In the aftermath of the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad by operatives working for Blackwater, top company officials including then-president Gary Jackson “authorized secret payments of about $1 million to Iraqi officials that were intended to silence their criticism and buy their support,” according to the New York Times. Seventeen Iraqis were killed and more than twenty others wounded in the shooting, prompting the Iraqi government to announce it would ban the company from Iraq with officials vowing to prosecute the shooters. Blackwater, however, remains in Iraq to this day.
According to the Times, “Four former Blackwater executives said in interviews that Gary Jackson, who was then the company president, had approved the bribes, and the money was sent from Amman, Jordan, where Blackwater maintains an operations hub, to a top manager in Iraq. The executives, though, said they did not know whether the cash was delivered to Iraqi officials or the identities of the potential recipients.” The Times notes that the bribes “would have been illegal”:
[A] federal grand jury in North Carolina, where Blackwater has its headquarters, has been conducting a lengthy investigation into the company. One of the former executives said that he has told federal prosecutors there about the plan to pay Iraqi officials to drop their inquiries into the Nisour Square incident. If Blackwater followed through, the company or its officials could face charges of obstruction of justice, and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans bribes to foreign officials.
Ten days after the Nisour shootings an FBI team arrived in Baghdad to begin a criminal investigation. If Blackwater officials bribed or attempted to bribe Iraqi officials that would have amounted to tampering with the investigation. Blackwater and its owner, Erik Prince, are also being sued by the Iraqi victims of that shooting in civil court in the United States. On Tuesday, a settlement in that case fell through and its future course remains unclear.
While the Times reports that it is unclear if the bribes were paid and, if so, to whom, this much is clear: Blackwater continued to operate in Iraq for a full two years after the Iraqis announced the company would be banned–a fact that has baffled and angered Iraqis. While the company eventually lost its large State Department security contract to a competitor in May 2009, Blackwater remains in Iraq on a $200 million aviation contract, which authorizes its men to be armed. That contract was recently extended by the Obama administration.
At present, Blackwater works in Afghanistan for the State Department, the CIA and the Defense Department. It continues to protect US officials there and guards visiting Congressional delegations. Rep. Jan Schakowsky told The Nation she was guarded by Blackwater on a recent trip to Afghanistan and that the company is involved with the security details of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke when they visit the country.
Not long after the Iraqi government announced in September 2007 that Blackwater would be banned, top Iraqi officials swiftly changed their tune about the company and began to publicly state that without Blackwater there would be a security crisis for US officials. After the incident, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quickly found himself under heavy US pressure to back off his initial demands of expulsion and prosecution. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately called the Iraqi prime minister to apologize, she made a point of emphasizing publicly that “we need protection for our diplomats.” A few days later, Tahseen Sheikhly, a representative of Maliki’s government, stated, “If we drive out this company immediately, there will be a security vacuum…That would cause a big imbalance in the security situation.” In a telling 180 degree turn, Maliki swiftly agreed to withhold judgment on Blackwater’s status, pending the conclusion of a “joint” US-Iraqi investigation. Ultimately five Blackwater operatives were indicted in a US court on federal manslaughter charges stemming from the Nisour Square shootings, while a sixth pled guilty.
According to the Times, former CIA official J. Cofer Black, at the time a vice chairman at Blackwater, learned of the alleged bribery plan on a visit to Baghdad in late 2007, during which Black was discussing “compensation” for victims of the shooting with US officials. Upon returning to the United States, according to the Times, Black confronted Blackwater’s owner, Erik Prince, “who did not dispute that there was a bribery plan.” Black later resigned from the company.
As The Nation has reported, following Nisour Square evidence emerged of a clear a pattern of the State Department urging Blackwater to pay what amounted to hush money to Iraqi victims’ families. “In cases involving the death of Iraqis, it appears that the State Department’s primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to ‘put the matter behind us,’ rather than to insist upon accountability or to investigate Blackwater personnel for potential criminal liability,” according to a report of the House Oversight Committee released in late 2007.
After a drunken Blackwater guard allegedly shot and killed an Iraqi bodyguard inside the Green Zone on Christmas Eve 2006, the Chargé d’Affaires of the US embassy in Iraq initially suggested Blackwater make a $250,000 payment but the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security said this was too much and could cause Iraqis to “try to get killed so as to set up their family financially.” In the end, the State Department and Blackwater reportedly agreed on a $15,000 payment. During his Congressional testimony in October 2007, Erik Prince corrected that figure, saying Blackwater had actually paid $20,000. In another case, in al Hillah in June 2005, a Blackwater operator killed an “apparently innocent bystander” and the State Department requested that Blackwater pay the family $5,000. “Can you tell me how it was determined that this man’s life was worth $5,000?” Rep. Davis asked Prince. “We don’t determine that value, sir,” Prince responded. “That’s kind of an Iraqi-wide policy. We don’t make that one.”
Shortly after the Nisour Square shootings, the State Department began contacting the Iraqi victims’ families. Dr. Jawad, whose son and wife were the first victims that day, said US officials asked him how much money he wanted in compensation. “I said their lives are priceless,” Jawad recalled. But the US officials continued pressing him for a dollar amount. He said he told a Department representative “if he could give me my loved ones, I would gladly give him $200 million.” The Iraqi government eventually demanded $8 million in compensation for each victim. In the end, the State Department, on behalf of Blackwater, offered family members between $10-12,500, which many of them refused.
The Times reports:
[In Baghdad] Black was in a series of discussions with Patricia Butenis, the deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Baghdad, about compensation payments to the Nisour Square victims. According to former Blackwater officials, Mr. Black was furious when he learned that the payoff money was being funneled into Iraq, and he swiftly broke off the talks with Ms. Butenis.
“We are out of here,” Mr. Black told a colleague, one former executive said. After returning to the United States, Mr. Black and Robert Richer, who had also joined Blackwater after a CIA career, separately confronted Mr. Prince with their concerns about the plan, one former Blackwater executive said.
Blackwater and the US State Department had a mutual interest in keeping the company in Iraq. The company provided the elite bodyguards for occupation officials and when Blackwater stopped work for three days after Nisour Square, those officials could not leave their fortress in the Green Zone. For Blackwater, the contract meant big money–more than $1 billion. In the aftermath of Nisour Square, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials basically read the riot act to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Blackwater was back to business in Iraq on the fourth day after the massacre and remains in the country. After Nisour Square, one US diplomat described the relationship between the US Embassy’s security office in Baghdad and Blackwater. “They draw the wagon circle,” the diplomat said. “They protect each other. They look out for each other. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, that wall of silence. When it protects the guilty, that is definitely not a good thing.”
While the Bush administration certainly protected Blackwater after Nisour Square, part of the reason for the alleged or attempted bribes may be this: as the US and Iraq negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement and the Iraqi government attempted to impose more authority over private military companies, the stakes got higher for Blackwater. An official license to operate in Iraq, which Blackwater did not have and long believed was an unnecessary formality, became crucial for Blackwater in order to continue on as the State Department’s prime contractor. To many Iraqis, Blackwater’s continued presence was a stark symbol of the country’s lack of sovereignty. It is an incredible fact that Blackwater has remained as long as it has in the country given the severity and extent of its alleged crimes and the rhetoric from Iraqi political figures about the company. It was not until March 2009 that the Iraqi government announced it would not extend Blackwater an operating license. In May 2009, Blackwater’s prime contract was awarded to competitor Triple Canopy. What is undeniable is that Blackwater has remained in Iraq much longer than most analysts predicted. The Times story may provide hints as to why this was the case.