Making a Killing
US and Iraqi officials reportedly discussed Blackwater's impunity months before the September shooting. "We tried several times to contact the US government through administrative and diplomatic channels to complain about the repeated involvement by Blackwater guards in several incidents that led to the killing of many Iraqis," said deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal. However, US Embassy spokesperson Mirembe Nantongo said, "We have no official documentation on file from our Iraqi partners requesting clarification of any incident." That statement is contradicted by another US official. Matthew Degn, who served as a liaison to the Iraqi Interior Ministry until August, told the Washington Post that Iraqi officials sent a flurry of memos to Blackwater and US officials well before the September 16 shootings and were rebuffed in their requests for action. "We had numerous discussions over [Iraqi government] frustrations with Blackwater, but every time [Iraqi officials] contacted the [US] government, it went nowhere."
Iraq's anger would be understandable even if the only incident involving Blackwater was the Nisour shootings--more so if you take into account the past year of the company's actions. But this is a four-year pattern that goes beyond Blackwater. The system of "private security" being paid billions in US taxpayer dollars has not only continued despite rampant abuses; it has flourished. Blackwater and its ilk operate in a demand-based industry, and with US forces stretched thin, there has been plenty of demand. According to the Government Accountability Office, there are as many as 180 mercenary firms in Iraq, with tens of thousands of employees. Without the occupation and continued funding for the war, these companies would not be in Iraq.
Even though this scandal is about a system, not about one company or "a few bad apples," Blackwater does stand out. While it has no shortage of US and British competitors in Iraq, no other private force's actions have had more of an impact on events in Iraq than those of the North Carolina-based company. Blackwater's primary purpose in Iraq, at which it has been very effective, is to keep the most hated US occupation officials alive by any means necessary. This has encouraged conduct that places American lives at an infinitely higher premium than those of Iraqi civilians, even in cases where the only Iraqi crime is driving too close to a VIP convoy protected by Blackwater guards.
It isn't just the Iraqi government and the country's civilian population that are angered by Blackwater's conduct. Col. Thomas Hammes, the US military official who once oversaw the creation of a new Iraqi military, has described driving around Iraq with Iraqis and encountering Blackwater operatives. They "were running me off the road. We were threatened and intimidated," Hammes said. But, he added, "they were doing their job, exactly what they were paid to do in the way they were paid to do it, and they were making enemies on every single pass out of town." Hammes concluded they were "hurting our counterinsurgency effort."
Just as the world was learning of the September 16 Blackwater shooting in Baghdad, another scandal involving the company was breaking in the United States. Allegations surfaced that weapons brought into Iraq by Blackwater may have ended up in the hands of the Kurdish militant group the PKK, which is designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the State Department. According to a September 18 letter sent by Representative Henry Waxman to State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard, a federal investigation into whether Blackwater "was illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq" was obstructed by Krongard, who, Waxman charged, is a partisan operative with close ties to the Bush Administration. Waxman cited a July e-mail message from Krongard in which he ordered his staff to "stop IMMEDIATELY" cooperating with the federal prosecutor investigating Blackwater until Krongard himself could speak to him. Waxman said Krongard's actions caused "weeks of delay" and that by subsequently assigning a media relations staffer instead of an investigator to aid the prosecutor, Krongard had "impeded the investigation." Blackwater, for its part, denies that it was "in any way associated or complicit in unlawful arms activities" and is cooperating in the federal investigation. Waxman has announced that he will hold hearings on the issue in October.
In keeping with Krongard's stance, the State Department has responded to the widening Blackwater inquiry with stonewalling and evasion. Indeed, Blackwater's attorney told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Waxman chairs, that State had directed the company "not to disclose any information" regarding its Iraq security contract without written authorization. After Waxman protested, the department specified that this restriction applied only to classified information. Waxman, for his part, is looking for answers from the top gun: He sent Blackwater CEO Erik Prince a letter requesting his presence at a hearing. "One question that will be examined is whether the government's heavy reliance on private security contractors is serving U.S. interests in Iraq," Waxman informed Prince. "Another question will be whether the specific conduct of your company has advanced or impeded U.S. efforts."
Those are good questions. But it is unfortunate that it has taken four years of the most privatized war in US history for Congress to ask them. Last time Prince was invited to appear before Congress, he sent his lawyer instead. This time Waxman could choose to use the power of the subpoena. As has finally become clear to some in Congress, war contracting is not merely about squandered taxpayer dollars. It is about life and death. The stakes are far too high to let Prince and his cronies call (or fire) any more shots.