Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater
It is one of the most infamous incidents of the war in Iraq: On March 31, 2004, four private American security contractors get lost and end up driving through the center of Falluja, a hotbed of Sunni resistance to the US occupation. Shortly after entering the city, they get stuck in traffic, and their small convoy is ambushed. Several armed men approach the two vehicles and open fire from behind, repeatedly shooting the men at point-blank range. Within moments, their bodies are dragged from the vehicles and a crowd descends on them, tearing them to pieces. Eventually, their corpses are chopped and burned. The remains of two of the men are strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River and left to dangle. The gruesome image is soon beamed across the globe.
In the Oval Office the killings were taken as "a challenge to America's resolve," according to the Los Angeles Times. President Bush issued a statement through his spokesperson. "We will not be intimidated," he said. "We will finish the job." Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt vowed, "We will be back in Falluja.... We will hunt down the criminals.... It's going to be deliberate. It will be precise, and it will be overwhelming." Within days of the ambush, US forces laid siege to Falluja, beginning what would be one of the most brutal and sustained US operations of the occupation.
For most people, the gruesome killings were the first they had ever heard of Blackwater USA, a small, North Carolina-based private security company. Since the Falluja incident, and also because of it, Blackwater has emerged as one of the most successful and profitable security contractors operating in Iraq. The company and its secretive, mega-millionaire, right-wing Christian founder, Erik Prince, position Blackwater as a patriotic extension of the US military, and its employees are required to take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution. After the killings, Blackwater released a statement saying the "heinous mistreatment of our friends exhibits the extraordinary conditions under which we voluntarily work to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people.... Our tasks are dangerous and while we feel sadness for our fallen colleagues, we also feel pride and satisfaction that we are making a difference for the people of Iraq."
The company swiftly rose to international prominence: Journalists were flooding Blackwater with calls, and military types were clamoring to sign up for work. "They're angry...they're saying, 'Let me go over,'" Blackwater spokesman Chris Bertelli told the Virginian-Pilot ten days after the killings, adding that applications to work for Blackwater had increased "considerably" in that time. "It's natural to assume that the visibility of the dangers could drive up salaries for the folks who have to stand in the path of the bullets," he said. A day after the killings, Prince enlisted the services of the Alexander Strategy Group, a now disgraced but once powerful Republican lobbying and PR firm. By the end of 2004 Blackwater's president, Gary Jackson, was bragging to the press of "staggering" 600 percent growth. "This is a billion-dollar industry," Jackson said in October 2004. "And Blackwater has only scratched the surface of it."
But today, Blackwater is facing a potentially devastating battle--this time not in Iraq but in court. The company has been slapped with a lawsuit that, if successful, will send shock waves through the world of private security firms, a world that has expanded significantly since Bush took office. Blackwater is being sued for the wrongful deaths of Stephen "Scott" Helvenston, Mike Teague, Jerko Zovko and Wesley Batalona by the families of the men slain in Falluja.
More than 428 private contractors have been killed to date in Iraq, and US taxpayers are footing almost the entire compensation bill to their families. "This is a precedent-setting case," says Marc Miles, an attorney for the families. "Just like with tobacco litigation or gun litigation, once they lose that first case, they'd be fearful there would be other lawsuits to follow."
The families' two-year quest to hold those responsible accountable has taken them not to Falluja but to the sprawling Blackwater compound in North Carolina. As they tell it, after demanding answers about how the men ended up dead in Falluja that day and being stonewalled at every turn, they decided to conduct their own investigation. "Blackwater sent my son and the other three into Falluja knowing that there was a very good possibility this could happen," says Katy Helvenston, the mother of 38-year-old Scott Helvenston, whose charred body was hung from the Falluja bridge. "Iraqis physically did it, and it doesn't get any more horrible than what they did to my son, does it? But I hold Blackwater responsible one thousand percent."
In late 2004 the case caught the attention of the high-powered California trial lawyer Daniel Callahan, fresh from a record-setting $934 million jury decision in a corporate fraud case. On January 5, 2005, the families filed the lawsuit against Blackwater in Wake County, North Carolina. "What we have right now is something worse than the wild, wild west going on in Iraq," Callahan says. "Blackwater is able to operate over there in Iraq free from any oversight that would typically exist in a civilized society. As we expose Blackwater in this case, it will also expose the inefficient and corrupt system that exists over there."