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Author and DN! Correspondent Jeremy Scahill Testifies in Landmark House Hearing on Defense Contracting

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There are over 120,000 private contractors currently deployed in Iraq and yesterday, a House panel put some of the harshest criticisms of this privatization of war into the congressional record for the first time. Democracy Now! correspondent and The Nation magazine investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill testified before a House appropriations hearing on defense contracting. Scahill is author of the 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: There are over 120,000 private contractors currently deployed in Iraq, and yesterday a House panel put some of the harshest criticisms of this privatization of the war into the congressional record for the first time. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense held a hearing on Thursday about defense contracting. Testifying before the panel was journalist Jeremy Scahill and filmmaker Robert Greenwald. Jeremy is an investigative reporter for The Nation magazine, author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and a former producer here at Democracy Now! In his opening remarks, he spoke about the lack of oversight of the tens of thousands of contractors deployed in Iraq.

JEREMY SCAHILL: At a time when the administration seems unwilling to subject its war strategy to oversight by the Congress, we face the widespread use of private forces seemingly accountable to no effective system of oversight or law. While tens of thousands of these contractors provide logistical support services for the military, thousands are heavily armed private soldiers roaming Iraq. We do know that there are 48,000 employees of private military companies in Iraq alone. These forces work for U.S. companies like Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp, as well as companies from across the globe. Some contractors make in a month what many active-duty soldiers make in a year. Indeed, there are private contractors in Iraq who make more money than the secretary of defense or the commanding generals.

The testimony about private contractors that I hear most often from active-duty soldiers falls into two categories: resentment and envy. They ask what message their country is sending them. While many soldiers lack basic protective equipment, facts well-known to this committee, they’re in a war zone where they see the private soldiers. They whiz by in better vehicles, better armor, better weapons, wearing the corporate logo instead of the American flag, and pulling in much more money. They ask, “Are our lives worth less?” Of course, there are many cases where contractors have horded the profits at the top, and money is not filtered down to the contractors on the ground or armor to protect them, and we can discuss that later.

The second reaction I hear from active-duty soldiers is that they see what they refer to as these rock star private contractors, and they want to be like them. So we have a phenomenon of soldiers leaving the active-duty military to jump over to the private sector. There’s now slang on the ground in Iraq for this jump; it’s called “going Blackwater.” To put it bluntly, these private forces create a system where national duty is outbid by profits, and yet these forces are being used for mission-critical activities. Indeed, in January, General David Petraeus admitted that on his last tour in Iraq he himself was protected by private contract security.

Just as there’s a double standard in pay, there’s a double standard in the application of the law. Soldiers who commit crimes or acts of misconduct are prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There have been some 64 courts-martial on murder-related charges alone in Iraq. Compare that to the lack of prosecution of contractors. Despite the fact that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of contractors have gone in and out of Iraq since March of 2003, only two have faced any criminal prosecution. Two. One was a KBR employee alleged to have stabbed a co-worker in a kitchen. The other pled guilty to possession of child pornography images on his computer at Abu Ghraib prison.

In four years, there have been no prosecutions for crimes against Iraqis committed by contractors and not a single known prosecution of an armed contractor. That either means that we have tens of thousands of boy scouts working as armed contractors or something is fundamentally wrong with the system.

Brigadier General Karl Horst of the First Infantry Division became so outraged by contractor unaccountability that he began tracking contractor violence in Baghdad. In just two months, General Horst documented 12 cases of contractors shooting at civilians that resulted in six deaths and three injuries, and that’s just two months and one general. They have not been prosecuted under the UCMJ. They have not been prosecuted under U.S. civilian law. They have not been prosecuted under Iraqi law. U.S. contractors in Iraq reportedly have their own motto: “What happens here today stays here today.” That should be chilling to everyone who believes that warfare, above all government functions, must be subject to transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

These are forces operating in the name of the United States of America. Iraqis do not see contractors as separate from soldiers. Understandably, they see them all as the occupation. Contractor misconduct is viewed as American misconduct.

While there’s currently a debate in this Congress about how to hold these private forces accountable, the political will to act remains shockingly absent. Given the vast size of this private force spread across the most dangerous war zone in the world, it is not at all clear how effective oversight would work. We already know that auditors cannot visit many reconstruction sites because of security concerns. Journalists are locked in the Green Zone. The Army is stretched to the max. So what entity then is supposed to have the capacity or the ability to oversee the men who have been brought to Iraq to go where no one else will?

Members of Congress tell me they’ve been stonewalled in attempts to gain detailed information about the activities of these private contractors. I think it’s a disturbing commentary that I’ve received phone calls from members of Congress asking me for documents on the contractors, and not the other way around. In the current discussion in the Congress on this issue, what is seldom discussed is how this system, the privatization of war, has both encouraged and enabled the growth and creation of companies who have benefited and stand to gain even more from an escalation of the war.

In closing, while I think this Congress needs to take urgent action on issues of oversight, accountability and transparency of these private forces operating with our tax dollars and in the name of the United States, there’s a deeper issue that often gets overlooked. This war contracting system has intimately linked corporate profits to an escalation of war and conflict. These companies have no incentive to decrease their footprint in the war zone and every incentive to increase it. As the country debates current and future Iraq policy, Congress owes it to the American people to take down the curtain of secrecy surrounding these shadow forces that often act in the name and on the payroll of the people of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, testifying before Congress. We’ll go back to that testimony after break.


AMY GOODMAN: We return now to Jeremy Scahill, the journalist testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on Thursday. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald also testified. After their opening remarks, lawmakers had a chance to question them. This is Republican Congressmember Jack Kingston of Georgia.

REP. JACK KINGSTON: I want to ask Mr. Scahill something. You have described Erik Prince — I’m going to quote you directly — “The man behind this empire is Erik Prince, a secretive conservative Christian, ex-Navy SEAL, multimillionaire who bankrolls the President and his allies with major campaign contributions.” Now, I guess, is it your premise that because Blackwater has contributed heavily to the president that maybe (a) that’s how they got the job, (b) that’s how they can charge what they charge, and (c) that’s why there’s no oversight, or (d) all of the above?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, no. I mean, I think, first of all, Blackwater is a company that has very deep connections in U.S. intelligence, in the military. It does indeed have political connections to the White House. I do think it also has — it’s viewed, I think, in some official circles as being a very forward-thinking company that provides very innovative services. I think it’s a combination of the political connections of the company and the kinds of services that it provides. Mr. Prince likes to refer to Blackwater as the Federal Express of the national security apparatus.

What I find concerning is the fact that not only is Mr. Prince a significant contributor to several of the campaign causes of Republicans who are in influential positions, particularly in the years of the Republican-controlled Congress, as well as to the White House, but he has deep connections to some of the religious right organizations that have come to a position of prominence in this country. I think this is a company that embodies a lot of what President Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address in 1961.

REP. JACK KINGSTON: Let me ask you now, being a conservative Christian, there’s a problem with that?

JEREMY SCAHILL: No. There’s no problem with being a conservative Christian. The problem —

REP. JACK KINGSTON: Well, you said now — you said — I mean, you’re saying he gives money to the Republican causes, and then you say to the religious right, and I’m having trouble connecting that.

JEREMY SCAHILL: OK. Well, let’s unpack that a little bit. I have an issue —

REP. JACK KINGSTON: I want to give you an opportunity to — when you say a guy’s secretive, which is, you know, derogatory. “Multimillionaire who bankrolls the president” is derogatory. And then you put that he’s a conservative Christian. I want to just, you know, give you an opportunity to explain yourself.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I have a concern when someone is running a company that’s being tasked with mission-critical activities in a Muslim country who’s a board member of an organization that believes that the Bible is the only infallible word of God. I have a problem with a company whose — one of its senior executives is an open member of the Military Order of Malta, a Christian militia dating back to the first Crusades. Our president has used that term “crusade.” I think it’s disturbing.

REP. JACK KINGSTON: Well, let me claim my time here now. So you wouldn’t want a Christian running it. Would you want somebody who’s Jewish? Because, you know, as you know, probably if Iraq —

JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s not about the individual religion, Mr. Kingston.


JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s not about the religion. It’s about the politics —

REP. JACK KINGSTON: I didn’t bring religion —

JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s about the politics of his —

REP. JACK KINGSTON: Reclaiming the time, I didn’t bring religion up. You brought it up. You put here that he’s a conservative Christian, and then you just stated the reason why you have concern about it. And I can understand what you’re saying. But I would also say if Iraq falls, it’s quite likely Israel would be next in line. And so, you know, there would be concern from, you know, our Jewish neighbors over there that — so I just was a little perplexed here.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Congressmember Jack Kingston of Georgia went on to ask Jeremy Scahill about the laws governing contractors in war, when he was interrupted by Democratic Congressmember Norm Dicks of Washington.

REP. NORM DICKS: One of your statements, it said that Bremer gave a blanket waiver of immunity to these companies against being brought under Iraqi law.

JEREMY SCAHILL: It was an edict that was issued by Ambassador Bremer —

REP. NORM DICKS: Why would they do that?

JEREMY SCAHILL: — called Order 17. It was issued the day before he left Baghdad in June of 2004, and it granted sweeping immunity to all contractors under Iraqi law at a time when he was allegedly handing over sovereignty to an Iraqi government. I thought it was a strange definition of sovereignty to basically de-fang the judicial system in Iraq.

REP. JACK KINGSTON: Perhaps that could be one of the things that we can look at. What would be — and I think that’s — that I didn’t know about this. What else would you say?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, I think that ultimately what we need to do is de-link corporate profits from an escalation of conflict. I think we need to pass effective anti-mercenary legislation. The nation of South Africa, for instance, last summer passed anti-mercenary legislation that I think could be studied by the U.S. Congress. Of course, the African continent has been rampaged by mercenaries for so many decades, and I think that we could learn a lot from our South African brothers and sisters in what they did in their Parliament last summer.

I also think, though, that we need to get at the heart of a system that encourages the linking of war and profits. Let me ask you, Mr. Kingston, do you believe that it’s right to have some of these private contractors being paid more than the secretary of defense?

REP. JACK KINGSTON: I actually, believe it or not, don’t believe people in government should be in it for money, because, believe it or not, most of us here are here for ideological reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Congressmember Kingston of Georgia questioning Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Jeremy is traveling around the country. You can see where he’ll be at That was testimony before a House subcommittee yesterday in Washington, D.C.

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