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State Dept. Renews Blackwater Contract in Iraq Despite Pentagon Labeling Sept. Baghdad Killing of 17 Civilians “A Criminal Event”

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The State Department has announced it is extending the private military firm Blackwater’s contract in Baghdad for another year. The news comes despite an ongoing FBI investigation into the September 16th shooting in Baghdad where Blackwater guards were accused of killing seventeen Iraqi civilians. An earlier investigation by the Pentagon found that all seventeen Iraqis were killed as a result of unprovoked and unjustified fire by Blackwater operatives. We speak with journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of the bestselling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s most Powerful Mercenary Army. Scahill recently confronted the vice president of Blackwater about the September 16th shootings. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The US military announced Saturday its first case against a civilian contractor since 1968. Iraqi Canadian Alaa “Alex” Mohammad Ali was charged with aggravated assault for allegedly stabbing another contractor in February. Ali fled Saddam’s Iraq in the 1990s and became a military translator for the United States. He is the first person to be charged under the 2006 congressional amendment that allows military authorities to prosecute crimes committed by civilians working with the US Armed Forces. Iraqi courts are prevented from prosecuting foreign military contractors because of a 2004 law passed under the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

The military’s announcement came just a day after the State Department announced it was extending the private military firm Blackwater’s contract in Baghdad for another year. This comes as the FBI is continuing its investigation into the September 2007 Nisoor Square shooting where Blackwater guards were accused of killing seventeen Iraqi civilians.

On Thursday, Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! correspondent and author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, questioned Blackwater’s Vice President Martin Strong about the accountability of private military contractors in Iraq. They were both at a conference here in New York organized by NYU’s Center for Law and Security called “Privatizing Defense: Blackwater, Contractors, and American Security.”

    JEREMY SCAHILL: My name is Jeremy Scahill. I find it very telling that nowhere on this panel do we hear a voice talking about the Iraqi victims of these companies. I find it very interesting — the way that Mr. Strong and Mr. [Doug] Brooks talk about this, we could be at a banking convention.

    The reality is that Blackwater has killed innocent civilians in Iraq. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, Mr. Strong, but the first victims in Nisoor Square that day were a twenty-year-old medical student and his mother, not al-Qaeda operatives, not Iraqi insurgents. A nine-year-old boy named Ali was shot in the skull; his brains splattered in his [father’s] hands. Your operatives were on the scene that day. They opened fire on these individuals.

    And if you don’t want to take the word of the witnesses, what about the military that investigated it on the spot that day and found that all seventeen of the Iraqis killed by your men were killed as a result of unprovoked and unjustified gunfire? This was the military investigation. They also found that there was excessive use of force that potentially violated the rules governing contractors in Iraq. When the FBI findings were released in part to the New York Times, they found that fourteen of the seventeen were killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked gunfire.

    My question to you is, how many innocent Iraqis has your company killed? And what consequences have your men faced for those actions?

    MODERATOR: Well, that’s about — you answered — speak as you want to speak in response, sorry.

    MARTIN STRONG: Well, I think the third panel is about accountability, if you want to re-ask that question at that point. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know how much time you spent in Iraq or in combat, but I spent twenty years and did thirty-six combat missions, and I spent nine months in Iraq. And it’s a very difficult place. And I think the FBI, who has not issued their investigative report, irrespective of the New York Times or any other newspaper saying that they think they know what’s going on, the FBI is going to complete an official investigation, not one done by the seat of the pants. And at that time, we’re going to find out exactly what they found out. We have not, as a company, had access to that information, nor did we conduct our own little investigation so I could respond to your question directly. We have no idea what happened there by going back and forensically looking at it. We’re awaiting the government’s investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Strong, the vice president of private military firm Blackwater, responding to journalist Jeremy Scahill at the NYU conference Thursday. During his panel later that day, Jeremy Scahill addressed Martin Strong directly, who was seated in the audience in front of him.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: I tried to raise this question with Mr. Strong during his panel, and he chose to ignore the key point that I was raising. And that was the following, that you can dismiss all you want, Mr. Strong, the testimony of the Iraqi witnesses and survivors, like the lawyer who was shot four times in his back as he fled your gunmen; you can dismiss the testimony of a father who held his son’s dying body, brain splattered all over him, returning the next day to pick up pieces of his skull to bury in Najaf; you can dismiss the words of Dr. Jawad, whose twenty-year-old medical student son was killed, [Jawad’s] wife, alongside [him]; but you can’t dismiss Lieutenant Colonel Mike Tarsa’s investigation of the shooting by your men that day. They concluded, contrary to the statements of your company, that there was no enemy activity involved. The labeled the killings a criminal event. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Tarsa’s men said that they found all seventeen of the Iraqis killed that day were killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked fire by the Blackwater operatives.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, speaking at the NYU conference on security, he joins us now in our firehouse studio, Democracy Now! correspondent and Puffin Fellow at the Nation Institute. He has just written a piece called “Contract Justice” for The Nation. Jeremy, the questions asked but not answered. Martin Strong was sitting in the audience in front of you.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, I mean, as you heard there, I mean, I was trying to put a question to Blackwater that this company refuses to answer, that its representatives never comment about, and that’s this. Consistently, Blackwater has said, “Let’s wait until the government comes forward with its findings on Nisoor Square, and then we’ll see who’s guilty.” And we know that, from the beginning, the White House has engaged in an attempt to cover up this killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians. We believe it’s the largest massacre of Iraqi civilians committed by private forces in Iraq.

From the beginning, the State Department has tainted any kind of an independent investigation. The Bush administration didn’t send the FBI for two full weeks. The State Department offered a limited-use immunity to some of the suspects in this case — in fact, we believe all of the suspects in this case, which was how Oliver North got off after Iran-Contra, because these are supposedly protected statements that can’t be used to bring criminal charges or as evidence against you. The first report from the State Department investigating Nisoor Square was actually written by a Blackwater contractor.

But lost in the mix of all this discussion about let’s wait until the FBI comes out with its investigation, the findings of its investigation, was the fact that the US military investigated right after these shootings. They went there, they interviewed witnesses, they gathered evidence and determined that all seventeen of the Iraqis were killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked gunfire. They said that there was no enemy activity involved. They didn’t find shell casings of the kind used by Iraq Security Forces. Blackwater has said it was the victim of an ambush by armed insurgents, enemies of the Americans.

And so, I wanted to get a response from Blackwater. What do — you can say the Iraqi government is a sectarian hotbed. You can say Muqtada al-Sadr controls the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which was doing the investigation, but what do you say to the US military that went on the scene and determined that your men were in fact engaging in criminal conduct and the fact that the FBI said that fourteen of the seventeen were killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked gunfire? The military, after the FBI said that to the New York Times, a military official told the New York Times the FBI is being too generous to Blackwater. And so, he didn’t answer any of these questions, but it was the first time, to my understanding, that a senior Blackwater official has been confronted about this.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, within forty-eight hours of this confrontation, the State Department extended the contract for Blackwater in Iraq.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, I mean, like much of US policy now, the Bush administration is sort of pushing everything for the next president to deal with. And the reality is that this is outraging the Iraqi government. As I was coming in here today, I was reading the comments of the puppet Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. I mean, let’s be clear here. He’s not really the prime minister of Iraq. There’s not really a sovereign Iraqi government. But even the puppet leader of Iraq is coming forward and saying this is a company that’s engaged in a massacre, and Iraq is saying that this was not done with the approval of the Iraqi government. I mean, this shows, though, how central this company has become to the US occupation.

The reality is that when Gregory Starr, the Assistant Secretary of State, made the announcement that Blackwater’s contract was going to continue, he actually said, we could terminate the contract if we wanted to, and at this time, we’ve reviewed the needs of US policy in Iraq — not the needs of the Iraqi civilians who come near Blackwater, not the will of the US-backed Iraqi government, but we reviewed our policy goals in Iraq and determined that Blackwater needs to stay on. We need protection for our people. And so, the odds are that Blackwater is going to continue on in Iraq for the foreseeable future, certainly for the next year. It would take the administration actually actively canceling the contract at this point. That seems very unlikely.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, at about the same time, for the first time since — well, in forty years, since ’68, the Pentagon announced a charging of a civilian contractor under military law. This is what you write about in “Contract Justice.”

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. And, of course, it’s not one of the contractors who was one of the, what Blackwater calls “shooters” on September 17 in Nisoor Square. It wasn’t the Blackwater contractor who was alleged to have shot and killed a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president on Christmas Eve 2006. These men are allowed to run around freely. Some of them return to the Middle East and work for other companies. No, the first prosecution under the court-martial system is apparently going to be a dual citizen of Iraq and Canada. I mean, the grotesque irony at play here is quite stark.

The contractor in question is a guy named Alaa Mohammad Ali, and he works for the US corporation Titan, which also has been accused of abuses elsewhere in Iraq. He was working as a translator in Anbar province and allegedly stabbed a fellow translator, another contractor. And so, the military moved swiftly. Within a month of this alleged stabbing, which happened on February 23, the military began the process of charging this individual in a court-martial system.

Now, what I find particularly interesting about this is that the individual, Alaa Mohammad Ali, fled Iraq in the early 1990s after Saddam Hussein was allowed by the George H.W. Bush administration to crush the Shiite rebellion in the south of Iraq. He and his family flee to Canada. He gets Canadian citizenship. He then returns to Iraq after Bush invades and is participating in the occupation, working for the United States. So he’s going to be the new face of Washington’s crackdown on contractors, while the Blackwater men who fired those shots at Nisoor Square, the guy alleged to have killed the Iraqi bodyguard, the people involved with the five or six other deadly incidents over the past year that the Iraqi government alleges Blackwater has engaged in, those people walk around free individuals.

The other issue here is that this Iraqi Canadian contractor is being put through the military justice system. This did not come from the United States Justice Department. On March 10, Secretary Robert Gates, Bush’s Defense Secretary, released a memo asserting greater authority of the military to court-martial contractors. This stems from a 2006 amendment, as you said earlier, that sort of broaden the powers of the military to go after contractors. March 10, Gates asserts it. By March 27, we have the first case, which is against this Iraqi Canadian. In that memo, though, Gates said that first the Justice Department will be consulted and given the opportunity to prosecute these individuals. So, presumably, according to Gates’s memo, he would have gone to the Justice Department and — if he followed all the procedures. The Justice Department said, we’re not going to move on this. That’s the real important point here.

We can talk about Blackwater’s misconduct in Iraq, potentially criminal activity in the eyes of the military, but the reality is that this is an enforcement-free zone. Impunity and immunity are wed together. The Bush Justice Department has never gone after these guys, and it won’t. Scott Horton, who you’ve had on the show here, lawyer, lecturer at Columbia Law School, says these guys could clearly be tried under the War Crimes Act in the United States. Come on, the Bush administration is not going to go after its politically connected companies, the mercenaries at the vanguard of the operation. So the reality is now that these guys operate in this Wild West atmosphere, and the first person to go down under their new system, ironically, is an Iraqi Canadian contractor.

AMY GOODMAN: And when is the government report going to come out on Nisoor Square?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, we don’t know. I mean, it’s —


JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, it could come out any time. I mean, or it could come out years from now. I mean, we don’t know. I think that we could potentially see a token prosecution of someone from Blackwater at some point. This isn’t going to hurt the company’s business, though. Business has never been better for Blackwater.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Jeremy Scahill, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Democracy Now! correspondent, a writer for The Nation, a Puffin Fellow. His latest piece came out last night on The Nation’s website called “Contract Justice.”

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