The private military firm Blackwater has gone from being a relatively unknown contractor working in Iraq to a household name and the subject of multiple investigations, lawsuits and congressional inquiries. In the meantime, the company continues to reap millions of dollars in profits and was recently awarded a new contract from the State Department. Last year, Democracy Now! correspondent and Nation Fellow, Jeremy Scahill, published his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. The book quickly landed on the New York Times bestseller list and helped frame the debate that was to come. With the book’s paperback release in a thoroughly revised and updated edition, Jeremy Scahill joins us for the hour. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: At least three Iraqi witnesses appeared before a federal grand jury last week investigating the killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians in September by Blackwater forces in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. On Wednesday, one of the survivors, an Iraqi lawyer who was shot a number of times in the back, is expected to testify before a Geneva UN human rights panel.
It’s been quite a year for Blackwater. The private military firm went from being a relatively unknown contractor working in Iraq to a household name and the subject of multiple investigations, lawsuits and congressional inquiries. In the meantime, the company continues to reap millions of dollars in profits and was recently awarded a new contract from the State Department.
In March of last year, Democracy Now! correspondent and Nation Fellow, Jeremy Scahill, published his groundbreaking book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. The book quickly landed on the New York Times bestseller list and helped frame the debate that was to come. Now it’s out in paperback, thoroughly revised and updated. Jeremy Scahill joins us now in the firehouse studio.
One thing that has changed with your book, Jeremy, is you begin with an extremely detailed look at Nisoor Square.
JEREMY SCAHILL: That’s right. And what I should say at the onset here is that what’s become very, very clear over the past year is that without Blackwater, the occupation of Iraq would be untenable. I mean, this is a company now that has become so central to the US occupation that it can be responsible for one of the single greatest killing sprees of Iraqi civilians and face basically no consequences for that action and in fact continue to win hundreds of millions of dollars in US State Department contracts. Blackwater in Iraq was awarded over $100 million in contracts just in the two weeks following the Nisoor Square shooting. It’s had over a billion dollars in contracts from the United States State Department. And the men who were alleged to have been responsible for those killings at Nisoor Square, to this day, are walking around as free individuals.
And so, I open the new book — the new version of the book — in reality, there’s about a hundred pages of totally new material in the book, and then I went through and updated the key facts throughout the book. But at the beginning, I open with a very detailed explanation of what exactly happened at Nisoor Square, a shooting that began a little bit after noon on the morning of September 16, 2007, when a young Iraqi medical student, a twenty-year-old Iraqi medical student, was driving with his mother, Mahasin. She was a doctor. They had just dropped off his father, Dr. Jawad, who you’ve had here on Democracy Now! You’ve played some of his testimony that he gave to his lawyers who are suing Blackwater. They pull into this intersection in the Mansour district of Baghdad into Nisoor Square, and at the same time that they’re arriving at this place, four heavily armored vehicles are driving allegedly down the wrong side of the road. They see this white opal sedan being driven by this young Iraqi medical student and his mother and end up shooting this young man right through the head.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip. The legal team suing Blackwater conducted this series of extensive interviews with witnesses and victims of the Nisoor Square shooting. We broadcast those interviews for the first time on television in December. One of the most compelling testimonies came from Ali Khalaf Salman. He was working as a traffic guard in Nisoor Square on the morning of September 16th. In painstaking detail, he described how the Blackwater shooting unfolded, including the opening shots that killed a mother and her son. He’s translated from Arabic.
ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] But when he turned his face towards traffic, he heard this woman crying, “My son! My son!” And then he ran into that direction, and he saw her son, who was a medical student. He was all covered in blood. He said he went —- when he heard the woman crying, he went towards that direction, and he tried to help the medical student who was covered in blood, help him out of the car. But the mother inside was holding tight to her son. And he raised his hand to stop -—
SUSAN BURKE: Stop the shooting.
ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] Stop the shooting. He was telling them, “Don’t shoot, please.” He said, while he raised his hand and asking them not to shoot, this time the man in the fourth car shot the mother dead. A machine gun. He said, the car was number four in line. And then, when the person in car number four, a security man, started shooting, he shot the mother dead. And the cars in front of this car, the civilian cars, actually, they spread around to the sides. I think they were scared.
And he said the doctor’s car was an automatic car. Because he died behind the wheel, the car started moving by itself, because it was an automatic car, towards the square. And at this moment, they started shooting the car with big machine guns, and the car exploded.
AMY GOODMAN: This was the traffic guard, September 16th, 2007, in Nisoor Square. Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, according to the witnesses, including this individual, the shooting of this young Iraqi medical student and his mother really began a shooting — a series of shootings in the square that would ultimately leave seventeen Iraqi civilians dead. And what he’s talking about there is that when the initial shots were fired, what happened was that this mother is sitting in the car and sees her son’s head essentially explode after being shot, and she grabs onto him. And it was an automatic car, and so what may have happened is that the car continued to sort of veer toward the Blackwater men, although aerial photos that were later obtained by the Washington Post revealed that that car hadn’t even really come anywhere close to the Blackwater operatives. That’s the allegation that the Washington Post made based on these aerial photos that they obtained.
But then, Blackwater operatives allegedly shot and fired at this woman as she was holding her son, and these cops were there, and they realized that she wasn’t getting out of the car. She was gripping her son’s body, shouting, “My son! My son! Help me!” And it became clear to the Iraqi police officers that more shots were going to come, and so they actually fled themselves, realizing that shooting was going to happen again. And so, the witnesses say that they continued shooting at this car, and it ultimately exploded, burning them inside.
One of the other victims who was killed was a nine-year-old boy named Ali, who was shot in his head, his brains splattering on his father. And his dad described — and I talk about this in the book — how he could still feel his son’s heart beating, and so he rushed to the hospital to try to save his son’s life. And he ultimately returned to the scene the next day to try to pick up pieces of his son’s skull to bury at the holy city — Iraqi holy city of Najaf.
That individual, whose nine-year-old son died in his arms, was one of the Iraqis who was in Washington last week giving testimony to a federal grand jury that is investigating not only Blackwater’s conduct, but the conduct of other private military companies in Iraq. Of course, it’s a grand jury, so we don’t know anything really of what’s happening behind the scene. We do know that Blackwater operatives have been called to testify. Now we’ve heard from Iraqi witnesses.
But let’s be clear here, we’re talking about what is alleged to be the single greatest massacre of Iraqi civilians by a private force in Iraq. The individuals alleged to have been responsible for that have faced no consequences right now. When the Iraqi government said, “We want to prosecute them as criminals for what they’ve done in our country,” the Bush administration had to remind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he in fact is not the prime minister of Iraq, that George Bush is the prime minister of Iraq and that the United States has imposed on Iraq a law, going back to the Bremer era, Order 17, that says that no private contractors in Iraq can be prosecuted by any Iraqi legal system. And Bremer issued this order at the time he was allegedly handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi government. No armed private security contractors have ever been prosecuted for any crimes in Iraq, not to mention killing of Iraqi civilians. So while this grand jury is meeting, I think that the odds of actual justice being achieved here for the victims of the Nisoor Square massacre is highly unlikely. Maybe one or two people will go down as a symbolic gesture. Blackwater, as a company, is not facing any consequences for this.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does the — how do the guards that — how do the Blackwater operatives that were questioned by the State Department and given immunity fit into this story?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, what happened after the Nisoor Square killings was extraordinary. You have the puppet Iraqi government saying, “These guys need to leave the country immediately, and we’re going to prosecute them.” And in fact, Blackwater’s work shut down for three days. As one Iraqi friend of mine said, they turned the Green Zone into the green zoo, because we saw how embedded Blackwater is in the occupation. No US officials could leave the Green Zone when Blackwater’s work was shut down. And so, you understand that, in the words of one US official, Blackwater has a client that will go to the ends of the earth to protect it, to shield it, because the US needs, the Bush administration needs, Blackwater. And so, the response of the Bush administration at every turn was to try to cover up for the individuals who did this shooting, try to protect Blackwater and shield the company from public scrutiny or any consequences for its actions.
So you’re talking about the immunity here. This was one of several actions that the Bush administration took that will make any successful prosecution highly unlikely. What happened is that if you or I were alleged to have killed seventeen people, if we’re lucky in this country, we would be read our Miranda rights, and we would be told that we have the right to remain silent, and anything we say can and will be used against us in a court of law. When the individuals alleged to have killed these seventeen civilians were questioned by the State Department, they signed papers that gave them what’s called limited-use immunity. In other words, nothing you say — and this is what they were told — nothing you say to us can and will be used against you in a court of law. So, in other words, they said, if you give us your statement, in turn, we’ll give you a protection from anything you say here being used against you later.
Just to put it in a historical context, that was how Oliver North got off — Oliver North, of course, of Iran-Contra fame. He was given limited-use immunity to testify in front of the United States Congress, and then when the attempt was made to prosecute him, his lawyers effectively argued that the government would not have been able to prosecute him if they didn’t use his protected testimony in front of the Congress. The FBI is actually furious about this, because now that they go over there to investigate, the Blackwater guys aren’t talking to them. They say, “Well, we already were given immunity by the State Department.”
The other thing I have to add, Amy, is that when the first — they call it the “first blush” report on this incident came out, it purported to be the State Department’s view of what happened at Nisoor Square. It said that they were ambushed, that there was enemy fire, that the Blackwater men were defending American lives in a war zone. And it was written on State Department letterhead, official stationery of the United States State Department. Well, it turns out it was actually written by a Blackwater contractor named Darren Hanner and put forward as the State Department’s official report on it. I mean, this is all what happened right away.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.
JEREMY SCAHILL: A Blackwater contractor named Darren Hanner wrote the official report of what happened at Nisoor Square, and it was written on State Department stationery and then was leaked to the media as a sort of pushback against what the Iraqis were saying, because it’s not, well, Blackwater’s version of events and the Iraqis’ version of events. This was saying this is the US government’s version of events, and it defended Blackwater all the way down, you know, to the tiny detail about this was an ambush by enemies and insurgents. And in reality, it was written by a Blackwater contractor himself. Those are just — the limited-use immunity and this statement from the State Department written by a Blackwater contractor, that’s two of scores of incidents that happened after this that lead many to believe that the Bush administration is seriously attempting to cover this up, at a minimum.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeremy Scahill. His book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, the updated paperback edition, is out today. He’ll be speaking at New York Town Hall tomorrow. But we’re going to come back to this conversation in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Jeremy Scahill. He’s off on a month book tour around the country. We’ll link to where he’s going. His book is out now — it just won a George Polk Award, it’s Jeremy’s second — Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Jeremy Scahill, what investigation did take place?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, the Iraqi government investigated, and they were sort of portrayed as — the Iraqi Interior Ministry — as a hotbed of sectarianism, and Blackwater sort of cast aspersions on that, and some of their allies in the media were saying, “Oh, you can’t believe anything that the Iraqis say. We have to wait for the US investigation to take place.”
But what has gotten almost no attention is that a US military unit did respond right after the shooting, arrived on the scene. And Lieutenant Colonel Mike Tarsa and his men did an investigation, and what they found is that there was no evidence of enemy fire. They examined the shell casings on the scene and found no evidence that there were any shots fired at the Blackwater convoy. And they labeled it a criminal event and said that all of the Iraqis killed that day were killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked gunfire. Now, this has gotten almost no attention whatsoever.
But when Bush actually got around to sending the FBI two weeks after the shooting, first of all, we learned that the FBI was going to be guarded by Blackwater when they went over there, and then Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont raised a ruckus about it, and the government said, “OK, fine, we’ll provide our own protection.” But when the FBI got there, they found that fourteen of the seventeen Iraqis killed were killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked gunfire. And a military official told the Times that the FBI was being too generous to Blackwater in saying that three of them were not killed as a result of unjustified and unprovoked gunfire. And so, this US military investigation, the fact that federal agents speaking to the New York Times about the FBI investigation said fourteen of the seventeen were killed, this story has basically still gone nowhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, you recently questioned Blackwater’s vice president Martin Strong about the accountability of private military contractors in Iraq. I just want to play your question and his response. You were both at a conference here in New York at 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: Blackwater vice president Martin Strong. Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, I mean, this is typical of how Blackwater views things. You know, it’s fog of war, we don’t really know what happened, let’s forget about the military investigation, let’s rely on the Bush Justice Department, which, as we know, is the least impartial Justice Department probably of any administration in the history of the United States. And so, they’re putting all of their eggs into the Justice Department basket.
But the reality here, Amy, is that if you step back for a minute and you look at the situation, Blackwater’s role in Iraq is completely secure. I mean, what we learned through this in a very clear way is that this occupation cannot continue without Blackwater. It’s now ceased to be just a political dedication on the part of the Bush administration to these kinds of companies. It literally is now the case that they couldn’t do the work of the occupation without Blackwater.
I mean, just to give you a sense of some staggering statistics on this, the United States State Department has armed security operatives that are full-time employees of the United States government. They’re called diplomatic security agents. Blackwater works as a privatized diplomatic security force. In Baghdad right now, Blackwater has two-thirds as many armed operatives on US State Department contract as the State Department has full-time diplomatic security agent employees in the entire world combined. So that means that just in Iraq alone, Blackwater has a force that’s equal to two-thirds the size of the entire State Department armed security force on planet earth, including in Iraq.
And so, if you say, well, Blackwater’s contract should be cancelled, as some have called for, then the question becomes, who’s going to do their job in Iraq? The military said it doesn’t want to do that, because it conflicts with the mission of the United States military. The State Department says it would take two to three years to recruit, train and vet a force of that size. And Blackwater’s competitors don’t seem to have the personnel to step in and fill Blackwater’s role. So Blackwater’s vice president, Martin Strong, Erik Prince and others, they actually don’t even need to have this debate anymore, because the money is in the bank and the boots are on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: But Erik Prince was asked about the killings. In October, the Blackwater founder and chairman, Erik Prince, testified before Congress in his first extended public appearance. Prince was called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
JEREMY SCAHILL: But actually, he wasn’t really asked about this, because when Prince was called — he was called to testify because of Nisoor Square, and then what happened is that the FBI announced the morning of that hearing that they were going to do an investigation, and then they asked Henry Waxman, “Don’t bring it up during the investigation, because you could contaminate the investigation.” And so, Erik Prince was supposed to be there to answer questions about it, and that morning it was like a Hail Mary pass from the Bush Justice Department. So it was off-limits, and Waxman, Henry Waxman, who’s been very good on this issue, agreed not to raise Nisoor Square during the discussions.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, in his remarks, Prince repeatedly denied Blackwater contractors killed civilians.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: He was speaking more generally. This is Illinois Representative Danny Davis.
REP. DANNY DAVIS: You do admit that Blackwater personnel have shot and killed innocent civilians, don’t you?
ERIK PRINCE: No, sir. I disagree with that. I think there has been times when guys are using defensive force to protect themselves, to protect the packages, trying to get away from danger. There could be ricochets. There are traffic accidents. Yes, this is war.
You know, since 2005, we’ve conducted in excess of 16,000 missions in Iraq and 195 incidents with weapons discharge. In that time, did a ricochet hurt or kill an innocent person? That’s entirely possible. Again, we do not have the luxury of staying behind to do that terrorist crime scene investigation to figure out what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: That is the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince. Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, this is typical of how he operated during those days after Nisoor Square. You know, he was yanked out of his very comfortable sort of secrecy and forced to testify in front of Henry Waxman’s committee, and then he went on this sort of PR blitz, Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, where he did largely softball interviews with sort of fawning interviewers in the corporate media, and he portrayed Blackwater as this sort of American pie, patriotic company. He used phrases like "the bad guys," “our men bleed red, white and blue.” He was sort of like, you know, Batman emerging from the cave, you know, to save the good people from the evil villains. And that is sort of a cartoonish description of what Blackwater does.
And the idea that the only people Blackwater has killed in Iraq are people who’ve died as a result of traffic accidents and ricocheted bullets — I mean, ask the families of the Iraqis who are now suing Blackwater in a United States court in a case brought by Susan Burke and the Center for Constitutional Rights. This is a deadly serious case that families of the Nisoor Square victims have brought against Blackwater, and they’re alleging not only that we have wrongful death and assault here, but that there are actually war crimes that Blackwater has committed in Iraq. And they’re not alone in that allegation. There are legal experts, international law experts, constitutional law experts in this country, that say that the appropriate way for the United States government to respond is to prosecute these individuals under the War Crimes Act. Now, that would require us having probably hundreds of different individuals in the United States Congress and a totally different president, one with a will to actually enforce US law, when it even is the case that his cronies are being alleged to have committed crimes.
But Erik Prince said shortly after this that he sleeps the sleep of the just. No, he sleeps the sleep of a man who knows that his business is going to be very secure, whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. One of the most pathetic things that happened during that hearing where Erik Prince was there was watching the members of the House Oversight Committee who were Democrats reading the report, the investigative report, done by the committee for that hearing during Erik Prince’s testimony. The Democrats were completely unprepared. And in reality, Erik Prince sort of won the day. He was able to avoid having to talk about Nisoor Square, which was what brought him there in the first place, and he was never faced, with few exceptions, with a very substantive follow-up to the things he was saying, some of which were totally untrue.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the killing of the vice president’s guard?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I am so surprised that this has not gotten more attention. On Christmas Eve 2006, an off-duty Blackwater contractor was at a holiday party and was allegedly drunk and sort of stumbling through the Green Zone. His name was Andrew Moonen. And he encountered an Iraqi bodyguard to the Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, and something happened between the two of them, and he ends up shooting this individual dead, fired multiple shots at him. And so, you have an off-duty Blackwater contractor shooting and killing a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president. The response of Blackwater and the Bush administration was to whisk this individual, Andrew Moonen, out of Iraq within, I think this is two or three days of the shooting, back to the United States. Now, Erik Prince said that they fired him and that when his employees break the rules, they have one choice: window seat or aisle seat. But in fact, this man, Andrew Moonen, Prince said that he got his security clearance revoked and that he would never work again in the Middle East, but — or for a US contractor. The fact was that just months after he allegedly killed that bodyguard, he was back in the Middle East working for another war contractor, where he remained for months.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, I want to go to New York Democrat, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney. She was asking Erik Prince about that December attack.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Have any charges been brought against him in the Iraqi justice system?
ERIK PRINCE: I don’t believe in the Iraqi justice system. I do believe —- I know we’ve referred it over to the -—
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Justice Department. They told us they’re still looking at it nine months later. Have any charges been brought against him in the US military justice system?
ERIK PRINCE: I don’t know.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Have any charges been brought against him in the US civilian justice system?
ERIK PRINCE: Well, that would be handled by the Justice Department, ma’am. That’s for them to answer, not me.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Other than firing him, has there been any sanction against him by any government authority? You mentioned you fined people for bad behavior. Was he fined for killing the Iraqi guard?
ERIK PRINCE: Yes, he was.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: How much was he fined?
ERIK PRINCE: Multiple thousands of dollars. I don’t know the exact number. I’ll have to get you that answer.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: OK.
ERIK PRINCE: Look, I’m not going to make any apologies for what he did.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: OK, but —
ERIK PRINCE: He clearly violated our policies.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Alright. We — every American believes he violated policies. If he lived in America, he would have been arrested, and he would be facing criminal charges. If he was a member of our military, he would be under a court-martial. But it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules. That’s one of the reasons of this hearing.
ERIK PRINCE: Again, he was fired. The Justice Department was investigating in Baghdad. There is a Justice Department office there. He didn’t have a job with us anymore. We, as a private company, cannot detain him. We can fire, we can fine, but we can’t do anything else.
AMY GOODMAN: Blackwater chair, Erik Prince. Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: See, the thing here — I mean, there is some nugget of truth to Erik Prince’s response here, because it’s not just Blackwater’s responsibility as a company. Ultimately, Blackwater is fruit of a very poisonous tree, and that poisonous tree is the Bush administration’s unquenchable thirst for more and more offensive war. And so, Blackwater is deployed there with the role of doing exactly what they’re doing. They’re like the shock troops of the occupation. And it’s this sort of organized insanity, in a way.
And so, when things go terribly wrong, as some in the corporate media like to refer to the killing of Iraqi civilians, then what we see is — what is the response afterwards? The Bush administration, according to Blackwater, ordered them to remove him from the country, from Iraq, after this shooting and send him back to the United States. Erik Prince says, “Well, there’s nothing we can do to him. We can’t detain him. We can’t flog him. We can’t fire him. We can only give him a choice: window or aisle seat?”
So then it becomes, what’s the Bush administration going to do when you have someone alleged to have killed a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president? And the Bush administration, until now, has decided that it’s not going to do anything. But the fact is, we may see one or two, maybe even as many as three or four, former employees of Blackwater brought up on some form of criminal charges in the United States. Maybe it will be Andrew Moonen, this guy alleged to have killed the bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president. Maybe it will be a couple of the shooters from Nisoor Square. But Blackwater, as a company, is not facing any consequences for these actions, the actions of its men in Iraq. And in part, it’s not just because Erik Prince is who he is and Blackwater is what it is, it’s because the Bush administration does not go after them. It would be bad for business if Bush started prosecuting his war corporate buddies for war crimes. He’s — it’s not going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Just before we go to break, Erik Prince was supposed to come out with his own autobiography and the story of Blackwater this same week that you’re coming out with your book.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, it was going to be called We Are Blackwater. It was, you know, sort of like We Are Marshall, We Are Blackwater. It was going to be like a big cheerleading book. And in the initial press release on it, it was going to be published by Regnery, a very right-wing publishing house. Erik Prince said it was going to be a response to left-wing critics. So I was looking very forward to reading it. But just within the last month, they announced that that book was not going to be coming out, that Erik Prince is pursuing other projects right now.
What’s interesting is that the book was announced during this sort of PR blitz that Erik Prince was on, and there was — you know, there was talk of the book, and then there was a press release about the book, and he was on all these TV stations. And then, one day, it just kind of stopped. All of it stopped, and Erik Prince went back sort of into the shadows. And then, quietly in April of this year, the Bush administration extended Blackwater’s contract for another year.
So maybe there’s something behind the scenes that’s played out that we’re not aware of. Maybe the Bush administration is just sort of hoping that the headlines are going to recede, and Erik Prince coming out with this book would have been a way of putting Blackwater back into the news and Erik Prince back on TV. And I think that there are probably some calculations there. It is interesting, though, that it was supposed to be out this week, at the same time as the paperback.
AMY GOODMAN: Of your book, Blackwater.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Of my book, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Which would have meant a number of — if we are lucky, radio and television stations would have called you both.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I was looking forward to — maybe Erik Prince wants to join us on this show. I would be more than happy to debate Mr. Prince any time, any place.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re talking to Jeremy Scahill. His book did come out this week, revised and updated, the paperback edition of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. When we come back, I want to play for you a clip of Barack Obama talking about the mercenary companies, also Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile, as we talk about Blackwater recruiting in various countries around the world. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! correspondent, Puffin Fellow, Nation Institute fellow. His new book Blackwater, or the revised and updated edition of Blackwater is out this week, The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Talk about Total Intelligence, Jeremy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, this is one of Erik Prince’s new initiatives. It’s a private CIA, essentially, called Total Intelligence Solutions. It opened for business in February of 2007 and could prove to be one of Blackwater’s most successful ventures.
As I said, it’s like a private CIA. In fact, it’s run by three former very senior US intelligence officials. At the top of the Total Intelligence pyramid is J. Cofer Black, who is the former head of counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency, a twenty-eight-year veteran of the CIA, the man who on 9/11 was responsible at the CIA for the hunt for bin Laden. And we’ve talked about him on this show before. He also ran the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, the government-sanctioned kidnap and torture program, where people like Maher Arar are abducted at JFK airport or in other places around the world and then sent to a third country to be tortured, often while being read questions provided by US interrogators. So this man Cofer Black, who said there was a before 9/11 and an after 9/11, and after 9/11 the gloves come off, he’s the head of Total Intelligence Solutions, along with Robert Richer, who is the former deputy director of operations at the Central Intelligence Agency and Enrique “Ric” Prado, who was a veteran of the CIA in Latin America and worked for the CIA’s paramilitary division for a solid decade.
Those three men are joined by people from the Defense Intelligence Agency, from the FBI and others, and they’ve built this, what they call a “global fusion center” in Total Intelligence Solutions headquarters, which is modeled after the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center that Black once ran, with huge plasma-screen TVs, analysts sitting at desks. They have about a hundred people now working for the company, and they’re marketing what they say in their literature are CIA-type services — that’s what they say — to Fortune 1000 corporations and foreign governments, and the United States government, as well. And so, Prince is once again showing that he understands, in a very intimate way, trends of outsourcing within the US government and what the, quote-unquote, "needs" are going to be in the future.
And he enters an arena, by getting into the private intelligence arena, that is rapidly expanding. The US has sixteen intelligence agencies now under one umbrella. 70 percent of their combined budget is now in the hands of the private sector. You have private contractors working basically at every level of the US intelligence apparatus.
And so, what we see now, through Total Intelligence Solutions, is that Erik Prince is taking the decades and decades of CIA experience, the careers of people like Cofer Black, Robert Richer, Enrique “Ric” Prado, and putting all of their contacts, their knowledge, their networks, their intimate relationships with governments and heads of state around the world, on the open market for bidding. You know, services that were once the realm of sovereign governments are now on the open market for bidding. And Blackwater has some of the heaviest hitters in the history of US intelligence, whose services are now available for private hire.
AMY GOODMAN: And Fred Fielding?
JEREMY SCAHILL: And Fred Fielding, who was the former lawyer for Blackwater at the time of the Fallujah ambush, Blackwater had Fred Fielding respond to the lawsuit brought by those four families. He was then hired by Bush to be his White House counsel, and Blackwater actually tried to sue Fred Fielding’s former law firm for $30 million, saying that they had not made an adequate response to the lawsuit brought by the four families of the men killed at Fallujah. And just last week, that lawsuit was thrown out by a judge. The law firm was Wiley Rein. But Fred Fielding was one of the most powerful lawyers in the United States, and Blackwater had hired him. They’ve worked with Ken Starr. They’ve worked with Greenberg Traurig. I mean, they’ve had the powerhouse law firms working for them. Their legal bills are probably very substantial.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about where Blackwater is recruiting. When the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was in New York for the UN General Assembly in September, I had a chance to ask her about this. She had come to Human Rights Watch. And I asked what she thought of Chilean soldiers being hired by Blackwater in Iraq?
PRESIDENT MICHELLE BACHELET: When I was Minister of Defense, I knew that Chilean people were recruited to go into Iraq, and as former soldiers or former police people. And we — they had people who were, you know, recruiting them. And we made like a sort of a research on this issue, survey, I mean, trial, because we saw that they couldn’t — I mean, in Chile, nobody can use arms — I mean long arms, hard arms, weapons — but the armed forces and the police people, and they have been trained. And we did a lot of investigation about this, because we didn’t think that — we didn’t want to have like a third force or something, paramilitary force or something like that, in our country.
Second, we made publicly some statements saying that we didn’t believe that was safe, because this is a private issue. I mean, they went people by people, their recruiting. It wasn’t that there was an office in Chile, a state office; it was a private issue. They recruited every guy. They paid money. There are some recruiters who gain a lot of money, too, in this. And we told them that, first of all, this was an individual choice, that it was not safe, and that we did not recommend it. And we couldn’t do anything else, because in Chile there’s freedom to make those sort of choices, of decisions.
So, and there has been some — but most of them have come back, because they didn’t like the experience. You know, they gained some money there, but they didn’t have a good experience. So most of them came back to Chile. I don’t know how many there are still there. But the last time I asked about it, there wasn’t so many.
AMY GOODMAN: The Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, Blackwater started recruiting and working with Chileans in late 2003 as their Iraq contracts really expanded. And in 2004 was really the height of when the Chileans were working for Blackwater. They worked with a Chilean recruiter named Jose Miguel Pizarro Ovalle, and he had been in Pinochet’s military and actually — I mean, I have a whole chapter about this history in my book. But he was Blackwater’s recruiter, essentially, in Chile and started his own company in providing guards. He also was an analyst on CNN en Espanol and used to hang out during the war in the cafeteria with Wesley Clark, and he told me that he would ask Wesley Clark what he should say when he goes on CNN, and then Clark would tell him something, and he would go on CNN en Espanol and give sort of Wesley Clark’s viewpoint, but out of his own mouth.
Blackwater has recruited soldiers from Chile, from Colombia. They paid their Colombian soldiers $34 a day, which is about $1,000 a month. The Chileans were paid somewhere in the ballpark of $4,000. But a US operative working for Blackwater right now is making about $600 to $650 a day. So there’s a real disparity in pay. When you go down to the bottom, you’ve got the Colombians at $34, the US soldiers at $650 a day working for Blackwater.
This, though, after the book came out, the United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries started an investigation and actually has been traveling around the world. And they have been investigating some of the individuals that I talk about in the book, including this Jose Miguel Pizarro Ovalle, who continues to do business with the United States government through his private company, although he’s not working for Blackwater right now.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the future of Blackwater and also the bases here in the United States. But first, let me play for you a little exchange I had with Barack Obama, asking him about Blackwater. He had come to Cooper Union a few months ago to talk about the economy, and afterwards in the rope line, I asked him.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you call for a ban on the private military contractors like Blackwater?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I’ve actually — I’m the one who sponsored the bill that called for the investigation of Blackwater and those folks, so —-
AMY GOODMAN: But would you support the Sanders one now?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Here’s the problem: we have 140,000 private contractors right there, so unless we want to replace all of or a big chunk of those with US troops, we can’t draw down the contractors faster than we can draw down our troops. So what I want to do is draw -— I want them out in the same way that we make sure that we draw out our own combat troops. Alright? I mean, I —-
AMY GOODMAN: Not a total ban?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I don’t want to replace those contractors with more US troops, because we don’t have them, alright? But this was a speech about the economy.
AMY GOODMAN: The war is costing $3 trillion, according to Stiglitz.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: That’s what -— I know, which I made a speech about last week. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Barack Obama.
JEREMY SCAHILL: This is interesting. I mean, this is one of the more interesting exchanges I’ve seen with a presidential candidate on this issue. I mean, it almost never gets raised at all.
Barack Obama — this is the reality about this. Barack Obama understands this issue extremely well. His staff has been on top of this for quite some time. He — what he said to you is true. He did introduce the legislation in the Senate that has become the Democrats’ official legislation on these private security companies, and he did it eight months before Nisoor Square. So, clearly, Barack Obama is someone who has been following this very closely. He understands it very intimately.
What’s interesting — and you raised this with him — is that he won’t take the step toward actually trying to ban these companies. Representative Jan Schakowsky and Senator Bernie Sanders have put forward legislation called the Stop Outsourcing Security Act in the Congress, and Barack Obama has said he’s not going to come onboard and support that legislation.
Interestingly, when I reported in The Nation that Obama would not support that legislation, which seeks to ban the use of these companies in US war zones, Hillary Clinton, five days before the Texas and Ohio primaries, the day my piece comes out, she responds by putting a statement on her website saying that she’s going to endorse Bernie Sanders’ legislation, and she becomes the single most important US political figure to come out for a ban. Now, I’m glad that Hillary Clinton did that, and I look forward to her making this one of her top legislative priorities after the primary season is over.
But on Barack Obama, he’s in a very complicated situation, because his Iraq plan actually is not a plan to end the occupation of Iraq. It’s to continue it with a different label attached to it. And so, you hear him there talking about how “I don’t want to replace contractors with US troops.” The reality is, and Barack Obama knows this very well, his Iraq plan could not be implemented if he was against the use of Blackwater or other private security forces. And the reality is, he’s probably going to have to use these companies for two to three years at a minimum, unless he makes it an aggressive point of trying to shut them down. He might even have to use Blackwater for the first year of his administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, you also write about Blackwater’s newest technological endeavors, including the manufacture of its own armored vehicle, the Grizzly. The Discovery Channel recently had a program highlighting the Grizzly. This is from the show Future Weapons, with host Richard “Mack” Machowicz talking about the Grizzly and featuring Andrew Blong, Blackwater’s director of strategy.
RICHARD MACHOWICZ: This is the Grizzly. It’s been designed to survive direct fire from a .50-caliber armor-piercing round to blasts from RPGs and roadside bombs.
ANDREW BLONG: Built the equipment that we need to safely deliver our teams to the places they need to be.
RICHARD MACHOWICZ: Andrew Blong plays a key role in the ongoing development of the Grizzly platform to withstand the threats posed by today’s close-combat situations.
ANDREW BLONG: The current urban threats that we’re experiencing now, they come in two phases. First, they’ll hit you with an RPG or an IED attack. So the idea is, we want to provide a resistance to that, and then, also to protect against the follow-on attack of a small arms.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s about the Grizzly. That’s from Discovery Channel.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, says that in the future Blackwater is going to be a full-spectrum operation. That’s what he talks about. So they’re manufacturing their own armored vehicle, which can go sixty-five miles an hour, and they’re trying to get it licensed for use on US highways, which raises questions about what they want to do with these. They’re also making a surveillance blimp that could be used by the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, Blackwater says, in monitoring the US-Mexico border.
The other thing that’s happened is that Blackwater recently was defeated in its attempt to open up a private base in the south of California in a tiny town called Potrero. They were run out of town, basically, by 850 people. Blackwater says that it wasn’t because of that.
AMY GOODMAN: We have twenty seconds.
JEREMY SCAHILL: But they also are now fighting — and tomorrow there’s going to be a decision from a judge in San Diego. Blackwater is trying to open a facility there. They have another one in Illinois. This is a company, regardless of who’s in the White House, that’s going to be around for a very, very long time. And I hope to see people tomorrow night at Town Hall in New York at 7:00 p.m., and you can get tickets at nationinstitute.org, with Sy Hersh.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. Jeremy Scahill will be speaking tomorrow night at Town Hall in New York. Seymour Hersh, Chris Hedges, Laila Al-Arian, and you can go to our website to link to all of the book tour that Jeremy will be on. Thanks so much, Jeremy, for joining us.