Tuesday, September 18

Blackwater's Iraqi-Killing License in Jeopardy While Congress Protects Company's American-Killing Rights

Today the left-leaning Center for American Progress's daily email newsletter reported the Iraqi government was cancelling Iraqi operations of Blackwater USA, the Bush White House's security company of choice operating within and outside Baghad's Green Zone.

It's about time the Bush White House's handpicked Iraqi government finally considered their civilians long enough to toss the criminal profiteering mercenaries out of their country. How will White House spinmiesters tweak this little "war" bump for public consumption in the U.S.?

Still, let the following episode serve as the metaphor for Blackwater's black operational history in Iraq.

On 10 May 2007, Robert Greenwald was scheduled to speak before a House committee at the inviation of Rep. Jim Doran about his incendiary documentary film Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. Having obiously acquainted themselves with Greenwald's claims of criminal-like profiteering in Iraq, Republicans objected to his showing this 4-minute clip from the film to committee members; Democrats accomodated their request.

Though the episode was not included in the clip for the U.S. House, the Republicans had to be frantic that Greenwald might air in Congress Blackwater contracting abuses that led to the death of four U.S. mercs, some former members of U.S. special forces, on 31 March 2004 during the U.S. military's savaging of Fallujaha.

Family members of the killed for-hire soliders filled a lawsuit against the company for negligence after Blackwater refused to provide them any information about their deaths. On 7 February 2007, the four mothers of the deceased men were invited to testify (3:34 minute clip here) before the Hosue Committee on Oversight and Government Report in its hearing into Blackwater contracting irregularities in Iraq.

Here is an excerpt (pdf) from the 8-page testimony submitted by Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, Rhonda, Teague, Donna Zovko and Kristal Batalona:

There is no accountability for the tens of thousands of contractors working in Iraq andabroad. Private contractors like Blackwater work outside the scope of the military’s chain ofcommand and can literally do whatever they please without any liability or accountability fromthe U.S. government. They also work in countries like Iraq, which are not currently capable ofenforcing the law and prosecuting wrongful conduct, such as murder. Therefore, Blackwater cancontinue accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money from the government,without having to answer a single question about how its security operators are killed. It is ourunderstanding that Blackwater has lost more operators than any other U.S. security company working in Iraq....

Although Blackwater told the families that they would have to file a lawsuit to obtain a copy of the incident report, Blackwater has done everything possible to prevent the disclosure of any information. During the past two years that the lawsuit has been pending, Blackwater has not answered a single question or produced a single document. Instead, Blackwater has appealed every single ruling all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

After we obtained a court order to take the deposition of a key witness, Blackwater senthim out of the country just days before his deposition. When he recently returned to the UnitedStates after working for Blackwater for the past two years, we obtained another court order totake his deposition. Blackwater has now appealed that order as well.

Thus far in our legal quest, Blackwater has hired five different law firms to fight us,including such politically connected lawyers as Fred Fielding (now White House counsel) and Kenneth Starr [GOP Special Prosecutor who found nothing in the Clintons' Watergate real estate probe]. It appears that Blackwater will go to any lengths to prevent us from finding out why our men were killed and to avoid any accountability for its actions....

Blackwater, however, finally responded, in January, by cynically filing a $10 million countersuit against the plaintiffs, "arguing, of all things, breach of contract." Go figure.

In any event, below I have excerpted in its entirity the Center for American Progress's 18 September email update on Blackwater.


License to Kill? License Revoked.

Yesterday, the Interior Ministry of Iraq announced that it was revoking the license of Blackwater USA, a private American company that provides security to government and private officials in Iraq such as Amb. Ryan Crocker. Employees of the firm were involved in Baghdad shootout that killed at least nine civilians, including a mother and her child. Details of the shootout are murky. The shooting began after a car bomb exploded near a State Department motorcade in central Baghdad. Blackwater and U.S. officials say the security contractors then exchanged fire with armed attackers, but "three people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting" told McClatchy that "only the Blackwater guards were firing." Regardless, the incident has sent shockwaves through Iraq. "We have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory," said Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf. "We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities." A senior Iraqi official, however, told Time that "as far as the license being permanently revoked, 'it's not a done deal yet.'" Additionally, it is unlikely that Iraqi courts would have the legal ability to hold the contractors accountable. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iraqi Prime Minister Mouri al-Maliki yesterday to offer condolences and the promise of a "fair and transparent investigation," one American official in Baghdad told The New York Times that "this incident will be the true test of diplomacy between the State Department and the government of Iraq."

THE FALLOUT: Approximately 1,000 Blackwater employees are currently operating in Iraq. If the Iraqi government is able to successfully kick Blackwater out of the country, the move would deal "a blow to U.S. government operations in Iraq by stripping" many "diplomats, engineers, reconstruction officials and others of their security protection." "There is simply no way at all that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq. There is no alternative except through contracts," said Crocker in his Senate testimony last week. The Iraqi government has also said that it will "review the status of all private security firms operating in the country" to "determine whether such contractors were operating in compliance with Iraqi law." The total number of private contractors in Iraq is estimated between 126,000 and 180,000, which includes 20,000 to 50,000 private security guards. The expulsion of Blackwater from Iraq would be a boon for Iraqi politicians as "newspapers in Iraq on Tuesday trumpeted the government's decision." Maliki is expected to "gain political capital from the move against unpopular foreign security contractors" while the national government as a whole would be given a political "boost."

PRIVATE CONTRACTOR'S DARK PAST: "Visible, aggressive" private contractors have "angered many Iraqis, who consider them a mercenary force that runs roughshod over people in their own country." At Abu Ghraib, "the U.S. Army found that contractors were involved in 36 percent of proven abuse incidents," but "not a single private contractor named in the Army's investigation report has been charged, prosecuted or punished." Though many other private security firms are operating in Iraq, Blackwater is perhaps the most visible. On March 31, 2004, four contractors working for Blackwater were brutally killed in Fallujah. After images of their mutilated bodies were shown hanging from a bridge, the American military laid siege to the city, resulting in some of the most intense fighting of the war. In Dec. 2006, a Blackwater employee allegedly drunkenly killed a guard for the Iraqi Vice President. Instead of being held accountable in Iraq, the contractor was smuggled out of the country and fired by the company. This past May, "Blackwater guards were involved in shooting incidents on consecutive days in Baghdad." In total, Interior Ministry officials say they have "received reports of at least a half-dozen incidents in which Blackwater guards allegedly shot civilians, far more than any other company."

LEGAL GREY AREA: "A Blackwater employee is not going to be subject to Iraqi courts," says Scott Silliman, director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University. The day before the Coalition Provisional Authority ceased to exist, L. Paul Bremer, the chief American envoy in Iraq, issued CPA Order 17, which "granted American private security contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts." Though "the Iraqi government has contested the continued application of this order," they are restrained from "changing or revoking CPA orders," so the order is still in effect. It is unclear what U.S. laws would govern the actions of private security contractors operating in a foreign country. Though "uniformed military personnel are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and 'persons serving with or accompanying an armed force in the field' are technically subject as well," the application of the UCMJ to these private contractors would likely face constitutional challenges. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 covers civilians working for the Department of Defense, but even this would be insufficient to cover Blackwater employees involved in Sunday's shootout, since they are actually employed by the State Department.

CONGRESS NEEDS TO ACT: Yesterday, House Oversight Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) announced that "the Oversight Committee will be holding hearings to understand what has happened and the extent of the damage to U.S. security interests." In addition to investigating this specific incident, action needs to be taken that explicitly clarifies what laws govern private contractors and how they can officially be held accountable for their actions. In fall 2006, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) added a clause to the 2007 Defense bill that "changed the law defining UCMJ to cover civilians not just in times of declared war but also contingency operations." But "no Pentagon guidance has been issued on how this clause might be used by JAGs in the field." Graham's clause also didn't not extend to contractors not working for the Defense Department. Rep. David E. Price (D-NC) "has proposed legislation that would make all contractors, whether they work for the State Department or the Defense Department, to be subject to prosecution under U.S. law."

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