of what’s going on?

KATY HELVENSTON: Well, I was made aware of the murder a couple days after Christmas. It was kind of strange, because they were type-written letters — they weren’t computer — and I had no idea who was sending it to me. And, you know, I passed it on. This Blackwater employee shot this Iraqi guard 11 times, and it turned out he was security for the vice president of Iraq. And I was told that this employee of Blackwater was just whisked out of the country, never to be seen from since. I was amazed that there was only one article, that I was aware of, that addressed this. No one else would address it. And I was so pleased that it got out in testimony yesterday — it is now a matter of record — because I really thought they were going to succeed just sweeping it under the rug.

JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, Amy and Juan, this is actually a very important development in this story. Bill Sizemore of The Virginian-Pilot was the reporter who really stuck his neck out and published this. There were a number of us working on the story, but we weren’t able to confirm from official sources, and only through unofficial sources, that it was, in fact, a Blackwater contractor involved. And so, when Congressman Kucinich rushed in at the very end of the hearing, he submitted that Virginian-Pilot article for the record, and then he asked — so, mind you, no one has actually confirmed, other than through unnamed unofficial sources that it was a Blackwater contractor that shot an Iraqi guard in Baghdad on December 24th — and so, Kucinich asks Howell if he’s aware of it — and we heard the clip earlier — and it was the confirmation that all of us, all the journalists, had been looking for from Blackwater, and we had been being stonewalled. The Blackwater spokespeople had been saying, “No comment. No comment.” And so, now Blackwater’s own legal counsel — you should have seen the lobbyists, when this happened, squirming in their seats when Andrew Howell confirmed what Blackwater has been stonewalling all these weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: And the circumstances of this murder?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, we don’t know. I mean, it’s very shady right now. What we understand from a mixture of the news reports, the U.S. Embassy, and now Andrew Howell, is that this individual, this Blackwater contractor, was allegedly off duty. We understand there may have been some alcohol involved with it. And as Katy says, the reports indicate that he may have shot this Iraqi guard as many as 11 times.

But what’s important for people to understand is that there’s no statute of limitations on murder in the United States. And what the U.S. has done is totally gutted Iraqi law. So the Iraqi government, we understand, wanted to go after this guy and prosecute him. He killed a security guard for — a senior Iraqi official, allegedly. And so when the Iraqi government started making rumblings that they potentially would prosecute him, well, he gets whisked out of the country by Blackwater. And, you know, Kucinich asks, is he going to be extradited to Iraq for murder? Andy Howell fumbles through — “I am not law enforcement” — mentions something about the FBI.

See, this is the very heart of what’s wrong with the privatization of this war right now. There is a culture of impunity in Iraq. These guys are killed, and their numbers don’t get counted. And they kill people, and they don’t get prosecuted.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Katy Helvenston, for being with us, mother of Scott, who was killed in Fallujah, one of the four whose story was shown all over the world.

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