As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Prince of Blackwater

I caught a good bit of Blackwater CEO Erik Prince's testimony in the House the other day, as well as Blackwater author Jeremy Scahill's impressions of the hearing on Democracy Now. The story of Blackwater is really quite incredible. This is a company that was only formed in 1997, and ten years later has one billion dollars in contracts with the US government. Their ties to the Republican Party are numerous (Prince's sister is married to the heir to the Amway fortune and a former Rpeublican candidate for governor in Michigan), even though one GOP Congressman made the ridiculous claim that Prince once "supported the Green Party" (there was a good reason for that, it was a ratfucking effort to get a Green on the ballot to help Rick Santorum last year). And this company clearly has almost no laws holding back its personnel, who are more highly paid than our top generals. We are paying more in taxpayer dollars to fund armed mercenaries in Iraq than we are paying General Petraeus, and yet we have less legal control over their rules of engagement. This, of course, is because it's easier to deploy less actual soldiers and buy the rest, making it seem like the military commitment in Iraq is smaller.

In the hearing, Prince claimed that 122 Blackwater employees have been sent home from Iraq since the beginning of the mission. We know that one of them was shuttled out of the country after getting drunk and murdering a security guard for an Iraqi Vice President. As Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said, in this country he would have been prosecuted and put on trial, but Blackwater operates under different rules, so he just gets flown out of the country. What happened in the other 121 cases where personnel was flown home? Have any charges been filed against them? We know that there have been more shooting incidents than Prince was willing to admit.

Most of the more than 100 private security companies in Iraq open fire far more frequently than has been publicly acknowledged and rarely report such incidents to U.S. or Iraqi authorities, according to U.S. officials and current and former private security company employees.

Violence caused by private security guards in Iraq has come under scrutiny since a Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad involving employees of Blackwater USA. The company's chairman, Erik Prince, told a congressional committee Tuesday that Blackwater guards opened fire on 195 occasions during more than 16,000 missions in Iraq since 2005.

However, two former Blackwater security guards said they believed employees fired more often than the company has disclosed. One, a former Blackwater guard who spent nearly three years in Iraq, said his 20-man team averaged "four or five" shootings a week, or several times the rate of 1.4 incidents a week reported by the company. The underreporting of shooting incidents was routine in Iraq, according to this former guard.

"The thing is, even the good companies, how many bad incidents occurred where guys involved didn't say anything, because they didn't want to be questioned, or have any downtime today to have to go over what happened yesterday?" he said. "I'm sure there were some companies that just didn't report anything."

That's because the rules governing private military contractors were previously so murky, and the Congress was wholly disinterested in any oversight responsibilities. Well, things are changing. The House will pass a bill today "that would extend the criminal jurisdiction of U.S. courts to any federal contractor working alongside military operations." With PMCs immune from Iraqi prosecution, and unable to be prosecuted on American soil for work in Iraq, this was a sorely needed bill. But the White House is opposing it on the grounds that it could threaten national security. Considering that Blackwater's free hand to abuse and murder Iraqis is damaging our efforts in that country, I would argue that the opposite is true.

Another biill, passed almost unanimously in the House yesterday, would give inspectors general more autonomy and protection from retribution when investigating federal agencies. Of course, it's unclear just how far that will be able to go. After all, the guards acconpanying FBI investigators as they probe the September 16 Blackwater shooting incident that touched off this firestorm were supposed to be guards from... Blackwater. This has since changed.

The real problem here is that, when you outsource military operations to private companies with a profit motive, there becomes a lot of forward motion for engaging in military operations instead of diplomacy or detente. Companies like Blackwater exist to make money, and they can only make that money in a war zone. So the entire structure of contracting and the military-industrial complex is what has to be examined.

UPDATE: See also John Edwards on this.

''We must put the democracy back in our military and prevent a disaster like the continuation of the Iraq War from ever occurring again,'' Edwards says in remarks provided to The Associated Press. ''As commander in chief, I will transfer most security missions currently performed by contractors back to military command, where they belong.''

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