When Blackwater contractors opened fire in Baghdad’s Nisour Square on September 16, 2007, spraying bullets into cars carrying families and killing seventeen Iraqi civilians, the shooters had little reason to think they would face any consequences for their actions. The Bush administration, after all, had gone out of its way to offer immunity to the private soldiers it was deploying to fight alongside US military forces in Iraq. As one of his last acts in office, Paul Bremer, Bush’s envoy in the first year of the occupation, had issued a decree known as Order 17 officially immunizing contractors from prosecution in Iraq. One of the few voices in Congress to raise any concerns about this extraordinary situation was Dennis Kucinich, who asked a Pentagon official at a hearing in June 2006, “Would the Department of Defense be prepared to see prosecution proffered against any private contractor who was demonstrated to have unlawfully killed a civilian?”
The official replied, “Sir, I can’t answer that question.”
This ominous exchange was reported in Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, published by Nation Books after news had spread of the Nisour Square massacre around the world. Scahill continued to report the Blackwater story for this magazine as the long process of seeking justice for the Nisour Square killings unfolded. In “Blackwater’s Youngest Victim” (February 22, 2010), he told the story of 9-year-old Ali Kinani, who died despite the desperate attempts of his father, Mohammed, to save him in the attack.
Seven years later, at least one verdict is in. On October 22, a federal district court in Washington found four Blackwater guards guilty in the shootings of more than thirty people that day in Iraq. Blackwater contractor Nicholas Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder, while Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were found guilty on multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and gun violations. The men are appealing, arguing that the law under which they were charged, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, should not apply because they were contractors for the State Department, not the Pentagon.
So while this ruling finally offers a measure of comfort to Iraqis outraged by the impunity enjoyed by Blackwater and other US contractors operating in their country, the story is far from over. For one thing, as is perhaps not surprising, the people responsible for letting loose these marauding forces have not paid any price. That includes former Bush administration officials like Bremer, as well as Blackwater’s founder, the messianic Erik Prince, who “had deep ties to the Bush administration and served as a sort of neoconservative Praetorian Guard for a borderless war launched in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” as Scahill wrote recently on the Intercept. Prince has launched a new company, Frontier Services Group, which claims to offer “world-class logistics solutions across the African continent.” Stung by criticism of Blackwater and an IRS audit, Prince has turned to China, which is seeking to exploit Africa’s resources, to fund the next phase of his career. “I would rather deal with the vagaries of investing in Africa,” he petulantly told The Wall Street Journal, “than in figuring out what the hell else Washington is going to do to the entrepreneur next.”
In the United States, plenty of others have picked up where Prince left off. Triple Canopy, DynCorp—hundreds of companies work as contractors and subcontractors on US military operations, including counterterrorism and surveillance. And while the US government has moved to establish more accountability and firmer rules of engagement for these companies, much more remains to be done, as Tim Shorrock recently noted in The New York Times. Under President Obama, reliance on private military contractors by the Pentagon and the State Department shows no signs of abating. As Shorrock put it, “Insourcing national security functions has wide political support, and would go a long way toward restoring public trust in the military. And it might keep us from engaging in foolish wars that only create more enemies and make us less safe.”