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Blackwater's license to kill

November 9, 2007 | Page 5

ELIZABETH SCHULTE explains how the U.S. government gave immunity to Blackwater's mercenaries.

ABOVE THE law. Above any law.

This describes the status that the U.S. State Department granted to the private security firm Blackwater USA when it contracted for the mercenaries to work for the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

On September 16, Blackwater operatives shot and killed 17 Iraqis and wounded 27 more in Nisour Square in Baghdad. The guards, part of a State Department convoy, began shooting at civilians in every direction, according to an Iraqi government investigation. "The shooting started like rain," a truck driver named Fareed Walid Hassan told the New York Times.

Although company officials deny it, Iraqi investigators believe that Blackwater helicopters flew overhead during the massacres--and fired into cars from above. "They say that at least one of the car roofs had bullets through them," the Times reported.

After the horrific incident, the State Department recorded testimony from the Blackwater employees involved--but with the understanding that they had immunity from prosecution.

What else to read

Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army has gained wide public attention for revealing the company's shawdowy past and violent present.

The new issue of the International Socialist Review includes an article by Scahill titled "Blackwater's Heart of Darkness."

Scahill's recent articles "Making a killing" in the Nation and "State to Blackwater: Nothing you say can and will be used against you in a court of law" in Huffington Post document the company's latest crimes in Iraq.


According to documents obtained by ABC News, in each of the statements, the guards begin by saying, "I understand this statement is being given in furtherance of an official administrative inquiry," and "I further understand that neither my statements nor any information or evidence gained by reason of my statements can be used against me in a criminal proceeding, except if I knowingly and willfully provide false statements or information."

As Jeremy Scahill, author of the best-selling exposé Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, pointed out in a recent article, the FBI was eventually sent to Iraq to investigate the massacre--but not "until two weeks after the shootings occurred, meaning that the initial investigation was in the hands of a non-law enforcement agency that just happens to be Blackwater's employer."

According to Scahill, "The State Department's initial report on the shooting was drafted by a Blackwater contractor on official U.S. government stationary."

And to top it off, the FBI team charged with the investigation was originally supposed to travel to Baghdad under the guard of none other than Blackwater employees--until Sen. Patrick Leahy raised questions about the arrangement.

Even so, some Blackwater employees involved in the shooting refused to be interviewed by the FBI outright, citing the promise of immunity.

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IN JUNE 2004, Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, issued a decree, Order 17, granting immunity to private contractors working for the U.S., such as Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp International. Order 17 effectively barred the Iraqi government--to which the U.S. was preparing to "hand over" power--from prosecuting contractors in Iraqi courts.

Moreover, as private contractors, Blackwater's goons aren't bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as regular U.S. soldiers are. Congress is debating rescinding the immunity of security firms like Blackwater and giving U.S. civilian courts the right to prosecute contractors.

According to estimates, some 180,000 private contractors are currently in Iraq, representing more forces on the ground than the U.S. military. About a quarter of the contractors are from security companies like Blackwater.

According to accounting by administration officials reported in the New York Times, over the past four years, the amount of money paid by the State Department to private security and law enforcement contractors has quadrupled to nearly $4 billion a year.

Before the September 11 attacks, Blackwater, which was founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, had few government contracts. It has boomed in the years of the U.S. "war on terror."

Also booming is the number of accusations of violence made against the company. Prior to September 16, reports of Blackwater attacks included a February 4 shooting that resulted in the death of an Iraqi journalist; a February 7 shooting in which three guards were allegedly killed outside Iraqi state television offices; a September 9 shooting in which five Iraqis were killed near a government building in Baghdad; and a September 12 shooting that wounded five people in eastern Baghdad. On May 30, an Iraqi man was shot and killed--Blackwater officials say he was driving too close to a security detail.

According to Scahill, when an off-duty Blackwater operative allegedly killed the bodyguard of an Iraqi vice president inside the Green Zone last Christmas, Blackwater officials quickly snuck the contractor out of Iraq. They say they were ordered to do so. Though Iraqi officials say the shooting was a murder, the contractor has yet to be publicly charged with any crime.

In response to the massacre in Nisour Square, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki denounced Blackwater, and the government's Interior Ministry said it was expelling the company. But four days later, Blackwater was back in action in Iraq.

Last week, the Iraqi cabinet passed draft legislation that would lift immunity for foreign private security companies. Next, the resolution goes to the Iraqi parliament for approval. The proposed resolution stipulates that foreign contractors register their firearms, helicopters and other equipment with Iraqi authorities, and that foreign employees obtain visas from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry.

But putting Blackwater out of business in Iraq will be no simple task--considering the friends it has in very high places.

For example, on the team that Erik Prince hired to prepare him for congressional hearings was the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. Burson-Marsteller's chair Mark Penn is a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

In the past, Blackwater has retained former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr and Fred Fielding, the current White House counsel. Public relations specialist Mark Corallo, the chief spokesman for former Attorney General John Ashcroft, worked for Blackwater, but quit last year because of its "cowboy" attitude, he told the New York Times.

The recent spotlight on its crimes forced the State Department last week to take Blackwater off of the job of guarding U.S. diplomats in Iraq. Regular U.S. military personnel have been assigned to the job.

The pressure is on for the U.S. to do something about the terror of Blackwater mercenaries--but the question is whether U.S. officials think they can afford to do so.

As Scahill points out, "While Blackwater's conduct in Iraq is horrifying, it is important to remember that U.S. ambassadors--all four who have served under the Iraq occupation--owe their lives to Blackwater's shoot-first-and-never-ask-questions cowboy tactics.

"They are the reason the company can brag it has never lost an American life it was protecting. Blackwater does its job, and while it is essential to prosecute its operatives for their crimes, the ultimately responsible party is the entity that hired them and deployed them armed and dangerous in Iraq."

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