Back in early June, I wagered my husband that Blackwater was going to make the front page of MSN within six month, with news of their problems in Iraq. Sure enough.
BAGHDAD – The Iraqi government said Monday that it was revoking the license of an American security firm accused of involvement in the deaths of eight civilians in a firefight that followed a car bomb explosion near a State Department motorcade.
The Interior Ministry said it would prosecute any foreign contractors found to have used excessive force in the Sunday shooting. It was the latest accusation against the U.S.-contracted firms that operate with little or no supervision and are widely disliked by Iraqis who resent their speeding motorcades and forceful behavior.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to express regret about the incident, al-Maliki’s office confirmed to NBC News.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said eight civilians were killed and 13 were wounded when contractors believed to be working for Blackwater USA opened fire in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of western Baghdad.
â€œWe have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory. We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities,â€? Khalaf said.
Khalaf said witness reports pointed to Blackwater involvement but said the shooting was still under investigation. It was not immediately clear if the measure against Blackwater was intended to be temporary or permanent. [full text]
“Opening fire in a civilian neighborhood.” Wow. According to this article, there are about 1,000 Blackwater employees in Iraq. What will we do without them?
They are the hidden casualties of the Iraq War, members of a large “shadow force” who help to keep the machinery of war operating. Their work is undeniably essential, more so considering how the human resources of the U.S. military are stretched dangerously taut and how the colossal burdens of maintaining this colossal misadventure continue to fall on the shoulders of a duty-bound few. The majority of these men and women are performing work that once upon a time would have been tasked to service members. They are exposed to much the same risks as the troops alongside whom they work but, unlike the soldiers, when they fall victim to the bullets and roadside bombs and mortars, they fall largely unnoticed and unrecognized.
The Bush administration and their corporate sponsors would be happy to keep it that way. These bosses of the military-industrial complex, who are far removed (in every sense) from the physical and psychological perils of the war they champion, know full well that their misguided endeavors could not be sustained for long were it not for the sacrifices of those who work and die in the shadows. Who are these twilit figures? They are the contractors, the employees of corporate war profiteers like Kellogg, Brown, & Root (a Halliburton subsidiary) and Blackwater. Were it not for this privatized army of men and women, the war in Iraqâ€”or any other unpopular and unjustified military interventionâ€”might not be possible. And that is perhaps a greater and more insidious danger to this republic than any terrorist cell.
From the New York Times:
Casualties among private contractors in Iraq have soared to record levels this year, setting a pace that seems certain to turn 2007 into the bloodiest year yet for the civilians who work alongside the American military in the war zone, according to new government numbers.
At least 146 contract workers were killed in Iraq in the first three months of the year, by far the highest number for any quarter since the war began in March 2003, according to the Labor Department, which processes death and injury claims for those working as United States government contractors in Iraq.
That brings the total number of contractors killed in Iraq to at least 917, along with more than 12,000 wounded in battle or injured on the job, according to government figures and dozens of interviews.
The numbers, which have not been previously reported, disclose the extent to which contractors â€” Americans, Iraqis and workers from more than three dozen other countries â€” are largely hidden casualties of the war, and now are facing increased risks alongside American soldiers and marines as President Bushâ€™s plan to increase troop levels in Baghdad takes hold.
As troops patrol more aggressively in and around the capital, both soldiers and the contractors who support them, often at small outposts, are at greater peril. The contractor deaths earlier this year, for example, came closer to the number of American military deaths during the same period â€” 244 â€” than during any other quarter since the war began, according to official figures. [full text]
Protest is mounting around Potrero, CA and the proposed training ground for Blackwater USA. Strangely, the size of the proposed facility appears to have shrunk from 324 acres, as quoted in Raw Story (see previous post), to 220 acres, as quoted in today’s story. From Fox News in San Diego:
Dozens of people protested a private military and law enforcement training facility that’s being proposed in the east San Diego county. Blackwater USA, the company that wants to build the facility, has been accused of training mercenaries for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now the military contractor wants to construct firing ranges on 220 acres of farmland in the tiny community of Potrero.
Potrero is about 45 miles east of San Diego. Some residents are worried about increased traffic and noise.
“They’re talking 300 students, 500 to 550 pieces of ammunition per student, shooting from nine o’clock until maybe until six or seven or maybe later,” said Jan Hedlun. Hedlun is a member of the Potrero planning group. [full text]
It looks like back-room deals for land use happen in every community — it’s the degree of the problem that makes the story. Here in Cranston, Rhode Island, we have a concrete plant trying to insert itself on a piece of flood-zone land in a bunch of people’s backyards, and a grassroots organization of residents trying to stop the project. In Potrero, CA, Blackwater USA is trying to put in an 824 acre military training ground. From Raw Story:
Massive security contractor faces growing protest in rural California town over 824-acre base
SAN DIEGO — Potrero, California boasts a broad swath of meadowland that currently houses derelict chicken coops.
Surrounded by the Cleveland National Forest, the property boasts a former chicken ranch and includes an environmentally sensitive, protected agricultural preserve southeast of San Diego.
But if private security contractor Blackwater USA gets its way, this 850-strong community will soon host an 824-acre military training base, replacing the erstwhile chicken ranch with fifteen firing ranges and an emergency vehicle operatorâ€™s course the length of ten football fields.
A RAW STORY investigation has already led to the removal of one lawyer connected to the project. The inquiry has also discovered that California congressman and current presidential candidate Duncan Hunter — who is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee — is a client of the firm, Blackwater USA, a massive US security contractor in Iraq.
Minutes of a planning meeting raise questions about whether Hunter was involved in lobbying for the project. At the Feb. 8, 2007 planning meeting, Vice President for Blackwater West Brian Bonfiglio said Hunter was one of the firm’s clients.
“We talk with Duncan about many things,” Bonfiglio said (emphasis in original).
Blackwater isnâ€™t a stranger to controversy. In February 2004, families of four security contractors killed in Fallujah, who are suing the firm for information regarding their deaths, testified before the House Government Reform Committee.
The private security contractor has seen its federal contract revenues swell since Sept. 11. Six years ago, the firm raked in $250,000; today a single Iraq contract is valued at $300 million. Much of its work takes place in Iraq; the company was at one time responsible for the security of interim Iraq consul Paul Bremer. Blackwater now aims to expand operations by establishing several new training camps in addition to its headquarters in North Carolina.
Townspeople and environmentalists are squaring off against the company and public officials. The Portrero Planning Group approved the facility by a 7-0 vote in December â€“ but since then more than half of the town’s registered voters have signed a petition opposing the facility. Residents also say they are organizing a recall against members of the Planning Group who voted in favor. [full text]
Let’s see — over half the residents of Potrero don’t want this military training ground inserted in their town, and yet the planning board voted 7-0 in favor of it. Did it occur to them that they should check with the citizens of Potrero before voting in favor of this thing? Apparently not. If you read the full text at Raw Story, you learn that there was a deliberate effort NOT to communicate with the people of Potrero about what was being planted in their midst.
The cynic in me says, well, if Blackwater gets its way, at least this project will only affect 850 people, and they are probably people who have the financial means to move if they don’t like it. But the analyst in me wants to know why we need more military training grounds. We have a military, and they have training grounds. The corporatization of the military (Blackwater) appears to be leading not only to the expansion of our military, but to the duplication of very expensive and potentially dangerous training grounds. That’s bad for our wildlife reserves, bad for our residential communities and wasteful of our tax dollars.
There are many questions raised by the US contracting with Blackwater USA, questions which are researched and documented in the new book by Jeremy Scahill entitled Blackwater, the Rise of the World’s most Powerful Mercenary Army, which is excerpted here at The Nation.
The basic push and pull of Blackwater is that the Bush administration is attempting to use private contractors more and more for security in Iraq, and Congress is trying to rein them in. Scahill does an excellent job of reviewing the history of Blackwater’s rise to power and the ways in which this privatizing of the military is damaging our country. You can listen to a Canadian Broadcast interview with Scahill here.
Some of the big issues raised by Blackwater: Should the US be privatizing its army? How does this affect the army’s ability to authorize and carry out war efforts? Concerns have been raised about whether private contractors can do things illegal and not be held accountable, since there is a great deal of murkiness about whether they are governed by the Army’s courts or by the laws of the lands in which they are working. As noted in this quote from Scahilll’s book, Lindsey Graham recently inserted legislation that will place military contractors under military law:
Senator Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reserve lawyer and former reserve judge, quietly inserted language into the 2007 Defense Authorization, which Bush signed into law, that places contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), commonly known as the court martial system. Graham implemented the change with no public debate and with almost no awareness among the broader Congress, but war contractors immediately questioned its constitutionality. Indeed, this could be a rare moment when mercenaries and civil libertarians are on the same side. Many contractors are not armed combatants; they work in food, laundry and other support services. While the argument could be made that armed contractors like those working for Blackwater should be placed under the UCMJ, Graham’s change could result in a dishwasher from Nepal working for KBR being prosecuted like a US soldier. On top of all this, the military has enough trouble policing its own massive force and could scarcely be expected to monitor an additional 100,000 private personnel. Besides, many contractors in Iraq are there under the auspices of the State Department and other civilian agencies, not the military.
Another big question: are we saving money by using Blackwater? Who will pay for the long-term care of Blackwater contractors who are injured? It doesn’t appear this is a money-saving thing, although it is being spun that way by high-powered Washington insiders. The reason we are probably not going to save money in the long run is because the soldiers are getting paid a much higher rate up front (about $10,000 a month, or $120,000 a year) and then they are required to carry insurance through the Defense Base Act, which will cause the government to pay for short-term and long-term disability and other benefits.
There is also growing concern about whether soldiers working for Blackwater have been adequately protected and provided for, as evidenced by the recent hearings on this, in which families of four Blackwater employees killed in 2004 have sued Blackwater. From Wikipedia:
The families allege that they are not suing for financial damages, but rather for the details of their sons’ and husbands’ deaths. They claim that Blackwater has refused to supply these details, unless the families sue. Four family members testified in front of the House Government Reform Committee on February 7, 2007. They asked that Blackwater be held accountable for future negligence of employees’ lives, and that Federal legislation be drawn up to govern contracts between the Department of Defense and the defense contractor.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill) has been a vocal critic of the country’s increased use of outsourcing. From Scahill’s article:
Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House intelligence committee, has been a leading critic of the war contracting system. Her Iraq and Afghanistan Contractor Sunshine Act, introduced in February, which bolsters Obama’s, boils down to what Schakowsky sees as a long overdue fact-finding mission through the secretive contracting bureaucracy. Among other provisions, it requires the government to determine and make public the number of contractors and subcontractors (at any tier) that are employed in Iraq and Afghanistan; any host country’s, international or US laws that have been broken by contractors; disciplinary actions taken against contractors; and the total number of dead and wounded contractors. Schakowsky says she has tried repeatedly over the past several years to get this information and has been stonewalled or ignored. “We’re talking about billions and billions of dollars–some have estimated forty cents of every dollar [spent on the occupation] goes to these contractors, and we couldn’t get any information on casualties, on deaths,” says Schakowsky. “It has been virtually impossible to shine the light on this aspect of the war and so when we discuss the war, its scope, its costs, its risks, they have not been part of this whatsoever. This whole shadow force that’s been operating in Iraq, we know almost nothing about. I think it keeps at arm’s length from the American people what this war is all about.”
While not by any means a comprehensive total of the number of contractor casualties, 770 contractor deaths and 7,761 injured in Iraq as of December 31, 2006, were confirmed by the Labor Department. But that only counts those contractors whose families applied for benefits under the government’s Defense Base Act insurance. Independent analysts say the number is likely much higher. Blackwater alone has lost at least twenty-seven men in Iraq. And then there’s the financial cost: Almost $4 billion in taxpayer funds have been paid for private security forces in Iraq, according to Waxman. Yet even with all these additional forces, the military is struggling to meet the demands of a White House bent on military adventurism.
I predict that the issues raised by Blackwater will be headlining over the next few months. Like Walter Reed Hospital, it’s one of those scandals that’s been sitting there for years, waiting to be investigated. Now that the families of some of Blackwater’s fallen are suing and testifying before Congress, and Scahill’s book is coming out, and new deaths and controversies are appearing, Blackwater is likely to show up on the homepage of your favorite major media source soon.