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Observing Our Government Through Blackwater

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Jeremy Scahill, author of a terrific book on the Blackwater mercenary army, spoke in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Tuesday to a packed hall.  He took questions at the end, and one man asked something to the effect of "Why does the government want to privatize the military?  We taxpayers have been paying for the Army."  I wished Scahill had pointed out that it's the tax payers who are now paying the private corporations, but the answer Scahill gave was critical. 


"There's a cynical answer and an honest answer," he said, "and I think they're the same answer."  He said that the Pentagon is useless to politicians because it doesn't make campaign "contributions".  But when you take a big chunk of that enormous military budget and give it to private companies, you free it up to come back (some portion of it) to politicians every campaign season.


Scahill has the ability to tell the story of one little corner of corruption and through it provide an understanding of the overall military industrial media congressional complex.  The corner of corruption he focuses on is Blackwater.


Scahill described the recent "Bloody Sunday" incident in Baghdad in which Blackwater mercenaries shot and killed approximately 28 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in a square.  The Iraqi government claims to have video proving the shooting was unprovoked.  Witnesses corroborate that story. 


Within hours of the incident, Condoleezza Rice phoned Iraqi President and Bush puppet Nouri al Maliki.  Within 5 days Blackwater was back on the streets. 


House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman plans to hold a hearing on October 2nd and has asked Blackwater CEO Eric Prince to testify, but has not subpoenaed him.  He's asked Prince to testify before, and Prince has refused.


The State Department has told Waxman that any information it provides Congress on occupation contractors will be classified.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has herself refused to comply with a subpoena.  It might be possible to compel Prince to comply, but Waxman has not subpoenaed him.  Beyond the power of subpoena, Waxman has made clear he will never support using the power of impeachment.  For several months now he has sent frequent requests to the State Department without receiving compliance.


Scahill described the size of the problem.  There are 181 security companies in Iraq and 180,000 private contractors, tens of thousands of whom are mercenaries.  And they are unaccountable.  When a Blackwater mercenary shot and killed the Iraqi Vice President's body guard, Blackwater snuck the shooter out of the country.  In February of this year, Waxman held hearings and invited Prince to testify.  Prince did not show up, but sent his lawyer instead.  Rep. Dennis Kucinich noted at the hearing that Blackwater appears to be complicit in the flight of a murder suspect. 


Blackwater has frequently found itself in gun battles with Iraqis, as recounted by Scahill.  The U.S. Embassy, Scahill said, lied when it recently said it had never had complaints about Blackwater.  The Iraqis have complained frequently.  But the US wants shock troops, Scahill said.  "They want Iraqis to have the fear of god in them if they try to approach Ryan Crocker or Condoleezza Rice."


A US soldier can be court martialed.  There have been 64 courts martial for murder charges in Iraq, which Scahill finds stunningly low, given that in his estimate there have been 750,000 Iraqis killed.  (I don't know why Scahill disagrees with the studies that now place the number over a million.)  Mercenaries are not prosecuted under Iraqi or US law or courts martial. 


Scahill said that when he recently testified before Congress, the whole issue seemed to be brand new to congress members.  After four years of slaughter and wild west tactics in Iraq, Scahill said, two freshman senators have finally proposed establishing a system of justice for mercenaries. 


Scahill seems to be of two minds about this proposal.  He recognizes that mercenaries, aggressive wars, and foreign occupations are illegal to begin with, making their regulation a dubious endeavor.  He recognizes that the mercenary companies are themselves supporting the proposal, and that this is a good indication of how worthless it is.  Yet, he finds something encouraging about the fact that there is a proposal and a discussion underway.  I am less encouraged, largely because any bill that was actually worth passing would be vetoed. 


Scahill recently gave a talk in Eric Prince's home town in Michigan (a town described well in Scahill's book).  Prince published an op-ed in the local paper claiming that Blackwater is not a mercenary company.  But, Scahill explains, Blackwater has hired soldiers from countries like Chile whose democratically elected governments opposed the occupation, and sent those soldiers to fight in Iraq.  Employing soldiers to fight for a foreign power, such as Chileans for the United States, is the very definition of mercenary used by Prince himself.


The Democrats in Congress are asleep on this issue, says Scahill, and he blames the financial "contributions" they receive from the war industry. 


Scahill says that the count of 1,000 or more private contractors killed in Iraq is almost certainly undercounted dramatically, because it includes only those eligible for federal aide. 


Britain may put in more mercenaries as it pulls out troops, Scahill said.  The US may put in more mercenaries when it pulls out troops.  And more and more of the mercenaries may be hired from poor nations around the world, including Iraq.  (And yet the best talk in Congress is still of "redeploying" troops, never troops and mercenaries.)

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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