Five Blackwater security guards were charged on Monday for their role in the 2007 Nisoor Square massacre in Baghdad that left seventeen Iraqis dead and more than twenty wounded. The federal prosecutors accused the Blackwater guards of opening machine gun fire on innocent Iraqis and launching a grenade into a girls’ school. We speak with Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Stockholm, Sweden, but back home in the United States, well, five guards working for the private military contractor Blackwater have turned themselves in to authorities in Salt Lake City, Utah, after being indicted on fourteen manslaughter charges and allegations they used automatic weapons in the commission of a crime.
The indictment stems from the operatives’ role in the Nisoor Square massacre in September of 2007 that left seventeen Iraqis dead and more than twenty wounded. The thirty-five-count indictment was unsealed in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
This is US attorney Jeffrey Taylor.
JEFFREY TAYLOR: We take no pleasure in charging individuals whose job it was to protect the men and women of our country, but when individuals are alleged to have violated the law while carrying out those duties, we are duty-bound to hold them accountable, as no one is above the law, even when our country is engaged in a war.
AMY GOODMAN: The indictment is built largely around the testimony of a sixth Blackwater operative who has already pleaded guilty to two charges as part of an agreement to testify against his colleagues. The guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, described how he and the other Blackwater operatives used automatic rifles and grenade launchers to fire on cars, on houses, a traffic officer and a girls’ school.
The indictments represent the first time in more than five years of the Iraq occupation that the Justice Department has brought criminal charges against armed private contractors for crimes committed against Iraqis. Blackwater, as a company, faces no charges in the case.
We’re joined now by Jeremy Scahill. He is author of the international bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army
, also a Democracy Now! correspondent. He’s joining us back in New York in the firehouse studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeremy. Talk about the significance of these indictments.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, this is very significant. As you said, the fact is that no armed contractors have ever been prosecuted under any legal system, not under Iraqi law, not under US military law and not under civilian law. And the case that we’re talking about here, the Nisoor Square massacre, was the single greatest massacre committed by private US government forces in Iraq during five years of the occupation. So the fact that these men who are alleged to be responsible for that are being criminally prosecuted and could potentially face a mandatory minimum of thirty years in jail, if they’re convicted, is significant.
However, Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater; Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State; George Bush, the President — they’re not being held responsible for this. And the fact is that, once again, the US government is rolling out this “bad apples” narrative to describe the actions of Blackwater and saying that the company as a whole is a good company, a responsible company, but just these few guys did some bad things. And the fact is that this is a five-year pattern of misconduct and this kind of activity by Blackwater forces. And so, I’m concerned that what we’re going to see is a token prosecution of a handful of Blackwater guys, when it’s the system of the radical privatization of war that needs to be taken on forcefully.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, can you talk about Jeremy Ridgeway, this sixth figure who has agreed to testify against the others? Who is he?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, I actually was just reading a statement that Blackwater, the company, put out today, essentially calling Jeremy Ridgeway a rat. They didn’t use that exact term, but they’re basically saying that they were outraged and disturbed that he had turned state’s evidence and that the — and the actions that he describes. And they continued to defend the other Blackwater men, saying that they committed no crime and that they were working on official US government business at the time.
This is going to be a very, very devastating blow, I think, to the other five individuals, because he not only is backing up much of what the US military investigation found when they arrived on the ground at Nisoor Square, but also things that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi witnesses had said. I mean, his description of Blackwater forces shooting a man in the middle of the street who had his arms up and clearly was unarmed, the use of these grenades and other automatic weapons, that seems to be how the US prosecutors are able to bring this charge of using a machine gun in the commission of a violent crime, which is actually a law that goes back to the Reagan era. It was an anti-drug law, and it provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of thirty years.
So he clearly pled guilty to charges that are lesser than that, and it seems as though he now is going to be testifying against the others. He’s the oldest of them, probably the most experienced of them. And it’s interesting that he now is the one who has taken this plea deal. These guys are young people. I think almost all of them are under the age of thirty. And they, for the most part, were not elite forces, the top guys that Blackwater is known for having, the Navy Seals and others. Though they did have decorated military careers, these guys weren’t the cream of the crop of Blackwater’s forces that committed the killings that day.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s pretty significant, Jeremy Scahill, that Ridgeway said that the episode, the massacre, started when the guards opened fire on a white Kia sedan, as the Times put it today, —-
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- that posed no threat to the convoy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: This is extraordinarily significant. And as you know, because we’ve reported on this a lot on Democracy Now!, and you were the first — this was the first program to air the testimony of witnesses and survivors of the Nisoor Square massacre.
But let’s just remind people here, the first victims that day, shortly after noon on September 16th, 2007, were a young Iraqi medical student named Ahmed Haitham al-Rubaye and his mother Mehasin. And the Blackwater guys have said that they believed that their car posed some kind of a threat or was potentially a suicide bomber, and they shot Ahmed Haitham al-Rubaye in his head as he drove that car and then launched some kind of a projectile at the vehicle, blowing it up and killing his mother Mehasin inside. Blackwater forces have said that it was a defensive measure. Now, Ridgeway is backing up the version put out by the witnesses that we’ve heard their testimony on this show, as well as the Iraqi government, that it was an unprovoked attack, and, moreover, that the car hadn’t come close enough to them to even warrant thinking that it was some kind of a threat. This is devastating to Blackwater’s narrative that they’ve been putting out that the company was a victim of an armed ambush.
One other thing that I think is interesting, Amy, and this hasn’t come up in the media coverage, and we’re not certain that Ridgeway is this individual, but there were reports that one Blackwater guy was yelling "ceasefire" and trying to stop the others from firing and gunning down people in the square that day. We had that both from leaks of US government officials, as well as Iraqi witnesses at the scene. So whether or not Ridgeway was that individual, we don’t know. But there are people, clearly, that were on the Blackwater detail that day that I think were themselves shocked by the conduct of their colleagues.
But the bottom line here, Amy, is that the company is not going to be held accountable, except lawsuits like that brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, where they are suing Blackwater as a company, Erik Prince as an individual, trying to hold them accountable for the conduct of the men on the ground. These guys, like at Abu Ghraib, will take the fall for an entire system, and the reality is that they are five bad actors in a filthy, rotten system that needs to be confronted head on.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Robert Gates staying on as Secretary of Defense under Barack Obama?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, I think there’s no greater symbol of the lack of true change in US foreign policy than Barack Obama retaining the man that George W. Bush chose to be the Defense Secretary at the Pentagon. I mean, this is — I’ve called it a kettle of hawks that have been assembled in the White House to run US foreign policy. You’ve written, of course, about Jim Jones and his connections to Chevron and Boeing. Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice — I mean, it’s a very hawkish cabinet.
On the Blackwater issue, though, Gates, well, obviously has been much, much better than Donald Rumsfeld, in the sense that he has realized that these contractors are out of control and pose, well, a threat to US troops and Iraqi civilians alike. And the issue that Gates has zeroed in on is the fact that these Blackwater forces are paid much more than regular US soldiers and that they’re not held accountable under the same legal system.
But let’s be clear here. Barack Obama does not have a great position on Blackwater and other private forces. In fact, he says that he cannot and will not rule out using them in Iraq. He has also said that there’s going to be a continued role for contractors in the private war industry, in the US national security apparatus.
Interestingly, Amy — and this is the last thing I’ll say on this — Hillary Clinton was only the second person to sign onto legislation to ban Blackwater. As Secretary of State, that would technically be her area of operations. So it’s going to be interesting to see if Hillary Clinton follows through and actually tries to implement some kind of a ban, which she’s on paper supporting.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, thanks very much for being with us. Jeremy, who has written the international bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, talking to us from New York. We’re here in Sweden.