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.

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