No Comment — May 22, 2007, 1:31 am

Blackwater Succeeds in Forcing Arbitration of Employee Claims

Historically, when the U.S. military deploys to a war zone, it sends roughly one contractor for every ten soldiers in uniform. But under George W. Bush this situation changed dramatically. The ratio between military contractors and soldiers in Iraq is roughly one-to-one. And the contractors are performing functions which are increasingly difficult to distinguish from the troops.

Journalist Jeremy Scahill has labeled Blackwater as America’s new “Praetorian Guard.” He focuses on its revolving door relationship with the Bush Administration, and the role the administration has taken in actually peddling the company and its services to friendly governments. The families of four Blackwater employees who were killed in an attack on a convoy in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, brought suit against Blackwater in January 2005. Blackwater has attempted to block the suit all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. It hired former Whitewater Special Prosecutor Ken Starr to handle the matter for it. And it lost all the way up the line.

Now, The Virginian-Pilot’s Bill Sizemore, who has done an excellent series of reports on Blackwater, notes that the contractor has achieved a victory of sorts. The court litigation has been stopped and the claims have been referred to an arbitration panel, one of whose three members has close personal ties to Blackwater. The case is important for several reasons, notably as it tests Blackwater’s claims of immunity and will determine what liability private military contractors face when their employees are killed or injured in a warzone.

A successful wrongful-death suit could set a precedent for holding companies liable when their contractors are wounded or killed on the battlefield.

In a largely invisible cost of the war in Iraq, hundreds of civilian contractors have been killed and thousands wounded doing jobs that would have been handled by U.S. military personnel in previous wars. A report Friday in The New York Times said at least 917 contractors have been killed.

This issue has not received the attention that it deserves. Indeed, it’s increasingly clear that there has been a concerted effort to obscure relations between the Bush Administration and a number of contractors, and the Blackwater case is among the most striking.

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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