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Can Iraq (or Anyone) Hold Blackwater Accountable for Killing Iraqi Civilians? A Debate on the Role of Private Contractors in Iraq

StorySeptember 18, 2007
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As the Iraq government expels Blackwater over the killing of 11 Iraqi civilians, Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” debates Doug Brooks, president of International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for the private security industry. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration is trying to stop the Iraqi government from banning the private military firm Blackwater. Iraqi officials say they’ve revoked Blackwater’s license over a deadly shooting that killed up to 11 civilians. Witnesses say Blackwater guards fired indiscriminately after a car bomb exploded near their convoy. Blackwater is denying wrongdoing and says its guards properly responded to an ambush from insurgents. But Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani called the shootings “a big crime that we can’t be silent about.”

U.S. officials have already gone into overdrive to prevent the banning of Blackwater in Iraq. On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and vowed an investigation. But the Iraqi government appears to be holding ground. Earlier today, Maliki’s Cabinet said it supports the ban and will review the legal status of all private military companies working in Iraq.

The shootout is only Blackwater’s latest controversy in Iraq. The North Carolina-based firm operates under a multi-million-dollar contract to protect U.S. officials and facilities. It’s been allowed close to free reign under a murky legal environment that offers little to no oversight over its operations.

The author and independent journalist Jeremy Scahill has been closely following Blackwater. He is the author of the New York Times best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Jeremy joins us here in New York at our firehouse studio.

Joining us from Washington, D.C., is Doug Brooks. He’s president of International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for the private security industry. Blackwater is a founding member.

Let’s begin with Doug Brooks. Can you tell us at this point what you know?

DOUG BROOKS: We don’t know a whole lot. We’ve been hearing a lot of different rumors about what exactly happened. But as near as we can tell, there was some sort of ambush in the middle of Baghdad. One vehicle was disabled, but eventually extracted. But there was a firefight that lasted some 20 minutes in the middle of Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know who it was that the Blackwater was protecting?

DOUG BROOKS: We’re not sure. I believe it’s State Department, I think, has been what’s been reported, but I’m not sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, can you respond to the Iraqi government saying they’re throwing Blackwater out? And the latest news is that it looks like they may be looking at the contracts of all of the security companies.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, clearly, Nouri al-Maliki made the mistake of believing that there is a sovereign Iraqi government for about 15 minutes over the past 24 hours, and it appears now that there’s a real diplomatic shuffle going on. Condoleezza Rice called Nouri al-Maliki ostensibly to apologize, but it does seem that the U.S. is putting a tremendous amount of pressure on the Iraqi government not to expel Blackwater.

And, you know, what’s important to understand about this is that Blackwater is a relatively small player, in terms of numbers in Iraq. They have about a thousand operatives on the ground inside of the country. But symbolically, this is of enormous importance, because Blackwater is the official mercenary company of the U.S. government. They protect the senior U.S. officials in Iraq, the U.S. ambassador. My understanding is that it was a chief of mission operation that they were protecting yesterday, which could mean that it was a very senior U.S. official that the principal or the noun, so to speak.

But we also have to say, there’s nothing new here. Iraqis for four years have been terrorized by these mercenaries, who ride around the country, and they’ll do anything to keep their ever-important U.S. lives protected, even if it means shooting Iraqi civilians. And so, if Iraq does follow through on this and expel Blackwater, it would be an extraordinary development.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your response to Iraq announcing that they’re going to throw out Blackwater, Doug Brooks?

DOUG BROOKS: Well, there has to be a process. There is — the Ministry of Interior has sort of been set up several times. There’s a licensing process that’s incredibly arcane, and right now it takes, what, nine months to get a six-month license, which means you have to apply actually for renewal before your license is even approved. And the Ministry of Interior has had some real problems. And so, we’re not quite sure what’s behind this whole thing.

But I think these companies are providing a valuable service. I think this terminology of “mercenaries” — I think if you’re a serious researcher, you wouldn’t use it. There’s a clear international definition of what a mercenary is. These companies are not mercenary. They operate legally. They operate under rules and regulations. And that’s as it should be.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Doug, let me just respond to that. Blackwater, which, of course, is a member company of your association, doesn’t just have former Navy SEALs, Delta Force, special forces operators. They’ve hired Colombian soldiers, Chilean soldiers. In fact, Chile is very interesting, Doug, because the Chilean government is actually opposed to the occupation of Iraq. They refused to join the so-called Coalition of the Willing, and Blackwater turns around and hires up these Chileans and deploys them in Iraq. It’s the very essence of being a mercenary. In fact, it’s Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, it’s his definition of “mercenary,” which is a professional soldier who serves a foreign power, and so the fact — for money. And the fact of the matter is that Blackwater has hired up soldiers from countries around the world whose home governments are opposed to the war. They are mercenaries. Blackwater is a mercenary company.

DOUG BROOKS: May I respond? I actually met some of the Chileans while I was in Baghdad and had a good talk with them. I mean, some of them are mechanics. Some of them are drivers for the vehicles. Many of them had been there for several years, basically paying off their houses and paying for their wives’ educations, and so on. I mean, it’s an individual option to do this kind of work. It’s security work. It’s stability —

JEREMY SCAHILL: And they’re not mercenaries — because they’re paying their houses off, that doesn’t make them mercenaries?

DOUG BROOKS: No, because there’s an international definition of what a mercenary is. And these are clearly not. These are legitimate entities working over there, and they’re valuable. Essentially, you need these sorts of —

AMY GOODMAN: Doug Brooks, let me ask —


AMY GOODMAN: What is your definition of a mercenary? What’s the international definition?

DOUG BROOKS: It’s a derogatory — well, it’s a derogatory term. Basically, the international definition, and there’s like six parts that weigh into it, but essentially you have to be —- to be a mercenary, you cannot have been sent by a government, you cannot be a party of the actual conflict, you cannot be from a country that’s a party of the actual conflict, your primary motivation has to be money. It’s -—

JEREMY SCAHILL: Exactly what the Chileans working for Blackwater are, Doug.

DOUG BROOKS: Well, no, because, in fact, they are civilians. And I think one of the real distinctions we need to make is these are private security companies; they are not military companies. There are different rules for the military than there are for the civilians. The military has something called “rules of engagement.” They’re secret. Essentially it says that it allows the military to be proactive in their responses or in their offensive operations. For the security companies, they have something called “rules for use of force,” RUF. It’s quite different, quite a bit more restrictive, and it essentially boils — it’s public, and it boils down to three things: they’re allowed to protect themselves, they’re allowed to protect whatever they’ve been contracted to protect, and they’re allowed to protect Iraqi civilians under mortal threat. And that’s it.

JEREMY SCAHILL: And so often they’re also shooting Iraqi civilians. I find it amazing, Doug, that you continue to refer to these heavily armed mercenaries in Iraq as civilians. They are hardly civilians. And there’s nothing defensive about what Blackwater is doing in Iraq. Erik Prince’s men are at the vanguard of an offensive occupation. You cannot get more offensive than occupying someone else’s country. And every time Blackwater engages in a firefight, it’s not because the Iraqis are just walking up and shooting at Blackwater. It’s because Blackwater is occupying the country along with the U.S. military.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have some rules here. We have to break for stations to identify themselves, 60 seconds, and then we’ll be back with our guests: Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, and Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about the latest news, Iraqi government saying they’re throwing Blackwater out of Iraq, we’re joined by two people, by Doug Brooks, who heads the International Peace Operation Association, representing companies like Blackwater, which is a founding member, and also Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

I want to talk about the history of Blackwater in Iraq. Jeremy Scahill, let’s begin with you.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think that most people in the world first learned of Blackwater USA on March 31st, 2004, when four Blackwater operatives were ambushed and killed in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Their bodies were burned, they were dragged through the streets, strung up from a bridge over the Euphrates River. And the Bush administration responded to that attack by leveling Fallujah and destroying the city. In fact, it was the first of a number of sieges against the city of Fallujah, and it really fueled the Iraqi resistance that haunts the occupation to this day. That was the first time that many people heard of any kind of a private security or private military company, a mercenary company, operating in Iraq.

And Blackwater has been at the center of a number of pivotal moments in Iraq. In fact, I don’t know that there’s any other private entity that’s had more of an influence on events on the ground in Iraq than Blackwater. A few days after that Fallujah ambush, Blackwater operatives engaged in an all-out firefight with supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr in the Iraqi city of Najaf on April 4, 2004, once again putting Blackwater in the center of major developments in Iraq.

And then in the past year, there have been a number of incidents that not only have impacted Iraqi civilians, but have caused tensions between Baghdad and Washington. Last Christmas Eve, an off-duty Blackwater contractor allegedly shot and killed a body guard for the Shiite vice president of Iraq, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, and the Iraqis are calling that a murder. Blackwater responded to that incident by, they say, firing the contractor and then whisking him out of the country. They say that they were told to do so by the U.S. government. To my knowledge, that individual has not been prosecuted. Blackwater says that they’re cooperating with the Justice Department in an investigation over that incident, but we’re talking about — I mean, imagine if an Iraqi killed a bodyguard for Dick Cheney at a Christmas party somewhere. I mean, what kind of outrage would there be? And the Iraqis actually kept this under wraps, because they felt that if they had released this story and that it became public in Iraq, that it would so outrage the population. How is it that an American can murder a bodyguard for the vice president of the country, and apparently nothing happens to them?

Then in May, there were back-to-back firefights involving Blackwater on a street outside of the Interior Ministry that drew in U.S. forces and Iraqi forces, as well. That also caused an enormous amount of tension between Baghdad and Washington. And then we had this incident that happened over the weekend, where we understand eight, as many as 11, perhaps, people were killed in yet another firefight. So Blackwater clearly has been at the center of some very violent moments in Iraq and also appears to be creating some cracks between Washington and Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: Doug Brooks, we tried to get Blackwater on; they didn’t respond to emails or calls. But who does Blackwater answer to? Under what laws do they operate?

DOUG BROOKS: Well, essentially, they’re contracted by the U.S. government, so they have both — they can be held accountable contractually. They can be penalized contractually. Their contract can be revoked. After that, you have individual-level accountability. And at this point, they are now under UCMJ, but they’re also under MEJA, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which essentially says that a person working for a contractor can be brought back to the United States and tried for a felony. Interestingly, it also applies to other nationalities, not including local nationals. So there’s that clause, as well.

This is something that our industry, that IPOA, has actually been working on to improve. The better the accountability, the better it is for our industry. We have companies working around the world. We have companies working in Darfur. We have companies working in Afghanistan. We have companies in Mogadishu, where the U.S. government doesn’t even have their own people. So it’s important that this accountability aspect be addressed, and we need to look towards the future on this, because we are going to be using contractors in the future. It’s a critical element to not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to peace operations for the U.N. and Haiti and Congo, and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, right now in Iraq there are about 180,000 U.S. contractors, according to the Los Angeles Times, operating alongside 165,000 to 175,000 U.S. troops, which is an enormous force. It’s one that the Bush administration does not publicly own. The fact that the U.S. has almost 400,000 personnel occupying Iraq is almost never mentioned by any U.S. government officials. General David Petraeus himself —

DOUG BROOKS: If I can weigh in on that point at some point —

JEREMY SCAHILL: General David Petraeus himself said that basically contractors are essential to the survival of the U.S. occupation. So the private sector now is dwarfing the size of the official U.S. military presence in Iraq. And Doug talks about all of these laws under —

DOUG BROOKS: Could I clarify that?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Hold on a second, Doug. Doug talks about all of these —

DOUG BROOKS: Before you move onto another point, could I clarify the numbers issue?

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Doug Brooks. The numbers.

DOUG BROOKS: There’s 180,000 — we’ll accept the number of 180,000 contractors. But keep in mind, most of those are Iraqis, the kind of people you expect or would hope would be doing the security and reconstruction. Also keep in mind, of the 180,000, many of them are doing the reconstruction, where it’s not actually supporting the military operation.

JEREMY SCAHILL: This is one of the grotesque realities of the Iraq War. It’s very similar to the way multinational corporations operate, where at the top you have the executives of Nike and Disney reaping the profits, and then you hire sweatshop labor on the ground and say, “Oh, well, we’re helping the local economy.” And that’s exactly what these private war companies are doing in Iraq.

But I wanted to respond to what Doug is saying about the accountability issue. Yes, there’s a law on the books called the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which, in theory, provides for the prosecution of contractors who commit a crime in a foreign war zone back inside of the United States. And then, because of a change in language last year to the Defense Authorization Act, there “in theory” is the ability to prosecute contractors who work for the Department of Defense under the court-martial system. But the fact of the matter is that we’ve had tens of thousands of mercenaries go in and out of Iraq; not a single one has been prosecuted for any crimes against an Iraqi. So either we have tens of thousands of mercenaries running around Iraq who are actually Boy Scouts, or something is fundamentally rotten with the system.

And I personally, Doug, do not have faith in the Bush administration’s Justice Department to go after these crony corporations of the administration. I mean, we see the politicization of the Justice Department. Do we really believe that they’re going to go after Erik Prince’s men in Baghdad?

DOUG BROOKS: I think we should separate out this other political aspect, because essentially these contractors have been working in support of U.S. missions long before the Bush administration. We had 700,000 contractors in World War II. We had 80,000 contractors in Vietnam. And in Bosnia, we had more contractors than soldiers. So we’ve had these contractors there. It doesn’t really matter who the administration is. The contractors bring amazing capacity and capability. My own academic research was in Sierra Leone. There was a handful of contractors supporting the U.N. peacekeeping operation there in 1999 and 2000, when I was there.

AMY GOODMAN: Doug Brooks, let me ask you a question.

DOUG BROOKS: Everything that was moved or fixed or done was being done by contractors. I think that they play a critical role.

AMY GOODMAN: Doug Brooks, can Iraq throw Blackwater out?

DOUG BROOKS: It’s a good question, because of — currently under Iraqi law, which a lot of it comes from the CPA, is Order 17, which essentially says that the companies, as long as the individuals are on duty, they’re actually under U.S. law. So there’s some question as to whether — what the process would be and how the Iraqis would do it. So I really can’t answer.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, the reality here is that every time Iraq has made any kind of noise about prosecuting contractors, the contractors are whisked out. It becomes a major discussion between Washington and Baghdad diplomats. And the fact of the matter is, this is solid proof. There is no sovereignty in Iraq of the government at all. The U.S. gutted out the Iraqi legal system, made it virtually impossible for Iraqis to hold accountable murderers and thugs inside of the country who are foreign operatives. And so, when the Bush administration talks about how great everything is going in Baghdad, we have to remember that when U.S. mercenaries shoot Iraqis, the Iraqis are basically powerless to stop them.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip from CNN. Blackwater, of course, is denying the wrongdoing. This clip from CNN yesterday was senior producer Suzanne Simons, who apparently is writing a book on Blackwater. She appeared shortly after you, Jeremy, were interviewed about the shooting.

SUZANNE SIMONS: Now, I’m told by the source that no civilians were actually killed in this incident at all, that all of the people killed were people who were firing on this convoy. And there are even some early reports that some of those people were wearing bits and pieces of Iraqi police uniforms.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Suzanne Simons, a CNN senior producer. That’s what she was identified as. And she had only originally said that she had a high-level industry source. And that’s who her sources were.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, I think this is part of also a long tradition of CNN, on behalf of the U.S. government, engaging in spin. I mean, what does it mean, “a top industry source”? I’m not even sure what that phrase means. And, you know, they’re basically saying, “Well, we believe” —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, she said — what she did later say is that you have to take what the Iraqi government says with a grain of salt. She, instead, had high-level industry sources.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, I think this also goes back to the point I was trying to make early on. I think Iraqi officials were under the mistaken impression that they have some degree of sovereignty, and now Condoleezza Rice clearly is reading the Riot Act to the Maliki government.

AMY GOODMAN: What does this mean, Doug Brooks, right now? Not just that Blackwater — Iraq is saying, “We’ll throw Blackwater out,” but now they’re reviewing all of the security companies. What would it mean if Iraq did try to throw Blackwater out? How do they do it?

DOUG BROOKS: It’s a good question. The reconstruction of a state is — it can be sort of a messy affair. And we see that certainly with the Ministry of Interior and all the problems they’ve had. I mean, as I mentioned, the whole licensing system is a big problem. And, you know, we’ve had constant issues, the State Department has had constant issues with the Ministry of Interior. And I think you, on your own show — and I listen to it on WPFW every morning — you’ve talked about some of the problems that they’ve had at the Ministry of Interior. So I think there’s a lot of internal issues that have to be sorted out.

In terms of their legal system, maybe Jeremy thinks that it’s a lot further along in reconstruction than most people, but you wonder if there would be due process for anybody who’s put into the Iraqi legal system.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Doug, what’s the due process for the Iraqis that are gunned down by mercenary companies in Iraq? Where’s the due process for the victims of Blackwater and other mercenary companies that you represent?

DOUG BROOKS: There is clear rules for use of force. And when you’re in Iraq and you are with these vehicles and military convoys — of course, there’s many more of those — you see how the Iraqis behave around them. You allow a lot of space between the convoys and the civilians. And that has to be that way, because you have essentially the insurgency that’s using suicide vehicle born improvised explosive devices, so they can move up right next to the convoys and detonate them. So there’s a clear sign on all these — you’re operating in a war zone. You’re not going to have sort of a perfect society. And that’s an unfortunate reality.

JEREMY SCAHILL: A perfect society, Doug? I’m asking you what’s the due process.

DOUG BROOKS: That applies to both the military and it applies to civilians, as well.

JEREMY SCAHILL: You’re primarily concerned with U.S. lives. U.S. lives are superior to Iraqi lives, and when Iraqis commit the horrible crime of driving their vehicles and get killed, where’s the due process for them?

DOUG BROOKS: No, I disagree on that point.

JEREMY SCAHILL: It doesn’t exist.

DOUG BROOKS: I think, because, keep in mind, most of the employees of the security companies, most of the employees of the contractors, are Iraqis, as well. And one of the key issues of the industry is actually being able to get their people out of Iraq when they’re threatened by insurgents.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring in something here. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has joined the call for all contracts of foreign security firms to be annulled. He blamed the Iraqi government for failing to protect the Iraqis, noting the shootings occurred on a busy square filled with Iraqi troops. Could this lead to more war?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, this is interesting, because Muqtada al-Sadr has been one of the few voices of the Iraqi resistance that has flirted with the unification of Sunni and Shiite groups. And I think what we’re seeing here now is a much larger recognition on the part of not only Iraqi politicians, but of the resistance groups, that these mercenary companies are operating all around Iraq. And I do think that we could see an escalation in attacks against these private security operators, now that it’s becoming a major issue, huge story right now in the Arabic-language press.

AMY GOODMAN: One question the corporate media doesn’t ask —

DOUG BROOKS: There’s certainly a lot of political —

AMY GOODMAN: One second, Doug. One question the corporate media doesn’t ask is: What are these security firms like Blackwater doing protecting high-level State Department officials, etc.? Why isn’t it U.S. soldiers who are doing this?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, the official theory —

DOUG BROOKS: Can I answer that?

JEREMY SCAHILL: — for it — and Doug, I think, would agree on this. I mean, the official reason given for this is that it frees up, in theory, the official U.S. military to fight the actual war. And so, you contract security from private companies to protect U.S. officials. I see this, though, as a back-door surge that the Bush administration has engaged in. The deaths of these guys don’t get counted. Their crimes don’t get prosecuted. Iraqis clearly don’t have a means by which to get justice when they’re the victims of crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Doug Brooks, you have the last word.

DOUG BROOKS: Yeah, I’m not sure I would agree with that particular perspective, but essentially they do bring a lot of expertise. Most of the Americans that do this sort of thing are experienced veterans. So, essentially, you’re getting somebody who has already done their time in the military. They have the experience, they’re more mature. They tend to be more professionally trained to do these specific kind of operations.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying that the security firms, like Blackwater, are more experienced than U.S. soldiers or better than U.S. soldiers?

DOUG BROOKS: Absolutely. In general, that’s accurate. And, you know, they can go for long periods, for two years or three years, whereas the military has to rotate their people in and out. And they train particularly for this kind of job. It’s different from the military. The military is trained to attack into ambushes, whereas the security companies are trained to get their people out of the ambushes alive [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you both very much for being with us. Doug Brooks, head of the International Peace Organization Association in Washington. We’re sorry Blackwater didn’t respond to our calls. Jeremy Scahill, author of the New York Times best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

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