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Original Essays

Why I Wrote Blackwater

by Jeremy Scahill
 
  1. Blackwater: The Rise of the World
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater would be a masterpiece of the genre of futuristic sci-fi were it not so regrettably real....It's a horrifying but necessary read, and I can't recommend it more highly than that." Daily Kos
My gateway into the Blackwater story was very much rooted in my experience as a reporter in Iraq. I first traveled to Baghdad in late 1998, when the Clinton administration was gearing up to attack the country (in December 1998, Clinton bombed Baghdad for four days). I went in by car from Jordan in the middle of the night with a small group of human rights activists from the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness campaign. The last news reports we heard before setting off for Baghdad indicated that military strikes could happen at any moment. Along the long desert road stretching from Amman to the Iraqi capital, we stopped in the Iraqi city of Fallujah to get some food. When we were there, my friend Kathy Kelly, a human rights activist who at the time had been in and out of Iraq more than any non-military U.S. citizen, told us the story of how during the 1991 Gulf War "errant" "smart bombs" smashed into a crowded marketplace in Fallujah, killing dozens of people. It was the first of what would be many visits to Fallujah for me, including camping there in the summer of 2002. I loved the city and its people, who suffered so incredibly under U.S. bombs and economic sanctions.

After 9/11 — in fact, when I first heard the twin towers had been hit — I knew the Bush administration would go to war against Iraq. I determined to focus all of my energies on Iraq and spent the better part of the two years between 9/11 and the invasion reporting from throughout Iraq, including Fallujah. During that time, as I discussed the impending invasion with people throughout Iraq, I heard over and over the same sentiment: "We have nothing against the American people. It is your government." People wanted Saddam gone, but they did not want him replaced with an occupying army. Iraqi friends told me that if the United States did invade, they would take up arms — not to defend Saddam, but to defend their communities and neighborhoods. I heard this in the Shiite slums, known for their opposition to Saddam, as well as in the so-called "Sunni Triangle," which included Fallujah and was portrayed as being a "hotbed" of support for the regime.

On March 31, 2004, news broke that a convoy of Americans had been ambushed in Fallujah. On the news, images were shown of a mob dragging them from their Pajero jeeps and setting the men on fire. They dragged the Americans through the streets, stringing their charred, lifeless bodies from a bridge over the Euphrates River. I remember one young Fallujan holding up a small sign that read: "Fallujah is the Graveyard of the Americans." When it happened, I was struck by memories of the anger inside Fallujah that permeated discussions there years before the 2003 invasion, focused on the 1991 marketplace massacre and the crushing economic sanctions. Fallujah was a place that had suffered tremendously at the hands of the United States and its allies and would not take kindly to occupation. It was predictable. While many news reports covering the March 31 ambush referred to the slain Americans as "civilians," they were not. They were private soldiers sent to Iraq by a secretive private security company based near the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. The company's name was Blackwater USA. What followed the killing of these four U.S. "contractors" was a merciless, collective punishment of Fallujah, where U.S. forces twice laid siege to the city, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands. The pummeling of Fallujah was not a military decision, but rather a political one. After the Blackwater men were killed, President Bush went over the heads of his military commanders on the ground and ordered what amounted to a revenge attack on the city.

As the first siege of Fallujah was beginning, the United States simultaneously launched an offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army forces. On April 6, 2004, Bush, Dick Cheney, and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell held a videoconference with the U.S. military commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, and the occupation head, L. Paul Bremer. "Kick ass!" Bush told the men. "If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal. There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!"

In many ways, this was the moment the war turned. The White House decision to simultaneously attack Fallujah and the Mahdi Army gave fuel to the burgeoning Iraqi resistance and also resulted in a significant uptick in U.S. military deaths. In short, Iraq was burning, and the killing of the Blackwater men was the catalyst for justifying the political agenda of the administration.

As I watched the destruction of Fallujah, I determined to investigate Blackwater. It started with a simple question: how were the deaths of these four men — not civilians, not active-duty military — in the employ of a for-profit corporation worth the decimation of a city and all that would follow?

As I started my investigation, Blackwater responded to the deaths of its men in Fallujah by hiring a powerful Republican lobbying firm, the Alexander Strategy Group, to help the company navigate Congress. In fact, Blackwater hired the firm the day after the ambush. Less than a week later, company executives, being steered by their politically connected lobbyists, would meet with the powerful Republicans in the Congress who were managing the war and the war contracting system. And it apparently paid off. Blackwater's first job in Iraq, which started in the summer of 2003, was to protect Bremer. It was a $27 million no-bid contract. Three months after the March 2004 ambush and the company's meetings on Capitol Hill, Blackwater was awarded a $300 million Iraq contract. The company had become a central component of the occupation, and the money was pouring in.

Then in September 2005, I was in New Orleans reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when I encountered Blackwater operatives — some fresh from Iraq — patrolling the streets in unmarked cars, wielding M4 assault rifles and speaking of "stopping looters" and "confronting criminals." Blackwater's owner, Erik Prince, had decided to just send his armed men, along with a Puma helicopter, onto the streets of a U.S. city . When they first deployed, the Blackwater forces were not on any government contract, according to company officials. They just showed up with their guns. Eventually, Blackwater was given a very lucrative contract by the Bush administration through the Department of Homeland Security. The official job? Protecting FEMA.

At a time when they were desperately needed in their home state, a significant portion of Louisiana's National Guard forces were deployed in Bush's war overseas. In those early days of the aftermath of the flooding of the city, rather than a serious deployment of aid workers and critical services like food and water distribution and housing, the administration spent taxpayer dollars hiring many of the same companies who were servicing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to deploy in the U.S. Gulf: KBR, Halliburton, Bechtel, Fluor, Blackwater, and on and on. It was like Baghdad on the Bayou. For its part, Blackwater billed the federal government $950 a day per man and at one point was pulling in more than $200,000 a day for its Katrina work. In the end, Blackwater made over $70 million on its government-funded operations in the U.S. Gulf Coast. After that, I began investigating the company and discovered that it is run by radical right-wing Christian conservative, Erik Prince, whose family has been a major power broker in the shadow world of the conservative movement.

Prince and his family were instrumental in the rise of some of the core groups that are at the center of the Religious Right: James Dobson and his Focus on the Family Prayer Warriors Network; Gary Bauer and the Family Research Council; and Charles Colson, Nixon's "hatchet man," who has remade himself as an Evangelical minister and sometimes adviser to President Bush. These groups hold tremendous sway over the White House. The Prince family also showered Republican campaigns, including the campaigns of Bush himself, with generous contributions. That Blackwater would be at the center of a war in the Arab and Muslim world that Bush described as a "crusade" was ominous, to say the least. In its five years in Iraq, Blackwater has consistently been involved with deadly actions.

The most infamous of these happened on September 16, 2007, in Baghdad's Nisour Square. Blackwater forces opened fire in a crowded intersection and carried out what is believed to be the worst massacre of Iraqi civilians by a private U.S.-funded force in Iraq — 17 civilians dead and many more wounded. Some observers called it "Baghdad's Bloody Sunday," while a U.S. military investigation labeled it an unprovoked "criminal event." Yet, the alleged perpetrators walk around as free men and may never face justice. Even if some of the men are prosecuted, Blackwater as a company will not face any consequences, nor will the political leaders who deployed them, armed and dangerous, in Iraq. In fact, in April Blackwater's Iraq contract was extended for yet another year, despite the Iraqi government's calls for the company to be removed from Iraq. And Blackwater is not betting the house on its Iraq work. It is bidding for a lucrative "war on drugs" contract and recently started its own private version of the CIA, called Total Intelligence Solutions. Blackwater's business has never been better, and, despite the scandals and controversies, its future looks bright. Although 90 percent of Blackwater's business is with the government, Congress has found it very difficult to get detailed information on its operations, and, as of now, its forces appear to be above the law.

In a way, Blackwater is a metaphor for much of what has happened over the past eight years with U.S. policy — at home and abroad. The country is in the midst of the most radical privatization agenda in its history. We see it in schools, health care, law enforcement, intelligence, and, in a very Frankensteinian way, in the U.S. war machine.

The corporations have all the power. In a way, it is the embodiment of everything President Eisenhower warned against in his 1961 farewell address, in which he prophesied the grave threat of unchecked power stemming from the rise of the military-industrial complex. "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist," he said. "We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted."

And the cold hard fact is this: Blackwater and companies like it are here to stay, regardless of who wins the November presidential election. They have, in the words of one industry analyst, become the American Express card of U.S. foreign policy. My hope in writing this book was that it could lead to deeper investigations into this radical privatization system because the people of the United States — and the world — will be living with it for many, many years to come.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jeremy Scahill is an award–winning journalist, including a 2007 Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is a former correspondent for Democracy Now! and a frequent contributor to the Nation. Scahill lives in Brooklyn, New York. spacer

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