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“Blackwatergate”–Private Military Firm in Firestorm of Controversy over Involvements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany

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Blackwater is all over the news. In the last seventy-two hours, a series of breaking developments involving the notorious private military firm have come to light, ranging from their involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even Germany, as well as legal cases here at home. We speak with investigative journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a leading member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, who is launching an investigation into why two Blackwater contractors were among the dead in the December 30 suicide bombing at the CIA station at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Blackwater is all over the news. In the last seventy-two hours, a series of breaking developments involving the notorious private military firm have come to light, ranging from their involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even Germany, as well as legal cases here at home.

In the latest news, two former Blackwater operatives were arrested yesterday on murder charges stemming from their alleged involvement in the shooting deaths of two Afghan civilians in Kabul in May.

The news broke just hours after it was revealed Blackwater had reached a settlement with Iraqi victims of a string of shootings, including the Nisoor Square massacre, who had sued the company for what they called “senseless slaughter.” Blackwater is reportedly paying $100,000 for each of the Iraqis killed by its forces and between $20,000 to $30,000 to each Iraqi wounded. News of the settlement came a week after a federal judge dismissed manslaughter charges against five Blackwater operatives involved in the Nisoor Square massacre that killed seventeen Iraqi civilians.

Then, on Wednesday, prosecutors in Germany announced they had launched a preliminary investigation into a report that the CIA and Blackwater had planned a secret operation in 2004 to assassinate a German citizen in Hamburg with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: And last but not least, Blackwater’s continued involvement with the CIA surfaced this week when it was revealed two Blackwater contractors were among the eight dead in the December 30th suicide bombing at the CIA station in Khost, Afghanistan. Last month, the CIA announced the agency had canceled its contract with Blackwater.

Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky, a leading member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, says she’ll launch an investigation. Congress member Schakowsky joins us now on the phone from Washington, DC.

And we’re joined here in the studio by investigative journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill, author of the international bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jeremy, let’s begin with you. The piece you have in The Nation magazine says “Blackwater and the Khost Bombing: Is the CIA Deceiving Congress?” Two Blackwater operatives killed there?

JEREMY SCAHILL: My understanding is that there were two Blackwater operatives killed at this bombing — one was a former Navy SEAL; the other was an Army master chief sergeant — and that there was a third Blackwater operative that was wounded in the blast, I understand from my sources.

Let’s remember here that this was the worst attack on a CIA base that we know about since the 1980s. And here you have three Blackwater guys in the center of this blast at the time. Now, we’re not sure what the role was of the Blackwater guys there. That’s what Representative Schakowsky is investigating right now. But let’s say for a moment that they were doing security, because Blackwater has, since 2002, had a contract with the CIA to do force protection in Afghanistan for the CIA. They not only guard static outposts of the CIA, but when CIA operatives move around the country, Blackwater guys travel with them as their security.

So if they were doing the security there, and you have, on their watch, this incredibly devastating attack, not just against some random CIA outpost in the middle of Canada or something, but against the epicenter of the forward operating maneuvers that the intelligence community of the US is engaged in to hunt down Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, because this asset made it onto that base, we understand, claiming that he had just met with Ayman al-Zawahiri. So how is it that he walks in there with explosives? And then, I think that should be one of the things that’s investigated as Congresswoman Schakowsky takes this on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Congresswoman Schakowsky, your concerns about this latest report and what you’re hoping to look into?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: You know, regardless of what the role that the Blackwater operatives were playing in this incident, why is the CIA, why is any unit of the government, the State Department, the Department of Defense — why would anyone hire this company, which is a repeat offender, threatening the mission of the United States, threatening, endangering the lives of American, well, CIA and military, and then — and also known to threaten and kill innocent civilians? It is just amazing to me, astonishing to me, that we still find Blackwater anywhere in the employ of the United States government at any place around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, during the primaries, Hillary Clinton supported a ban on Blackwater. President Obama didn’t. How does that relate to what you’re introducing now, the legislation that you’re introducing?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Look, I’m introducing legislation called Stop Outsourcing Our Security, and the idea of that is that when we have mission-sensitive activities, inherently governmental functions in battle zones around the world, that we should have only people that bear the stamp of the United States government. And that means that that would include no private military contractors at all in those operations.

Now, look, when we have a situation where you can question whether or not these contractors can get away with murder — after all, this case against those shooters at Nisoor Square has been dismissed — hopefully that there will be another effort by the Justice Department to go after these people, because it was dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct, which is true. I think there were many mistakes made. But right now, these contractors are in a legal limbo. And so, if these individuals can get away with murder, imagine — you don’t have to imagine, you know what it does to our relations with the Iraqi government and with governments around the world. And now you’ve got a situation where Germany is asking, what were Blackwater people doing in Germany?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask you about that, in particular, Congresswoman. Here you have a situation not just of being involved in murder, but apparently of being involved in government-sanctioned assassination attempts. And that is being, to some degree, contracted out. Forget about whether the government should be involved in such a kind of assassination attempts, but to contract out that activity? That is really astounding.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: This really is part of an ongoing investigation that I can’t talk about, but even the fact that there is that allegation, I think, gives one a picture of the degree to which Blackwater has been completely enmeshed in these secret operations. And, you know, at least the allegation that they are, I think is disturbing enough. And there is an investigation going on around activities, you know, like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, what do you know about what happened?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Erik Prince gave this interview to Vanity Fair magazine, and he gave the interview to a former CIA lawyer, Adam Ciralsky, who, himself, has had a history of doing what’s called “graymailing,” which is that you believe or you fear that the government is going to come after you in some way, and so you then leak parts of information about what it was that you were involved with, which is what Erik Prince was doing in that Vanity Fair article as a way of sort of saying to the government, “If you come after me, I’ll blow the whistle on all these things.”

One of the things, though, that came out in that article is that Erik Prince, shortly after 9/11, assembled, he claims, a team, a secret clandestine team for the CIA that trained not at any of the official CIA facilities, but at one of Erik Prince’s homes in Virginia. He trains this team, and then they deployed around the world. And they would go into countries, and, in the parlance of the intelligence community, they would go “in dark,” meaning that, in some cases, the CIA chief of station in the countries that they went into wasn’t even notified that they were going in there.

So, what Representative Schakowsky is talking about here, or, Juan, you were asking about, is that one of these operations allegedly took place in Hamburg, Germany, where a Blackwater-led team inserted inside of Germany to hunt down this man who was a Syrian-born naturalized citizen of Germany that had been alleged to have had connections with three of the 9/11 plotters. And they were doing what’s called — they were trying to find him, fix his location, and finish him off, is what they call it. And my understanding is that someone actually in government, not a Blackwater person, called off that operation, so the trigger was never pulled.

Another operation took place, we understand, inside of Dubai. And Erik Prince talks about working on covert operations inside of Syria, as well, where he was helping the Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, the Special Forces, identify targets inside of Syria.

So all of this needs to be very deeply probed, because you have not only a situation where these hit teams are being contracted out, but the German politicians are now saying, What if the German intelligence outsourced to a private company assassination operations in New Orleans, in the United States? How would your government respond to this? So this could be a substantial diplomatic problem for the Obama administration, because the Merkel government is now starting to ask questions. Not just Green Party politicians, but today one of Angela Merkel’s biggest allies in Germany said that they’re probing it, and they want answers from Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Schakowsky, what kind of support do you have from the White House on either of your efforts — the legislation to stop outsourcing or the investigation?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, we have met with various agencies about the issue of just the outsourcing of security issues and security matters in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And I think that the thing that’s really frightening is it seems that the United States military, the United States government, doesn’t have the capacity, at least when we talk about private security contractors, to do the job and seems to think that it is — makes us more agile and nimble to be able to contract out.

My question is, how many times do we have to — does the mission have to be endangered or do people have to be killed before we understand that it is so important for us to have people who are within the standard chain of command, where the accountability mechanisms are built in, who aren’t going to go rogue on us and do things that are improper? And so, so far, what we’re finding is that even in Iraq — and Jeremy was able to turn that up — that contracts that were supposed to be terminated continued because Blackwater had a capacity that even the United States government does not have.

This is a very unwholesome, unhealthy situation. We have to build that capacity, and we have to end this relationship with companies that don’t have the same standard of transparency and accountability as those who work directly for the United States of America.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jeremy, what about that Iraq situation, the Nisoor Square killings? There were some settlements that Blackwater has reached with some of the victims, but not all of them. And what’s been the reaction of the Iraqi government to the acquittals of the Blackwater people?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first, on the settlement that was announced yesterday, we’re talking about not just the Nisoor Square massacre, but we’re also talking about six other incidents — the shooting of bodyguards at an Iraqi TV station, the killing of three other individuals shortly before Nisoor Square. And my understanding from sources is that the victims who — the families of people who died were paid somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000, and then injuries were compensated between $20,000 and $30,000. And then there were a couple of people that got more because of the nature of their injuries. But you’re talking about Blackwater getting — they get $1.5 billion in Iraq. Ninety percent of this company’s revenue comes from the US government. For them to pay, you know, five, six million dollars is chump change. In fact, one source that’s been involved with these cases told me that Blackwater got a real bargain here. And indeed, Blackwater released a statement saying that they were pleased with it, and it allows the company to get on with its business.

But one story that people are not really looking at, the way that these guys got off on these manslaughter charges for Nisoor Square is identical to the way that Oliver North got off on the criminal charges stemming from Iran-Contra, because they were granted immunity by the State Department immediately after the shooting. And so, the prosecutors then, from the Justice Department, had to use — could not use any information from the statements that they gave, because the had been promised immunity by the State Department. Why on earth did the State Department give these guys immunity? These were the prime suspects, and you give them an immunity that generally is reserved for people that you’re trying to flip as witnesses, not the actual suspects.

But I spoke to — and this is something no one’s reported yet — I spoke to a source with direct knowledge of the US military’s official investigation of Nisoor Square, and this source told me that military investigators had determined that it was a criminal event, that it was unprovoked fire, and — and this is what the important part is — and that military investigators had determined that those men who did the shooting at Nisoor Square were not entitled to immunity under the Bremer-era Order 17 that granted immunity to contractors, because they shot unprovoked civilians, which violated the terms of their contract, and had disobeyed orders from superiors not to leave a post where they were, meaning that they were not eligible for that immunity.

And the investigators determined that the appropriate legal venue would have been in Iraq, that the Iraqis should have been allowed to go and arrest those individuals, but they were secretly ferried out of Iraq in the dead of night by the State Department and Blackwater, taken to the US, where they then got off on murder — on manslaughter charges, on the same technicality that Oliver North got off on.

AMY GOODMAN: Could they be extradited?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Scott Horton, who is an international and military law expert that you interviewed last week, I talked to him about this, and the United States and Iraq do have an extradition treaty of 1934. The Status of Forces Agreement gives Iraq jurisdiction. And if they were ineligible for Order 17 immunity, then Iraq could say that the appropriate place for their trial, now that you’ve failed to do it for technical reasons, would in fact be in Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And was that military determination done before they left the country or afterwards?

JEREMY SCAHILL: No, this was — the military started investigation within less than an hour of the last bullets being fired there. They went on the scene. They gathered forensic evidence. But this was an investigation that went on for months. And so, it’s not as though the military, you know, determined it within twenty-four hours and said, “Oh, wait a minute, we have to hand these guys over to Iraqis.” It was investigators looking and carefully and meticulously documenting this incident and then saying this was improper that they were removed from the country.

AMY GOODMAN: In the settlement, which is incredibly low, $100,000 per death, did some of the Iraqi families want to pull out?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, there is another lawsuit. There are other Iraqis that have different legal representation. And there’s a case that’s gotten no attention yet in the state of North Carolina. The man who was perhaps the single most prominent witness to the Nisoor Square shooting, he was driving a vehicle right behind the first vehicle that the Blackwater guys shot. His nine-year-old son was shot in the head. His head exploded on a van, on his cousins and other people in the vehicle. That man has retained counsel in North Carolina and is suing. That could be a very problematic case for Blackwater, because they’re not only suing Erik Prince of Blackwater, they’re suing the individual shooters in state court in North Carolina. So that could be the one that ends up actually going to trial.

There also — you could read it in the papers — there were — some of the plaintiffs in this case were very, very disappointed in the settlement that they got and felt that $100,000 for a death is a complete injustice.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the latest news of the two former Blackwater operatives who were arrested on murder charges stemming from the killing of two Afghans?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Remember, these killings took place under the Obama administration. And what’s significant about this is that the men who are alleged to have murdered — these second-degree murder charges with the indictment — two Afghan civilians were there as military trainers. These weren’t security operatives. The Obama administration is dramatically expanding the US training of Afghan forces, meaning that you’re going to have more of these types of guys on the ground. So these individuals were alleged to have opened fire unprovoked on a civilian vehicle, killing two people. They weren’t even — they weren’t guarding any diplomats. They weren’t even in the country to be guarding anyone. They were there as trainers. And yet, they’re involved with this incident that has caused some significant diplomatic problems between the US and the Karzai government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Congresswoman Schakowsky, I’d like to ask you, finally, in terms of how, in your experience and — how the military is reacting to these continual problems with Blackwater and how it’s affecting its ability to continue its mission, whether it’s in Iraq or in Afghanistan?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, I think there’s a good deal of resentment, in general, toward the contractors. You know, the companies like Blackwater recruit out of the military. We train them. They take the highly skilled people, and they skim them off. They pay them a good deal more. They are indistinguishable often to the people on the ground, to the Iraqis or the Afghans, from people who are actually in the military. And yet, they conduct themselves in a much more reckless way and — often, not always. And so, I think that the military itself — I’m talking now not about necessarily the top brass, but — would appreciate the fact if the jobs were done by the military themselves, as opposed to hiring out these companies who have proven themselves to be so unreliable and dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Congress member Jan Schakowsky, leading member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, thanks for joining us from Washington, DC. And Jeremy Scahill, thank you so much for your work, investigative journalist, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and Democracy Now! correspondent.

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