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Blackwater’s Terrifying Reach

Jeremy Scahill discusses privatization of war and civilian life

Apr. 2, 2008
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Blackwater doesn’t need Iraq anymore. It got what it needed from Iraq—a bad-ass reputation and a billion dollars in government contracts.” That’s the assessment of investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, the leading civilian expert on Blackwater, the controversial private security firm that pops up in the world’s most dangerous areas, from the Green Zone in Baghdad to the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans.

Scahill has followed Blackwater’s trail around the world, even before it made global headlines last September, when its contractors shot dead 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. That massacre shone a spotlight on the private security contractor—along with Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, which was published last spring.

Milwaukee native Scahill delivered the first Frank P. Zeidler Memorial Lecture last week in Centennial Hall of the Milwaukee Public Library, in which he addressed the dangers of privatization, from private armies operating in Iraq to the privatization of education, the prison system and law enforcement.

“Every aspect of our lives is being increasingly privatized,” Scahill said. “We see the effect of it in Iraq, and if we don’t pay attention and learn from it, we’re doomed to allow it to take complete hold over us here at home.”

Scahill said Zeidler, in contrast, was a firm believer in public support of public institutions. “Zeidler was the antithesis of what Blackwater and the Bush administration stand for,” Scahill said. “Frank Zeidler believed in public institutions, public education, public media, public health care, public parks.”

Enormous Profits, No Accountability
During an interview before his speech, Scahill discussed Blackwater’s enormous profits, thanks to multiple no-bid contracts from the U.S. government, as well as its lack of accountability to any court in the world.

Scahill said that the number of all private contractors in Iraq—about 180,000, equal to the number of U.S. troops—makes them indispensable to the American war strategy in Iraq. And Blackwater’s 1,000 security contractors in Baghdad alone almost matches the number of bodyguards the State Department employs globally.

Scahill said that Blackwater is not the largest private contractor in Iraq, nor is it the most financially successful. But he said that the company has the most difficult and dangerous assignments, including the protection of officials such as Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer and visiting dignitaries from the U.S. government.

And Blackwater stops at nothing to keep those officials safe. “The dirty secret in Washington is that Blackwater has killed a hell of a lot of Iraqis,” Scahill said. “They’ve caused a tremendous level of violence and outrage in Iraq.”

Blackwater’s business is as lucrative as it is dangerous. “They got a $27 million no-bid contract to protect Paul Bremer,” Scahill said. “Fast-forward to today and Blackwater has gotten over $1 billion just in security contracts in Iraq alone through the State Department.”

Scahill says that the company bills U.S. taxpayers $1,200 per man per day in Iraq, and may be evading as much as $50 million in taxes, since it classifies its employees as independent contractors, and is categorized as a “small business” for IRS purposes.

Blackwater employs former elite members of the U.S. military and mercenaries from around the world who are drawn by the high salaries, up to $650 a day, equal to the pay of Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq. But Scahill said that low-level employees from Iraq, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Philippines and Nepal are earning far less— perhaps even as little as $1,000 a month for working on the front lines—because the pay is still better than what these men can earn at home. These workers are dying or being maimed in the war zone, yet they are not listed in the official death or injury tolls.

Scahill said that Blackwater is now branching out into regional law enforcement and military training centers; an aviation division to be used in the drug war or for surveillance on the U.S.-Mexico border; and CIA-type intelligence services (provided by ex-CIA operatives) for giant corporations and foreign governments. “To me [the intelligence division] is one of the scariest developments in Blackwater’s model,” Scahill said. “Where’s the oversight? What does it mean that a company can purchase the services of veteran CIA operatives to work on their private behalf?”

Campaign Promises
The September massacre in Nisour Square led to much outrage in the media and on Capitol Hill last fall, but Scahill said that official policy hasn’t changed, even with the Democratic takeover of Congress. While a handful of individual Democrats called for more control over these private mercenaries and the ability for the private contractors to be sued in an American or Iraqi court, these reforms have died in the U.S. Senate.

Scahill said that Sen. Barack Obama sponsored a Senate bill last spring, long before the Nisour Square massacre, that would allow Blackwater and other private contractors to be sued in a U.S. civilian court. While Scahill said Obama was ahead of the curve on this issue, Obama would still allow Blackwater and other contractors to support the U.S. war machine in Iraq.

After Scahill wrote a critique of Obama’s plan to continue using Blackwater—just five days before the Ohio and Texas primaries in March—Sen. Hillary Clinton called for a complete ban on private contractors in Iraq. Scahill was skeptical of Clinton’s plan, saying that she did nothing while serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee to rein in contractors before it became a hot-button issue on the campaign trail.

“I think that it’s naked political opportunism on the part of Hillary Clinton,” Scahill said. “The reality is that her own Iraq plan will be impossible without [contractors]. I can’t believe that her people thought this through beyond electoral politics in the U.S. and that’s why I don’t take it very seriously.”

Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, not surprisingly, supports private contractors, and his top campaign strategist has links to Blackwater’s owner, Erik Prince. Scahill said the “straight-talking” McCain of the 1990s would have spoken out about the negative impact of private contractors on the U.S. military’s mission.

“That’s not going to happen in a political campaign season,” Scahill said. “He needs defense industry dollars too much.” But Scahill, along with his Nation colleague Naomi Klein, have called for progressive voters to push the candidates to adopt a ban on private contractors in Iraq and, in doing so, help to bring an end to the war.

There’s a narrow window of opportunity for anti-war voices to impact Obama or Clinton, and Scahill said the time is now. “Once one of them is coronated and becomes the nominee, they will need us a hell of a lot less than they do now,” Scahill said. “They need money, support, they still need votes, they still need people to show up at these rallies … They have to listen to us right now.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.


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