No Comment — September 28, 2007, 8:09 am

Blackwater Down

Yesterday I sat in a conference room overlooking the Hudson River Valley in the United States Military Academy at West Point listening to an impressive array of military lawyers discuss the issues associated with the war on terror. One question kept asserting itself, even though it was missing from the formal agenda: “What are we going to do about the contractors?” As one retired JAG put it, “their conduct is dangerously undercutting the military’s performance of its counter-insurgency mission.” Another young Marine major referred to Blackwater’s conduct on September 16 as another demonstration of their practice of “spray and pray.”

“Lighting up an entire city block because a car engine backfires,” he said, “doesn’t protect lives; it endangers the lives of American soldiers performing a mission in Iraq.” Contractors, it was acknowledged, help the military perform its mission in many important ways. But contractors were also introducing terrible new problems that were not being effectively addressed.

It struck me as a repeat performance, because a day earlier I met with a group of Congressmen in the grand hearing room of the Agriculture Committee in the Longworth Building in Washington, and heard the same concerns. Underlying these concerns is a sense that the contractors themselves control the contract relationship. That concern is fueled by the really extraordinary steps taken by some government agencies to provide cover for the contractors when they screw up, as well as by the extraordinary terms the contractors have obtained.

Indeed, those asking the ancient question of “Who guards the guardians?” are going to have a field day with the State Department’s interim report, which is described in today’s Washington Post. It observes that

the events that led to the shooting involved three Blackwater units. One of them was ambushed near the traffic circle and returned fire before fleeing the scene, the report said. Another unit that went to the intersection was then surrounded by Iraqis and had to be extricated by the U.S. military, it added.

This interim report follows the roadposts characteristic of earlier incident whitewashes: it credits only the statements of those under investigation and makes no independent effort to interview witnesses at the scene or to develop forensic evidence. The State Department’s interim report constitutes very powerful evidence: of the State Department’s fixed intention to fully exonerate those involved, whatever the facts are. Which is why the State Department’s final report is not likely to be viewed by anyone as a credible document, starting with people at the State Department itself.

And no contractor is so much under the microscope right now as Blackwater USA, a company which has emerged from nowhere to become an industry leader in ten years. Blackwater is led by Erik Prince, an key funder of religious-right causes and key donor to the Republican Party, and his senior leadership includes Cofer Black, a former senior CIA official with tight G.O.P. connections who now serves as a principal foreign policy and national security advisor to Mitt Romney, and Joseph Schmitz, the former Pentagon Inspector General and son of a former G.O.P. congressman from Orange County with ties to the John Birch Society who was accused of serial whitewashes and cover-ups during his term in office.

Yesterday the House Oversight Committee released a report based on its study of the Fallujah incidents of March 2004, in which four Blackwater employees met gruesome deaths. This incident was followed by a major military operation in which U.S. forces occupied Fallujah with great loss of life (36 U.S. military personnel, 200 insurgents and an estimated 600 civilians—though in some reports the numbers of Iraqi deaths are put much higher). These events produced a great deal of criticism directed at the United States even from its allies. On one hand questions were directed at how civilian contractors could be deployed in an area of such obvious and open insurrection; on the other the assault on Fallujah was seen by many as a retaliation for the contractor deaths—which is forbidden by the laws of war.

Read the full report here.(PDF) The Associated Press summarizes the report:

Blackwater USA triggered a major battle in the Iraq war in 2004 by sending an unprepared team of guards into an insurgent stronghold, a move that led to their horrific deaths and a violent response by U.S. forces, says a congressional investigation released Thursday. The private security company, one of the largest working in Iraq and under scrutiny for how it operates, also is faulted for initially insisting its guards were properly prepared and equipped. It is also accused of impeding the inquiry by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The results of the staff inquiry come less than a week before Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and Blackwater’s founder, is scheduled to testify before the committee, which is chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a longtime critic of Blackwater.

The March 2004 incident involving Blackwater was widely viewed as a turning point in the Iraq war after images of the mutilated bodies of the four guards were seen around the world. Four days after the Blackwater guards were killed, a major military offensive, known as the Battle of Fallujah, began.

Following the assault on Fallujah, opposition to the occupation in the predominantly Sunni al-Anbar province grew dramatically. U.S. forces believe they have now reversed these conditions and have won new allies in al-Anbar. But many link three years of costly, testy difficulties in the province to the March 2004 incident involving Blackwater.

Blackwater founder Erik Prince will appear before Congress next week to answer further questions. Be prepared for a firefight.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2016

Tearing Up the Map

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Land of Sod

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Watchmen

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Acceptable Losses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Home

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Andrew Cockburn on the Saudi slaughter in Yemen, Alan Jacobs on the disappearance of Christian intellectuals, a forum on a post-Obama foreign policy, a story by Alice McDermott, and more
Artwork by Ingo Günther
Article
Land of Sod·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Photograph by Mike Slack
Article
The Watchmen·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Acceptable Losses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News

Chances that college students select as “most desirable‚” the same face chosen by the chickens:

49 in 50

Most of the United States’ 36,000 yearly bunk-bed injuries involve male victims.

In Italy, a legislator called for parents who feed their children vegan diets to be sentenced to up to six years in prison, and in Sweden, a woman attempted to vindicate her theft of six pairs of underwear by claiming she had severe diarrhea.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today