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BlackWater Down: The Thread Unravelled

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Blackwatergate
by Jeremy Scahill
Erik Prince, the secretive 38-year-old owner of the leading US mercenary firm, Blackwater USA, has seldom appeared in public. He has never held a press conference and is only known to have given one television interview -- to Fox News shortly after 9/11.
 
When Congress called him to testify last February, he dispatched his lawyer. But on October 2, Prince found himself in front of a Congressional committee, TV cameras trained on his boyish face.  The official focus of the hearing, convened by Henry Waxman’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was on two questions that should have been asked long ago: whether the government’s heavy reliance on private security contractors is serving US interests in Iraq and whether the specific conduct of Blackwater has advanced or impeded US efforts.




The testimony of Erik Prince, the mysterious 38-year old owner of Blackwater USA, left more questions than answers as to the company's lawless behavior in Iraq, and what to do about its past deeds and its future.
 
[Republished at PFP with Agence Global permission:
see video of Democracy Now coverage here.] 

What put Prince in the hot seat was the infamous Nisour Square shootings in Baghdad on September 16, in which as many as twenty-eight Iraqi civilians may have been killed. Waxman said the Justice Department asked him not to take testimony on the incident because it was the subject of an FBI investigation.
 
In Prince’s prepared testimony, he said that people should wait for the results of the State Department investigation “for a complete understanding of that event.” But the investigative process so far has hardly been impartial.
 
Just hours before Prince’s testimony, CNN reported that the State Department’s initial report on the shooting was drafted by a Blackwater contractor, Darren Hanner. The next day came the news that the FBI team assigned to investigate the incident in Baghdad had contracted with Blackwater itself to provide security for their investigation.

At the hearing Prince boldly declared that in Iraq his men have acted “appropriately at all times” and appeared to deny the company had ever killed innocent civilians, only acknowledging that some may have died as a result of “ricochets” and “traffic accidents.”
 
This assertion by Prince is simply unbelievable. According to a report prepared by Waxman’s staff, since 2005 Blackwater operatives in Iraq have opened fire on at least 195 occasions. In more than 80 percent of these instances, Blackwater fired first.

Not surprisingly, Prince said he supported the continuation of Order 17 in Iraq, the Bremer-era decree immunizing forces like Blackwater from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Prince said that Blackwater operatives who “don’t hold to the standard, they have one decision to make: window or aisle” on their return flight home. In all, Blackwater has terminated more than 120 of its operatives in Iraq. Given that being fired and sent home have been the only disciplinary consequences faced by Blackwater employees in Iraq, it is worth asking: What exactly did these 120 men do to earn this punishment? Perhaps it’s time for the Justice Department to open 120 more investigations.  


Waxman’s committee scrutinized one incident: the alleged killing of a bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president by a drunken Blackwater contractor on Christmas Eve 2006 inside the Green Zone. Prince confirmed that Blackwater had whisked him out of Iraq and fired him, and said the company fined him and billed the man for his return plane ticket. “If he lived in America, he would have been arrested, and he would be facing criminal charges,” Democrat Carolyn Maloney told Prince. “If he was a member of our military, he would be under a court-martial. But it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules.” Prince said, “As a private organization we can’t do any more. We can’t flog him, we can’t incarcerate him.” When asked directly whether this was a murder, which Iraqi officials have alleged, Prince consulted with his advisers, made a joke about only knowing about such things from crime dramas on TV and described the incident as “a guy that put himself in a bad situation” where “something very tragic happened.”


According to the committee report, after the killing, the State Department chargé d’affaires recommended that Blackwater make a “sizable payment” to the guard’s family. The official suggested $250,000 but the department’s diplomatic security service said this was too much and could cause Iraqis to “try to get killed.” In the end, the State Department and Blackwater reportedly agreed on a $15,000 payment.


A pattern is emerging from the Congressional investigation into Blackwater: the State Department urging the company to pay what amounts to hush money to victims’ families while facilitating the return home of contractors involved in deadly incidents for which not a single one has faced prosecution. According to the committee’s investigation, “There is no evidence” that “the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater or the company’s high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation.”




Jeremy Scahill is a Contributing Writer for The Nation magazine, a correspondent for Democracy Now, and the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.


Copyright © 2007 The Nation


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Released: 04 October 2007
Word count: 785
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Released: 04 October 2007
Word Count: 785
Rights & Permissions Contact: Agence Global, 1.336.686.9002, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  
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