by Jeremy Scahill
July 9, 2008
Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist and author of the award-winning book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, spoke at Socialism 2008 on the spread of privatized war corporations and the struggle against them.
I GAVE a talk the other day in San Francisco in front of an audience primarily of military people. I was invited by the Marines’ Memorial Association of San Francisco, and I was actually introduced by Major Gen. Mike Myatt, who was one of the commanders of the 1991 Gulf War.
This was hardly an antiwar crowd, but as an indication of how serious the problem of mercenaries and private forces in Iraq has become, many from within the established military are now starting to speak out about it.
So I was honored to be in a room full of people, regardless of their perspective on the war, who take this issue seriously enough to do something about it–who realize that this is an incredible problem. We didn’t share the same global outlook and certainly not the same opinion about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but on this issue, we’re hearing more and more voices coming from the established military.
I’m going to spend time talking about what’s at stake not just with mercenaries in Iraq, but also with the election. But I want to begin by telling a story that makes up part of a substantial investigation I did for the update of my book Blackwater. I have over 110 new pages of material in this book, and I also went through and substantially updated it based on some of the important investigations that have been conducted and are ongoing into Blackwater’s activity.
I open the book with a new investigation of an incident that I know everyone in this room remembers well–the Nisour Squre shootings last September. What I want to do right now is begin by giving you a narrative overview of what exactly happened there–what we understand from eyewitness testimony and from investigations that have been done. Because it really is a horrifying story. I think it’s important not just that we know that Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians, but the nature of that crime, and what the response of the Bush administration was after it.
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ON THAT morning of September 16, 2007, a young 20-year-old Iraqi medical student, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed, was with his mother and father. Ahmed was driving; his mother Mohassin was in the passenger seat. They dropped off his father at the local hospital where he worked, and then they went to go run some errands.
Among the errands that they were running was dropping off college applications for Ahmed’s younger sister. This was an extraordinary family. They very much had medicine in their DNA; they were a family of doctors. They had an opportunity to leave Iraq when the U.S. invasion was imminent, but they ultimately decided as a family that they were going to stay in their country, because they felt that more than ever in the history of their nation, the country was going to need doctors because of the incredible violence and bloodshed that was going to be unleashed. So they stayed in Iraq.
Ahmed and his mother were driving, and they pulled into an area of Baghdad known as the Monsour district. I had been there many times in my travels to Iraq. It used to be an upscale section of the city, where there were markets and cafes and restaurants. Now it’s a hollow shell of its former self.
When they were pulling into this intersection at Nisour Square, a convoy of heavily armored vehicles was driving down the wrong side of a one-way street. And when the men in armored vehicles saw Ahmed and his mother, they decided that they were potential bombers or terrorists. And they decided to shoot Ahmed Haithem Ahmed in his forehead.
Once those shots rang out and Ahmed was hit, his mother began screaming, “My son, my son, help me, help me,” and she was grabbing on to her son’s body. Some Iraqi police officers were in the square that day. They were traffic cops, and they had been scrambling to cut off traffic when they saw this convoy of armored vehicles come in–not for the protection of the armored vehicles, but for the protection of Iraqi civilians whose only crime has been to pull too close to these vehicles and risk being shot.
So when they heard the gunfire and realized that a driver had been shot, they ran over to try to respond. When they arrived at that white Opel sedan being driven by this young man, they saw his mother inside, and she was screaming and calling out. They were trying to convince her to get out of the vehicle, because the men in the armored cars were there, and they still had their guns pointed at the vehicle. The officers described how the grip that Mohassin had on her son’s body was so tight that they couldn’t get her out.
The police officers put their hands in the air toward the men in the armored vehicles, trying to indicate that they shouldn’t shoot–that they were trying to get this woman out. It became clear to the cops that more shots were going to be coming, and so they got out of the way of the car, and then a barrage of bullets rained down on that vehicle. According to witnesses, the car burst into flames and exploded, burning Mohassin and her son inside of it.
That kicked off 15 minutes of sustained gunfire, during which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed. One of the early victims was a 9-year-old boy named Ali, who was shot as he sat in the back seat of a van next to his cousins. His father was in the front seat; he heard the gunshots ringing out, and then some of Ali’s cousins cried out from the back, “Ali is dead, Ali is dead.” The father grabbed his son and could still hear his heart beating, and so he tried to rush him to a hospital, but it was too late.
And the father of Ali, whose name was Mohammed, came back the next day to the square to try to gather pieces of his son’s skull–to take as much of his body as he could to the Iraqi holy city of Najaf to bury him.
People were shot in the back as they tried to flee that shooting. The Iraqis didn’t know who was doing the shooting. They just knew that shots were being fired, and they did what I think a lot of people would do–they tried to run. One Iraqi lawyer was shot four times in his back, and he survived. He recently gave testimony to the UN in Geneva about this crime.
And the men, of course, who did the shooting that day, who killed these 17 people, were not members of Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. They weren’t members of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. And they weren’t members of the United States Marine Corps. They were private soldiers who were deployed by Blackwater, under orders from the Bush administration.
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WHAT HAPPENED after this shooting in Nisour Square–which became known in some circles as Baghdad’s Bloody Sunday–was that the Iraqi government was under the mistaken impression that Nuri al-Maliki was actually the prime minister of Iraq. What they did is say that Blackwater needs to leave this country, and the men who did this shooting would be prosecuted in Iraqi courts as criminals.
Of course, things are not as simple as that. Nuri al-Maliki is not the prime minister of Iraq; Condoleezza Rice apparently is. Jalal Talabani is not the president of Iraq; George Bush apparently is.
For three days after this shooting, Blackwater’s operations were halted, as Washington and its puppet regime in Baghdad discussed this diplomatic crisis. And for those three days, no U.S. officials could go anywhere outside the Green Zone. They were trapped with the Cinnabons and the Burger Kings and the Pizza Huts. One Iraqi friend said it was as though the Green Zone had been turned into the Green Zoo–because they were all trapped inside of it.
But this was a very vivid symbol of how deeply embedded Blackwater is in the U.S. occupation apparatus, and how central to occupation activities the company had become. Behind the scenes, an extraordinary story was playing out, but publicly, what we witnessed was two versions of events that were floated in the media.
On the one hand, you had the Iraqi government, which was very forcefully and firmly saying that this was a slaughter of civilians, that there was no provocation, and that all of the Iraqis who were killed were killed as a result of gunfire that was offensive in nature.
Blackwater’s version of events was that its men were nobly defending American lives in a hostile war zone, that they had been victims of an armed ambush by enemies and insurgents, and that possibly there was involvement of the Iraqi police or military in this ambush of Blackwater’s convoy.
While this was going on, behind the scenes, the Bush administration was beginning to take steps toward covering up for the actions of Blackwater and preventing any effective prosecution of the men who did the shooting that day.
One of the things that happened is that some of Blackwater’s allies in the media picked up their spin and started to say that you can’t trust anything the Iraqi government says. Mind you, this is a government that the United States put in place, and there’s no such thing as independence in this Iraqi government. They tell Nuri al-Maliki to jump, and he says how high. They tell him to do jumping jacks, and he says how many. So when the Blackwater allies in the media started spinning, it was quite ironic when they said you can’t trust anything that comes out of the Iraqi Interior Ministry because it’s controlled by Moktada al-Sadr, and it’s a “hotbed of sectarianism,” in the words of one “journalist.”
There were U.S. liaisons and advisers working within the Iraqi Interior Ministry. I guess they have to be members of the Mahdi Army as well, and probably should be investigated for their ties to nefarious criminals like Moktada al-Sadr.
Then, one day, there was the leak of a document to the media. This happened as Blackwater was saying that we need to see what the State Department comes up with. Mind you, Blackwater is working for the State Department, keeping State Department officials alive.
This document that gets leaked to the media was referred to as a first-blush report from the State Department–a sort of first version of events. It was on official State Department stationary, with the stamp of the U.S. government, and it backed up everything Blackwater said.
There were a number of problems with this document, but the most glaring of them was that it was, in fact, written by a Blackwater contractor named Darren Hanner and presented as the State Department’s first-blush report to the media.
But while aspersions were being cast on the Iraqi government’s claims, and Blackwater was spinning its version of events, something that got almost no attention whatsoever was that there was a third force that had an opinion on this, which actually had arrived on the scene 20 minutes after the last shots were fired. This force did a crime scene investigation, interviewed witnesses, examined shell casings and pieced together what it believed happened that day. That was the U.S. military.
In the words of Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa from the 1st Cavalry Division, this had been a “criminal event” that had every indication of “excessive shooting.” He said that there was no provocation and no evidence of any enemy fire or fire from any units of the Iraqi police or the Iraqi military, as Blackwater contended. His men expressed shock at the caliber of weapons that were being used in the square that day, saying that it was inconsistent with weapons that would be used, even by the U.S. military, when going into that kind of a crowded civilian area at noon on a Sunday.
Yet that report got almost no attention whatsoever. The whole situation was portrayed in the media like the investigation still needed to play out. Now if the U.S. military identified soldiers involved with something that was labeled a criminal event, there would have been a procedure to begin court-martial proceedings. They would have been prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
There haven’t been enough prosecutions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but there have been at least 70 on murder-related charges alone in Iraq. But the men who did this in Nisour Square–who committed actions that were labeled a “criminal event” by Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa–to this moment walk around as free individuals.
The top law enforcement entity in the United States is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Bush administration did not send the FBI over to investigate for two full weeks. Instead, the investigation was left in the hands of the very people that depended on Blackwater to keep them alive.
Now, if you or I were accused of committing this kind of a crime, or a much lesser crime, if we were lucky, we would be read our Miranda Rights when the police came around. We would be told we have a right to remain silent, anything we say can and will be used against us in a court of law. When the Blackwater men were questioned by State Department investigators, they were given what I call the reverse Miranda Rights. They were told that nothing they said can and will be used against them in a court of law, and nothing they say can be used to bring charges against them in any court.
It’s incredible, but true. They were offered something called limited-use immunity in return for saying what happened. Now usually, when limited-use immunity is granted, it’s given not to the suspects, but to people close to the suspects, in an effort to get them to say something about what the suspects did. It’s very rare, according to legal experts, that you actually give this immunity to the very people you suspect of committing the crime. But that’s what happened in this case.
To put this in a historical context, this is how Oliver North got off after Iran-contra. He was given limited-use immunity, protecting him for his testimony in front of the Congress, and then his lawyers effectively argued that without information gleaned from his testimony, charges would not have been possible against him.
So this was very serious obstruction of justice committed by the State Department investigators at the behest of the Bush administration. Combine that with the fact that the FBI didn’t go over for two full weeks. It’s Criminology 101–you seal off a crime scene, you investigate it, you look at the evidence, you interview witnesses. None of that was done by the FBI right away. For two weeks, it was the State Department–being guarded by Blackwater–that was investigating Blackwater.
And when the Justice Department finally did begin an investigation, two weeks after the fact, we found out that the FBI was going to be sending a team over to Iraq to investigate, and they were going to be guarded by Blackwater. Only after Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont raised a ruckus about this did the FBI say, “Okay, we’ll protect our own men and not have Blackwater protect us while we’re going to investigate Blackwater.”
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BACK HERE in the United States, all of a sudden, this became a front-page story. Many corporate media outlets were completely asleep at the wheel on this for a long time, and the overwhelming majority of the Democrats in the Congress were either doing nothing about this, or they were part of the problem.
But then, Henry Waxman, who was the leading investigator in the Congress, called on Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, to testify in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Now, Waxman has been investigating this company, digging deep into its operations, for years. So I decided to go down to Washington last October, because I wanted to see this. The last time Waxman had called Erik Prince to testify was in February 2007, and Erik Prince didn’t show up–he sent his lawyer instead. But this time, he would have to appear himself.
The night before Erik Prince was set to testify, I got hold of his prepared testimony. It was abundantly clear that Erik Prince believed that he was going to be asked questions about Nisour Square. That was what brought him there that day.
But the next morning, I get a tip-off that the Justice Department just announced its investigation, and that the White House was asking Henry Waxman not to take testimony on Nisour Square so as to not contaminate the investigation into Blackwater. I fully thought that Waxman was going to say, “Hey, we represent a third of the government, we have an independent right to investigate these matters, and the Bush administration needs to back off.”
So we go there, and Erik Prince enters the hearing room. He’s wearing his blue suit and his Navy SEAL haircut, and he’s surrounded not by an army of bodyguards, but an army of p.r. people and lawyers and his advisers. And throughout that day, they would huddle around, like Erik Prince was the quarterback, and they were calling their plays. As he walks in the room, there’s this paparazzi-type camera action on him, and Prince later said that the first thought he had when he walked in and saw all the cameras was, “My days as a covert operator are over.”
Anyway, he sits down at the table, and before Prince gets up to be sworn in, Waxman says the Justice Department has asked us not to take testimony on Nisour Square, that we assert the right of the Congress to conduct its own investigations, but we’re going to respect the wishes of the Justice Department, so we will take no testimony on Nisour Square.
I was astonished when I heard those words come out of Henry Waxman’s mouth. Because I have tremendous respect for Waxman. I think that he’s been one of the great people investigating Blackwater up until now.
But it wasn’t just that. The Democrats on that committee had been provided by Waxman’s staff of crack investigators with a very detailed report about Blackwater’s activities. A responsible legislator would have read that report and come prepared to ask questions–and more importantly, ask follow-up questions when something is floated that’s not true or is suspicious.
But what we discovered was that the Democrats were studying the report while the testimony was taking place. They were sitting there reading while Erik Prince was testifying. On multiple occasions, I would hear Erik Prince say something, and wait for one of them to respond. But no, it just didn’t happen.
There was one moment when Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois asked Erik Prince, “Are you saying, sir, that your forces have never killed innocent civilians?” And, paraphrasing, what Erik Prince said was: Yes sir–well, maybe in traffic accidents or ricochet bullets. This man’s forces were accused of gunning down 17 Iraqi civilians in an incident the military called a “criminal event,” and he’s talking about ricochet bullets and traffic accidents. It must have been the largest incident of fatalities from jaywalking in the history of the universe.
Meanwhile, multiple congresspeople thanked Blackwater for keeping them alive when they were in Iraq, because Blackwater has the contract to guard Congress when they go over. How on earth are you going to investigate this kind of company when you go over to Iraq and you’re protected by this company?
And the Republicans on this committee came up with this line. They said that we’ve heard a lot of statistics thrown around about Blackwater today and shootings and other things, but the number that matters is zero–zero Americans under Blackwater’s protection have been killed or seriously injured in Iraq. And they thanked Blackwater for their patriotism and service to the United States.
But there’s something to what the Repbulicans are saying that cuts across both of the two parties, which is really one party. This is the sort of dirty open secret: that Blackwater has done exactly what it’s supposed to do in Iraq. Blackwater’s number one job–their only job–is to keep alive the most important people in Iraq by any means necessary, and the most important people in Iraq are not Iraqis. They are U.S. occupation officials.
So if your car comes too close–bam, your medical career is over, and your mother’s dead next to you. If you happen to be driving in a van with your cousins in an area where Blackwater decided that they were going to do some shooting that day–bam, you’re dead, and your father has to go back the next day to look for pieces of your skull. And the men who did this walk around as free individuals today, and they’re thanked by people in the Congress for their service to this country.
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THIS ISN’T just about Blackwater. Someone deployed them there. Yes, Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, has placed his forces at the vanguard of a war of aggression and occupation. But Erik Prince was hired by George W. Bush’s administration, and he works directly under Condoleezza Rice. And just like Lynndie England and Charles Graner, they deserved to go down for what happened at Abu Ghraib, but Donald Rumsfeld should be sitting in a jail cell right next to them.
Because of the media finally waking up to this story, action has been initiated. There is a grand jury that is currently hearing testimony in Washington, D.C. on this incident and a number of other incidents. But let’s be clear–even if a handful of Blackwater operatives go down for this, that will be a token action. Nothing is being done to get at the root of this system. Nothing is being done to break the wedding of corporate profits to an escalation of war and violence, and nothing is being done to hold these forces systematically accountable for the crimes that they are committing.
Maybe we’ll see a handful of prosecutions. I wouldn’t necessarily count on it, but it’s possible. But that’s not going to bring any form of real change on this issue. Because what we have seen in Iraq over the past five years is that the Bush administration has doubled the size of its occupation force through the use of these private companies, and this is why immunity and impunity are going hand in hand. It is a necessity of this operation.
Many of you are probably already aware of this, but a lot of people in this country aren’t–the United States spends more than $2.3 billion every week occupying Iraq. Forty cents of every dollar spent on the occupation of Iraq goes directly to a for-profit war corporation. There are 630 corporations on the U.S. government payroll in Iraq, with 180,000 personnel. That’s more than there are U.S. troops in Iraq–there are 150,000 U.S. troops.
And those 180,000 personnel are drawn from 100 nations around the world. Many of these people come from countries whose home government is either opposed to the war or certainly isn’t a party to the war.
This system is not an accident. It means you no longer have to deal with other nation states when you want to wage an unpopular war. You don’t have to get Europe on board any more. You don’t have to try to scare up support in the region where Iraq is located. You don’t have to engage with the United Nations. You don’t have to work with NATO. You simply hire an army. We’ve said this over and over: They’ve replaced a coalition of willing nations with a coalition of billing corporations.
So, for instance, Chile had a rotating seat on the UN Security Council at the time of the invasion and was vocally opposed to this war. And the Bush administration used Blackwater to go into Chile and hire Chilean soldiers to deploy them in a war that their country opposes. This is a subversion of the sovereignty of the nation of Chile and a subversion of the independence of the people of Chile–to hire forces, some of whom served under Augusto Pinochet–and then deploy them in Iraq on the U.S. government payroll.
We are looking at a new model for waging war here, where the entire world becomes a recruiting ground. You know why we don’t have a draft in this country? First of all, it would make the war politically untenable pretty fast. But the second reason is they don’t need it any more. They simply have turned the entire world into one huge recruiting center.
And many of the people who end up working for this army of contractors–for KBR and Bechtel and Fluor and Dyncorp and Blackwater and Triple Canopy–come from nations that have been either economically or militarily targeted by the United States. Blackwater, I think, has had people from more nations working for it in Iraq than there were nations that actually supported the war with their troops.
This is the internationalization of war, and using the poor of the world as cannon fodder to occupy a country that has been systematically targeted by the United States and whose economy has been destabilized.
Right now, this remains a virtual non-issue in Congress. But it represents a very, very dangerous trend. The United Nations is now investigating this–they have a working group on mercenaries that has been traveling the globe investigating this. Because if you look at the fact that there are 177 mercenary companies in Iraq alone right now, and you realize that’s almost as many nations as there are registered at the UN, it raises very serious questions about global order–about monopoly on the use of force.
Now, the ability to wage war, once the sovereign realm of government,is in the hands of for-profit corporations–in an overt way, not just in the behind-the-scenes way that has existed for so long.
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AND THE Democrats in the Congress, I think, hold the ultimate responsibility for this system. It’s a no-brainer that the Republicans are going to want it. But the Democrats have failed to take any effective action on this issue.
I said earlier today that the crowning achievement of Nancy Pelosi’s time at the head of the Congress has been to get an approval rating lower than President Bush. It’s an extraordinary achievement. She worked very, very hard at that. She comes into power saying that impeachment is off the table, she talks about how Bush is a good guy. I don’t care if Bush is a good guy or not. It’s like Michael Franti said: I don’t care who you’re screwing in private. I want to know who you’re screwing in public.
We’ve seen the Democrats consistently authorize the funding of this illegal occupation, sometimes offering Bush more money than he actually asked for. And now we’re seeing this seep into the campaign trail.
I’m going to talk about Obama’s position and McCain’s position in a moment. But I want to know if any of you saw the new list of Barack Obama’s foreign policy team. It looks like some of the progressives are out and the old guard is in.
He’s just brought on Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state–who, of course, was asked by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes if the deaths of half a million Iraqi children was worth the price, and she said, yes, it was. Warren Christopher, another former secretary of state. Richard Danzig, the former secretary of the Navy. Lee Hamilton, the former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and also the Iraq Study Group and the 9/11 Commission. Anthony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security adviser. William Perry, Clinton’s secretary of defense. And Susan Rice, Clinton’s assistant secretary of state.
Many of these people repeated, overtly and publicly, the lies that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And these were people who were at the center of a brutal and violent foreign policy during the Clinton era. These are now the top folks at Barack Obama’s campaign. Once he sewed up the nomination, the old guard comes right in, and it’s back to being the same Democratic Party. So much for change.
There’s no question that the Republicans could run a head of lettuce for president, and it would be the candidate of the war industry. They would be talking about how a head of lettuce is going to protect us. A head of lettuce is a patriot. And they’d probably figure out a way to talk about how a head of lettuce is going to lead a green revolution. But they did manage to find a candidate who has slightly less charisma than a head of lettuce.
On the flip side is Barack Obama, who certainly is more charismatic than a head of lettuce and infinitely more charismatic than John McCain or any of the other crazy people the Republicans have running. Mitt Romney? That guy was some strange mixture of Scientology and robot. And with the hardest head of hair I’ve ever seen. He would be standing by a helicopter, and his nose hairs would be blowing, but not his hair. So John McCain was the most sane among them.
On the other side is Barack Obama, and I think all of us who are fighters for justice in this country or opposed to the war have to recognize that with the Obama campaign and this Democratic primary season, we saw an incredible tide of energy and a lot of people being politicized who had never before been involved with politics. There is something really great and important about this energy that exists right now. I don’t think it’s all about Barack Obama, but he has to be given credit for energizing a lot of people.
There is no question that there are many, many young people in this country who are becoming politicized because of Barack Obama, and I think the real challenge for the antiwar movement is to rise above the 2008 election and realize that we have a very positive thing that’s happened in this country, where a lot more people are paying attention.
I think that the antiwar sentiment is being expressed very, very clearly by the supporters of Barack Obama. I think a lot of people are out there because they want the war to end. They believe in changing this country. Whether or not any of us have any faith in the Democratic Party is sort of a separate issue when it comes to looking at this mass of people that are now engaged and energized. The challenge is to try to do something with it now that’s not about electoral politics, but is actually about changing the country.
The problem, though, with these people being in the streets and then funneled into an Obama rally is that they hear Obama, who’s very articulate and charismatic, saying things like: “I was against the war in 2002 and I’m going to end it in 2009.” Now, I’m sorry, but that is flat-out untrue. And Senator Obama knows it’s untrue, and his advisors know it’s untrue. He’s misleading those people who are filling those stadiums when he says that he’s going to end the war in 2009.
Obama does not have a plan to end the occupation of Iraq. He has a plan to downsize it and re-brand it. His Iraq plan is largely based on the Iraq Study Group recommendations and the 2007 defense supplemental put forward by the Democrats, which was portrayed as their withdrawal plan. Those plans would keep in place a force of 20,000 to 80,000 troops after the withdrawal is done in Iraq. Obama is going to keep the Green Zone, the monstrous U.S. embassy, which was built largely on slave labor, and he’s going to maintain control of the Baghdad International Airport.
And he’s going to keep in place a strike force, as he calls it, to attack al-Qaeda. Once again, we see Obama adopting the bogeyman approach of the Republicans. How many members of al-Qaeda are in Iraq? I’m not denying that there are people in Iraq who identify themselves as al-Qaeda. It’s less than 2,000 people, and now, they’re primarily consolidated in Mosul. Anyone who talks to Iraqis on a regular basis knows that these forces that identify themselves as al-Qaeda have no support within the country.
But when you say to strike at al-Qaeda, it’s a way of trying to say that there’s something causing the violence here that is not the occupation. But the occupation is causing the violence. The resistance is overwhelmingly Iraqi. It is not al-Qaeda.
So we need to know from Senator Obama: What do you mean by al-Qaeda? Do you mean you’re going to be going after this tiny microscopic group of people out of all of the resistance in Iraq? Or is al-Qaeda once again going to be adopted as the justification to go after people who are defending their country?
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THIS ISN’T just about the bigger issue of the Iraq occupation. It also has to do with the issue of private forces. Obama understands the problems with companies like Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Dyncorp better than almost anyone in the Senate. He was way ahead on this issue. He was talking about it and introducing legislation in February 2007, eight months before Nisour Square. I was critical of his legislation, but at least he was awake.
But the fact is that Obama’s Iraq plan will necessitate using these companies for at least three years. Obama has said he will not sign onto legislation to ban these companies, which has been sponsored by Jan Schakowsky in the House and Bernie Sanders in the Senate. And in the words of one of his senior foreign policy advisers in an interview I did with him, Obama cannot and will not rule out using Blackwater and other private security companies in Iraq.
Because if Obama wants to keep an army of occupation officials, classified as diplomats, in Iraq, and if he wants to keep to keep the Green Zone and the embassy and the Baghdad Airport, he’s keeping in place the primary areas where Blackwater’s bread is lathered with golden butter.
Obama can say that we want the military to do it instead of Blackwater. But the military won’t come within 100 countries of that mission. The military doesn’t want to be protecting someone from USAID, which puts them in a situation where they’re going to be shooting at Iraqi civilian vehicles and driving them off the road. The military is already involved with enough over there, and they don’t want to have the added dimension of having to run these diplomats around.
The other possibility is that the State Department has its own security division, which operates all over the world–we could have full-time employees of the U.S. government that are accountable under U.S. law do this job in Iraq. The problem is this: right now, the State Department has 1,450 full-time diplomatic security agents in every nation on earth combined. Blackwater has 1,000 in Baghdad alone. That means that Blackwater has a force in Baghdad that is two-thirds the size of the global deployment of the State Department diplomatic security division.
The reality is that Obama has painted himself into a corner with his Iraq plan. The only solution and the only way to stop using these companies is the only way to stop the violence in Iraq. The U.S. needs to pull out completely–all of its soldiers, all of its mercenaries, all of its contractors.
Short of doing that, business is going to be very, very good in Iraq, not to mention elsewhere in the world. I want to talk about the future of this industry beyond Bush–because this is not just an invention of the Bush administration.
This was on a bipartisan trajectory for several decades, beginning after Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961, when he talked about the rise of the military-industrial complex and unchecked power. At that time, Eisenhower was just talking about the weapons manufacturing industry–the makers of tanks and fighter bombers and bullets. Now, we’re talking about the outsourcing of the actual shooting of the guns.
Blackwater was essentially rewarded for what it did in Iraq by getting its contract renewed in April of this year, for yet another year. So that’s on the desk of whoever the next president is. But they’re already on to other major areas of profit and expansion.
One of the things Blackwater is doing right now is bidding for a share of a whopping $15 billion contract to fight the so-called war on drugs. The contract is with the U.S. Department of Defense, and the language specifies that they will be fighting terrorists with drug-trade ties.
I’ve investigated this program, and it specifically targets Bolivia and Colombia, and also Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in central Asia. Blackwater is already operating in Afghanistan in a dual capacity. It does what it does in Iraq, and it is working for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Blackwater is the trainer of the Afghan security forces in counter-narcotics. The Wall Street Journal said this could be Blackwater’s biggest job ever. It could put it in an arena with the godfathers of the war industry–companies like Raytheon and Northroop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
If you look at Colombia right now, for instance, the U.S. government spends $630 million a year for the so-called war on drugs in Colombia. And it then directs Bogotá to hire U.S. war corporations to deploy inside Colombia as part of the war on drugs. Dyncorp, the Wal-Mart of private security companies, has for years been operating throughout Latin America, with the heaviest concentration in Colombia. They’re also in Bolivia right now. Evo Morales was read the riot act–if you don’t allow our mercenaries in there, you don’t get the rest of the aid.
This is not, as many in this room know, a war on drugs–this is a counter-insurgency war. And it can be traced all the way back through the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America–just to take recent history, the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in the early 1950s, the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the rise of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the death squads in El Salvador, the contras in Nicaragua, the death squads in Guatemala, the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, the attempt to suppress the Zapatistas in Mexico. All of this is a part of that same history of U.S. intervention in Latin America.
It used to be that there was a war against Communism, then it was a war against drugs. Now it’s a war against terrorists with drug-trade ties. Sometimes it comes in the form of death squads, and sometimes it comes in the form of supporting juntas. Sometimes it’s overt military intervention, and sometimes it’s covert military intervention. Sometimes it’s funneling arms to the contras, and sometimes it’s putting contractors on the ground and saying that what they’re doing is fighting the war on drugs.
This isn’t any more a war on drugs than it was a war on communism. This is a war against people’s right to self-determination and the right of nations to independence. That’s what it always has been, and that’s what it is now.
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BLACKWATER IS expanding inside the United States. Many of you have heard me talk about my encounters with Blackwater in New Orleans, where heavily armed Blackwater operatives were deployed on the streets of a U.S. . Without a government contract at first–Erik Prince simply sent his men onto the streets. After they were there, they got the contract. How is that legal? How is it constitutional?
They got beat by the town of 850 people in Portrero, California. It was a grassroots victory. When Blackwater tried to set up shop there, on an 824-acre chicken farm right by Tecate, Mexico, and there was an uprising from a town of 850 people, right on the U.S.-Mexico border. Blackwater finally pulled out after a year and a million dollars spent, and they said it didn’t have anything to do with activism, but that Portrero didn’t meet their business plan.
So what Blackwater did then is set up a shell company and register a business in the city of San Diego itself, in Otay Mesa, right near Tijuana, Mexico. They did it not with Blackwater, but with the name of another company–they opened a warfare training institute three blocks from the Tijuana International Airport.
Activists found out about this, they raised a ruckus, and the city of San Diego stood up to Blackwater. And they said, we have to have public hearings on this. The city attorney took it on, and for a while, the mayor took it on.
Then Blackwater did what any responsible company would do if they wanted to respect the will of a local community. They went to a federal judge appointed by the president’s father and asked her to intervene. And so this Judge Huff ordered the city of San Diego to allow Blackwater to open its facility. Within hours of that ruling, the Blackwater warfare training center was open.
I was out there last week with activists who held a demonstration outside Blackwater’s facility. But this isn’t the only place. Blackwater is trying to open shop in Idaho right now. They already have opened shop in Illinois, near the Wisconsin-Iowa border. They call it Blackwater North.
Blackwater says that people should calm down, and all they’re doing is training. But we have seen an unprecedented para-militarization of law enforcement in this country, and to have a company with a reputation like Blackwater training local police forces across the U.S. should be disturbing to anyone who cares about any semblance of a democratic process and any semblance of human rights, civil rights or constitutional rights.
When they say we’re just setting up a training center, that doesn’t fly. That’s what they said when they opened up their massive 7,000-acre private military base in North Carolina. It was called Blackwater Lodge and Training Center. Fast forward a few years, and Blackwater is operating in countries around the world, and has been central to U.S. acts of aggression against other countries.
Erik Prince, the owner, says Blackwater is now going to be a full-spectrum operation. They’ve just reported record profits in their last two quarters. The future looks very bright for them.
They started a private intelligence company–a private CIA–called Total Intelligence Solutions. Erik Prince began building it in April 2006, and it just opened last year. It’s based in Arlington, Virginia, in the Ballston complex, right near the epicenter of the U.S. intelligence community.
Total Intelligence is marketing what they describe as CIA-type services to Fortune 500 corporations and governments. They recently expanded it to Fortune 1000 corporations, so they’re casting an even wider net. This company is being run by three veterans of the CIA: J. Cofer Black, the man who ran the extraordinary rendition program and the CIA’s counter-terrorism center; Robert Richer, the former deputy director of operations at the CIA; and Enrique “Ric” Prado, a 24-year veteran of the CIA, with 10 years of experience in the CIA paramilitary division and a specialty in Latin America.
These men have put CIA-type services, as they call them, on the open market for bidding. And it comes at a time when 70 percent of the combined budget of the 16 intelligence agencies in this country is in the hands of the private sector–is being handled by private contractors.
I want to end by reading something that J. Cofer Black said recently on CNBC, the business channel.
One of the clients of Blackwater and Total Intelligence is Jordan. King Abdullah, of course, is completely in Bush’s back pocket and has allowed Jordan to be used for all sorts of acts against Iraq and other activities. And at no point did CNBC identify J. Cofer Black as working for the Jordanian government. They identified Total Intelligence as a “corporate consulting firm that includes investment strategy.” And “Ambassador Black” was introduced as a “28-year veteran of the CIA,” the “top counter-terror guy,” and “a key planner for the breathtakingly rapid victory of American forces that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
So Black is on CNBC, and the topic is investment in Jordan, and Black says, “You have leadership, King Abdullah, his majesty King Abdullah, who is certainly kind toward investors, very protective. Jordan is, in our view, a very good investment. There are some exceptional values there.” He went on to say there are “numerous commodities that are being produced and are doing well.”
Now here’s the kicker: Black actually argued on this program that the flood of Iraqi refugees into Jordan, fleeing the violence of the U.S. occupation, was good for potential investors in Jordan. He said, “We get something like 600, 700,000 Iraqis that have moved from Iraq into Jordan that require cement, furniture, housing and the like. So it is an island of growth and potential, certainly in that immediate area. So it looks good. There are opportunities for investment. It is not all bad. Sometimes Americans need to watch a little less TV.”
Now, if only we saw on American television the plight of Iraqi refugees in Jordan. But Black continued, “[T]here is opportunity in everything. That’s why you need situation awareness, and that’s one of the things that our company does. It provides the kinds of intelligence and insight to provide situational awareness so you can make the best investments.”
Any of you who want to invest in the Iraqi refugee crisis, give J. Cofer Black a call at Total Intelligence Solutions.
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BUT I want to end with this sentiment. I have more hope now than I have had in a very long time. I have hope because of the brave men and women from Iraq Veterans Against the War. Because of the struggle of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty–their grassroots activism, combined with the extraordinary resistance behind bars, of the death row prisoners that organize themselves as DRIVE and engage in nonviolent resistance to participating in their own executions.
Kenneth Foster is alive today because of his resistance, of the resistance of death row prisoners and the resistance of activists. Blackwater was not able to open shop in Portrero, California, because of an uprising of 850 people.
Whenever we think that grassroots activism or grassroots struggle isn’t central to changing this country, the moment we start to think that there’s a politician who’s somehow capable of overhauling the system and bringing justice to the heart of America, when they try to marginalize those who believe in justice, those who stand for what’s right, those who soar above the Democratic Party with others to struggle for meaningful change and meaningful justice, we must remember that we are part of a vast majority in this world.
We need an internationalized perspective–getting away from false nationalism–of solidarity with others who live on the other side of the barrel of the gun that is foreign policy, and those who live under it here at home in prisons and poor communities across this country, with the victims of police brutality, the death penalty, the almost $5 a gallon gasoline prices, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the health care crisis.
It’s all one struggle, and we need to remember any moment we feel down that we are part of a global movement that is strong and growing every day.
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