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ISR Issue 56, November–December 2007

Blackwater’s heart of darkness

JEREMY SCAHILL, an independent journalist who reports frequently for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, has spent extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books, 2007).
Months after the book’s publication, Blackwater has come under the media microscope for its cowboy behavior in Iraq. In September, Blackwater mercenaries opened fire in a public square in Baghdad, killing seventeen and wounding twenty-five. U.S. soldiers who were at the scene just minutes after called the shootings a “criminal event.” Their seventeen-page report concludes that “Blackwater created and fostered a culture of lawlessness amongst its employees, encouraging them to act in the company’s financial interests at the expense of innocent human life.” The lawlessness is fostered by the fact that security contractors in Iraq are completely immune from both Iraqi law and are not subject to—limited though it may be—the U.S. Uniform Military Code of Justice.
Here, we publish a speech on Blackwater that Scahill delivered in Chicago at the Socialism 2007 conference on June 15.

I WANT to begin tonight by reading a short section from the book—I promise you I won’t read any more sections from the book after this—but I want to open up with something that was a defining moment of the Iraq occupation as of the spring of 2004. Many of you probably remember this incident. It would prove incredibly pivotal in the course that the war and the occupation would take. It happened on the morning of March 31, 2004, in the Iraqi city of Fallujah:

When the four Americans rolled into Fallujah in their two Pajero Jeeps, the Iraqi mujahedeen in the City of Mosques was waiting for them. The main drag that cuts through the city is lined with restaurants, cafes, and souks, and on ordinary days throngs of people mill around. But early that morning a small group of masked men had detonated an explosive device, clearing the streets and causing shopkeepers to shutter their stores. From the moment the convoy of Americans entered the city limits of Fallujah, the men stood out—they were driving vehicles known widely in Iraq as “bullet magnets.” They were sporting wrap around sunglasses and Tom Cruise haircuts. Shortly after they entered Fallujah, the jeeps began to slow. To their right were shops and markets, to their left open space. They had hit some sort of a roadblock. As the vehicles came to a standstill a grenade was hurled at the rear jeep, quickly followed by the rip of machine-gun fire. Bullets tore through the side of the rear Pajero like salt through ice, fatally wounding the two men inside. As the blood gushed from them, masked gunmen moved in on the jeeps unloading cartridges of ammo and pounding their way through the windshield. Chants of “Allahu Akhbar” (God is great) filled the air. Soon, more than a dozen young men who’d been hanging out in front of a local kebab house joined in the frenzy. By the time the rear jeep was shot up, the Americans in the lead vehicle realized that an ambush was underway. They tried to flee, or turn around and help their wounded comrades, but it was too late. The crowd quickly swelled to more than 300 people, as the original attackers faded into the side streets of Fallujah. The jeeps were soon engulfed in flames, and men and boys literally tore the men apart, limb from limb. In front of TV cameras, a young man held up a small sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, and declared in English, “Fallujah is the graveyard of the Americans!” The mob hung the charred remains of the men from a bridge over the Euphrates River where they would remain for hours, forming an eerily iconic image that was seen on television screens throughout the world.

Thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., President Bush was on the campaign trail speaking at a fundraiser dinner. “The collection of killers is trying to shake our will,” the president told his supporters. “America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins. We’re aggressively striking the terrorists in Iraq. We will defeat them there so we do not have to face them in our own country.” The next morning Americans woke up to the news of the gruesome killings. “Iraqi mob mutilates four American civilians,” was a typical newspaper headline. In fact, it was the headline of the Chicago Tribune. Somalia was frequently invoked, referring to the incident in October of 1993 when rebels in Mogadishu shot down two Blackhawk helicopters, killed 18 U.S. soldiers, and dragged some of them through the streets, prompting the Clinton administration to withdraw forces. But unlike Somalia, the men killed in Fallujah were not members of the U.S. military, nor were they civilians, as many news outlets reported. They were highly trained private soldiers sent to Iraq by a secretive military company based in the wilderness of North Carolina. Its name is Blackwater USA.

I think for many people, even those who very closely follow the war and follow U.S. foreign policy, it came as some news that there were these heavily armed private soldiers operating in Iraq. Most of the public that was paying attention had heard of Halliburton, which was the largest war contractor, primarily because of the relationship between Halliburton and Vice President Dick Cheney. Of course, Cheney was the head of Halliburton. Then he became the vice president, and Halliburton gets all these no-bid contracts and favorable financial arrangements. But this idea of armed mercenaries working on behalf of the U.S. government in a war zone was a relatively new development.

Of course, the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies had used mercenaries for covert operations. They were used in Vietnam. They’ve been used throughout history, but never on the scope that we’re seeing right now in Iraq. Most people in this country believe that there are about 145,000 to 175,000 troops on the ground in Iraq right now. What’s almost never mentioned in the public discourse or debate on this issue is the fact that there are 130,000 private personnel deployed alongside those 145,000 active-duty U.S. forces. This is an effective doubling of the size of the occupation force.

Why does the Bush administration want to use these private personnel? First of all, we know that over 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq. We know that over 25,000 have been wounded. I actually think that the number is much higher—that’s the conservative estimate of the military. We don’t know how many of these mercenaries have been killed serving the occupation in Iraq. We know that at least 917 of them have died in Iraq since March of 2003—917. We know that in the first three months of this year about 146 of them died. Those numbers are not included in the official death count. They help to mask the toll of the war. Now, I said we know that 917 have died. The reason we know that is because their families have applied for federal death benefits under something called the Defense Base Act. So only those private personnel whose families have applied for these death benefits—only through the Department of Labor are we able to track these forces.

But what’s more disturbing is that the Bush administration uses these forces, and approaches their use very differently than the use of active-duty U.S. soldiers. If you’re a soldier in Iraq, and you extrajudicially kill an Iraqi, you could be court-martialed for it. There have been sixty-four courts-martial of U.S. soldiers in Iraq on murder-related charges alone—a stunningly low number given the severity of the crimes we’ve seen unfold in Iraq. With hundreds of thousands of private personnel working for companies like DynCorp, Triple Canopy, Blackwater, KBR, Floor, Aroness, Armor Group—the list goes on and on—hundreds of thousands of contractors (as they’re called now) working for these companies have gone in and out of Iraq. Sixty-four U.S. soldiers court-martialed on murder-related charges.

Out of those 100,000 contractors going in and out of the country, two have been prosecuted for any crimes. One of them pled guilty to possession of child pornography on his computer at Abu Ghraib prison. The other was a KBR employee accused of stabbing a coworker in a kitchen. Neither of the contractors prosecuted were charged with crimes against Iraqis, and neither of them were armed contractors, like those that work for Blackwater. So either we have tens of thousands of the most saintly Boy Scout mercenaries running around Iraq, or something is fundamentally wrong with the system.

You see, what the Bush administration has done is to replace whatever semblance or concept of diplomacy existed anymore in this country. The idea in the original Gulf War (1991) of Bush’s father was, “I’m going to build a coalition of willing nations.” And he got a number of Arab nations on board—the key one was Saudi Arabia. Well, Bush failed to build a coalition of willing nations, so instead he built a coalition of billing corporations, and those billing corporations descended on Iraq to a point where the Times of London said that “the postwar boom in Iraq is not oil, it’s private security.” And by using the private sector to service your war, you take away the constraints of the nation-state, and you now make your potential pool for soldiers or cannon fodder for your war the poor of the world. So companies like Blackwater can go in and aggressively recruit in Latin America and hire mercenaries from countries with horrible human rights records, and then deploy them in Iraq as part of this so-called coalition of the willing.
Now, I’m going to return to this bigger picture in a little while. What I want to do now is talk a little bit about the origins of Blackwater, who started it, who are the men that are running the company, and what are they looking to for tomorrow. Blackwater is one of 180 mercenary companies that are operating in Iraq right now. It’s not the biggest of them; it’s not the most profitable. Yes, 180 mercenary companies. And when I say mercenary, I don’t mean KBR. You could make an argument that KBR is a mercenary force, but their forces aren’t armed. There are 180 companies operating in Iraq right now that provide heavily armed soldiers. Blackwater is viewed not as the Ford of the industry, but as the Maserati. There’re less of them, but they’re considered more desirable.

Blackwater was founded by a man named Erik Prince. Erik Prince is believed to be one of the wealthiest people to ever serve in the elite U.S. Navy Seals. He comes from the state of Michigan just across the lake here, from a town called Holland. His father was a very successful businessman. During the seventies, eighties, and nineties in Michigan, he built up a company called Prince Manufacturing. Prince Manufacturing was perhaps best known for an invention that many people have in their cars as they drive around today—the ubiquitous lighted sun visor. If you pull down the visor in your car and it lights up, you have a bit of Blackwater’s history riding around in your vehicle. So, Erik Prince rose up in this house where his father was running this billion-dollar business.

But more important than watching his dad run the business was watching him use the company as a cash-generating engine to fuel and fund the rise of the Republican revolution of 1994 and the rise of what we know now as the radical religious Right in this country. It was Erik Prince’s father, Edgar Prince, who gave the seed money to Gary Bauer to start the Family Research Council. Erik Prince was in the first team of interns that Gary Bauer took on.
Gary Bauer, of course, is not just a radical religious Right leader, he was one of the original signers of the Project for a New American Century, the neoconservative agenda that was adopted by the Bush White House. Bauer also gave substantial funding in support to James Dobson, and his Focus on the Family Prayer Warrior network. Erik Prince’s sister, Betsy, married Dick DeVos, who ran for governor in the state of Michigan recently, and lost to Jennifer Granholm. Of course, he ran as a Republican. Dick DeVos is the heir to the Amway Corporation fortune. Amway was the single greatest bankroller of the Republican revolution. Many say it was a company that was run like a cult, which used its marketing team spread out across the country as a sort of political engine to try to overthrow what they saw as secularist politicians in the United States.

These two families, the DeVos family and the Prince family, merged when Betsy Prince married Dick DeVos, and they merged in the kind of marriage that was commonplace in the monarchies of old Europe. Together they formed a formidable, behind-the-scenes power player in radical right-wing politics in this country. Erik Prince was an early intern at George H. W. Bush’s White House, but he complained that it wasn’t conservative enough for him; gay issues, the budget, and the environment were the three issues that he cited. He was also an intern for Dana Rohrabacher, one of the biggest lunatics in Congress. Rohrabacher was an adviser to Ronald Reagan, and was a senior speechwriter for Reagan. Rohrabacher gets elected to Congress after leaving the Reagan White House, and in the three months between the election and the beginning of his term, he flies over to Afghanistan to fight on the side of the mujahedeen against the Soviets, and continues to brag about this. These are the people that peppered the young Erik Prince’s upbringing—the man who would go on to found Blackwater.

In 1995, Erik Prince had been in the U.S. Navy Seals for a number of years. It had been his dream to be in the U.S. military, and he had deployments in Bosnia, in Haiti, and in the Mediterranean. In 1995, his father died suddenly of a heart attack in the elevator of the headquarters of the family business and Erik Prince’s young wife had cancer. He went back to Michigan to help the family sort through the business. And at the funeral of Edgar Prince, the two main eulogies given for him were by Bauer and Dobson. They talked about how Edgar Prince stepped in at a moment when the Supreme Court was trying to make abortion the law of the land, and came in at a crucial moment, and how he was the major fundraiser and the fund-provider for the organizations that now make up the religious Right in this country. So, Erik Prince sits down with his family after his father’s death and they try to figure out what to do with the family business, and ultimately after deliberation, they decide to sell it for $1.3 billion in cash. They sell it to Johnson Controls, and Johnson Controls sent the jobs out of the country. The Prince family divided up the money.

Erik Prince then goes out to North Carolina, teams up with a small group of other guys that he had met in the Special Forces, and together they begin building what would be called Blackwater Lodge and Training Center. At the beginning it was nothing more than about 5,000 acres of land spread over two counties in North Carolina and the vision of Erik Prince. They began to build up the company, and they incorporated it in late 1996. They build it up through 1997—it was a fairly quiet time. In 1998 they have their grand opening and there are two very special congressional guests. Dana Rohrabacher is flown out for the grand opening, along with John Doolittle, another very right-wing Republican congressman from California. Their reason for being at Blackwater’s grand opening in the literature at the time was that they were staunch defenders of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms). And so the original concept of Blackwater by all accounts had nothing to do with providing mercenary services. It was supposed to be Blackwater Lodge and Training Center, and the idea was that it was going to be a sportsman’s paradise, a place where gun enthusiasts could come and fire off their weapons. But then early literature of the company also indicated that they intended to take advantage of what they saw as the coming accelerated government outsourcing of security and firearms-related training.

In 1998, Blackwater had not much business at all. But then in 1998 the first of what would be almost annual tragedies that would end up benefiting Blackwater would take place. That was the Columbine shootings in April of 1999. Blackwater responded to Columbine by erecting a mock high school on their compound on the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina, and they called it R U Ready High, and they invited law enforcement agents from around the country to come to Moyock, North Carolina, at Blackwater and train in how to face down against the violent youth of America. In fact, recently they’ve been talking about how Blackwater could have been helpful in the Virginia Tech shootings.
The next tragedy that would take place would be the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. You probably remember that. It was portrayed at the time as the worst so-called peacetime attack—tell the people of Iraq living under sanctions it was peacetime—against a U.S. vessel in recent history. The navy responded to that attack, which killed a number of sailors, by awarding Blackwater a $37 million contract to train sailors in how to face down attacks against their vessels or their ships. In 2000, Blackwater was given its federal vending license by the Clinton administration. Anyone who thinks that the problems of the world began with Bush is incredibly naive. You can erase 9-11 from the equation and you have a solid trajectory that goes from Reagan to Bush and from Clinton to Bush. And that’s been the case with Blackwater, too. The Clinton administration awards Blackwater its federal vending license. One former CIA operative told us for the book, “Once you get that license, it’s like you enter the Wal-Mart of government shopping. It gives you permission to market your goods and services to any agency of the federal government.”

A lot of us talk about money and politics, but it’s a fascinating window into how this works. You get the permission to be a vendor, and then the game becomes, who do you know, and how well do you grease the wheels? And that’s where, when we fast-forward to the Bush administration, you look at Blackwater making an enormous amount of money. So under Clinton they’re given this federal vending license. At the beginning, the federal government estimated that Blackwater was going to gross about $125,000 over five years. By the time six years have elapsed they’ve grossed over $100 million. One spokesperson for the government said to me that they were incredibly good at marketing their services.

But 2001 was when the crucial event happened that would make Blackwater’s fate incredibly profitable. And that was, of course, 9-11. Erik Prince, president of Blackwater—he doesn’t hold press conferences, he’s very rarely interviewed—he recently wrote an op-ed that I’m going to talk about in a little while. But he did make one television appearance right after 9-11. You might be able to guess the network he appeared on—Fox News. You may be able to guess the show—The O’Reilly Factor. So, Erik Prince is on The O’Reilly Factor and he’s talking about the federal air marshal program. At the time, there was the debate—should we have armed marshals on every flight? But Prince also said something that was fascinating; he said: I was starting to get a little cynical about how seriously people took the business of security and training. Now, Erik Prince said, the phone is ringing off the hook.

One of the early calls that came in to Blackwater was from the Central Intelligence Agency, which contracted Erik Prince’s men to send a small team of Special Forces operators inside Afghanistan during the early stages of U.S. operations there. They positioned themselves near a CIA outpost in Shkin, near the border of Pakistan. Erik Prince himself went over with that Blackwater team. That, to my knowledge, is the first time that we see Blackwater crossing the line from being a sportsmen’s paradise and a training facility to being an all-out mercenary force.

But the real serious money for Blackwater wouldn’t start pouring in until U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad in March 2003. When the U.S. began occupying Iraq, the Bush administration deployed the largest army of private personnel ever deployed in a modern war zone, alongside the official occupation force. During the 1991 so-called Gulf War you had a ratio of sixty-one soldiers to every one contractor. Right now we’re almost at a one-to-one ratio. This is not some accident of history—this is an intentional plan that was set in motion in 1993 when Dick Cheney was the defense secretary under George H. W. Bush. He commissioned a division of Halliburton, a company he would go on to head, to do a study on how to privatize the military bureaucracy. That accelerated the use of the logistical civilian program known as Logcap. KBR is the biggest Logcap contractor now in Iraq. The Clinton administration picked up Cheney’s ball. While Cheney was heading Halliburton, Clinton was accelerating the privatization of the military and the national security apparatus of the United States.

And Cheney was heading Halliburton and hanging out at the American Enterprise Institute, and Rumsfeld was at the American Enterprise Institute, and they were pressuring—as it was portrayed in the press—pressuring Clinton to sign the Iraq Liberation Act; and of course he did that. So you see that trajectory. This wasn’t something that Bush invented—it was bipartisan. And so when the tanks roll in, they have this army that is almost one-to-one contractors to soldiers. And they send in a neoconservative/neoliberal terror expert (of course, it takes one to know one), Paul Bremer, who hits the ground in Iraq with what appears to be the sole objective of destroying the country—destroying its economy, destroying the military, destroying civil society in Iraq, and creating bedlam and chaos. Bremer had worked for Henry Kissinger, one of the biggest terrorists in the world—he hits the ground in Iraq. But instead of the U.S. military protecting Paul Bremer, they give a no-bid contract to a private mercenary company for $27 million. That company is Blackwater USA.

Blackwater would be charged with the all-important job of keeping the most hated man in Iraq alive during his time there. One of the earliest things that Paul Bremer did was to institute—and veterans know the consequences of this—a disastrous policy known as de-Baathification. They were so intent on making this comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler (de-Nazification=de-Baathification), and one could make an argument that it made sense. You’re just going to take out Saddam Hussein’s top cadre of people and punish them and put them on trial. No. What de-Baathfication meant was firing nurses, engineers, teachers, all these people who had any loose affiliation with the Baath Party. I spent a lot of time in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It was very difficult to find someone who had not at some point or another in their life been forced to sign some kind of paper supporting the Baath Party. They fired hundreds of thousands of workers who were simple civilians who were going about their daily lives. They fired people from the ministry of education; they fired the people who were in charge of reconstruction projects in the country. But also, they fired 250,000 Iraqi soldiers. From one day to the next they stopped paying them. We quote one senior U.S. official in the book as saying, “It was the day we made a quarter of a million armed enemies in Iraq.”

Some of the leaders of the Iraqi military marched on the gates of the Green Zone and they said, “This is a disaster. You can’t stop paying our men; they’ll all join the ranks of the resistance and rise up against you.” Of course, no one listened. And so we saw a direct escalation of attacks on U.S. forces that occurred right after the de-Baathfication policies were implemented. And so, as Bremer is running around earning himself nicknames like “little Saddam,” and “Saddam after Saddam,” it’s Blackwater that’s protecting him and keeping him alive. In fact, when Bremer skulked out of Baghdad after a year in the country, he handed over sovereignty to an Iraqi government, and then gave a thank-you gift to Blackwater and other contractors, as they’re called, the 130,000-strong shadow army in Iraq. He issued an edict known as Order 17, which granted sweeping immunity to all contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts. That’s a strange definition of sovereignty. And so Bremer leaves the country.

If you think about the psychology of a private company guarding Bremer versus the U.S. military, it goes something like this. If the military is guarding Paul Bremer, or Zalmay Khalilzad, or John Negroponte, and they get killed, there’ll be an investigation. It will be a scandal; maybe there will be a court-martial if they figure out that someone did something really outrageous. But nothing much is going to come of it; there’s not going to be high-stakes consequences for the military. But if a private company loses Paul Bremer, it would wipe out their business. And the very fact that Blackwater kept Bremer alive—the most hated man in Iraq for over a year, they now use that as a marketing tool to win more business. If you go to Blackwater Security Consulting’s Web site you’ll see Paul Bremer’s face all over it. And the message is clear: if we can keep him alive, we can do anything for your government or your business in Iraq.

That was the gold rush moment for Blackwater, that initial contract. And I told you about that Fallujah ambush at the beginning, where those four guys were killed. They were killed on March 31, 2004. On April 1, 2004, Erik Prince hires the Alexander Strategy Group (ASG), which at the time was the most powerful Republican lobbying firm on K Street. It was one of the jewels of Tom DeLay’s K Street Project. The Alexander Strategy Group had been founded and was staffed by former senior staffers of Tom DeLay. Jack Abramoff was connected to the ASG—it was a major power broker. Within days of hiring the ASG, Blackwater executives—Erik Prince and others—find themselves in a series of face-to-face meetings with the men who literally ran Congress in both the House and in the Senate. March 31, 2004—four Blackwater operatives killed in Fallujah, Iraq. April 1, 2004—Alexander Strategy Group hired. By June of 2004, Blackwater was awarded an incredible $320,000 contract to provide so-called diplomatic security services in Iraq. It had now risen out of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and out of the rubble of 9-11 to become one of the most powerful private actors in the so-called war on terror.

The number two man at Blackwater is J. Cofer Black. It’s probably a name that some of you have heard. J. Cofer Black is one of the most well-known spies in U.S. history—he spent thirty years in the CIA. He began his work in Africa, where he was in Rhodesia and other places, and then he was in Sudan in the mid-1990s where he was once marked for death by Osama bin-Laden. And while he was there, he came up with a plot to kill bin-Laden and throw his body over the gates of the Iranian embassy to try and make it appear as though the Iranians had killed him. Cofer Black was a well-known spy, and on 9-11 he was the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center. He was the top counterterrorism official at the CIA, the man who would be tasked with the hunt for bin-Laden—great job. So he goes in on September 13, 2001, and he meets in the White House Situation Room with President Bush, and he’s throwing papers on the ground as he’s describing how he’s going to insert Special Forces inside Afghanistan, and he says, “Mr. President, when we’re through with them, they’re going to have flies crawling across their eyeballs.” He became known as the “flies on the eyeball guy” within the administration. He goes over to Moscow with Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage—Colin Powell’s deputy and head of the invasion of Afghanistan—and they meet with the Russian diplomats. The Russians start to warn them about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, and Cofer Black shoots back at them, “We’re going to put their heads on pikes.”

In fact, his orders—this is a man seemingly obsessed with corporal mutilation—his orders to the Jawbreaker team from the CIA that went into Afghanistan initially was literally to find Osama bin-Laden, take a machete, whack off his head, put it in a box on dry ice, and bring it back so he could present it to President Bush. And when he gave those orders to the Jawbreaker team, the head of the Jawbreaker team said, “The orders are crystal clear, Cofer. We can get a cardboard box. I don’t know about dry ice, but we’re going to make it work.” Cofer Black—and as I’m telling you this remember that he’s now the number two man at Blackwater, and Blackwater has an aviation division of more than twenty aircraft—Cofer Black was perhaps the central figure in escalating the use of what are known as extraordinary renditions, government-sanctioned kidnap and torture programs, where people are snatched off the streets of cities around the world, zipped up, shackled to the seat of an airplane, and sent to a third country hellhole to be tortured. Unless you think it just happens in Afghanistan, Kandahar, or elsewhere, Maher Arar was abducted at JFK Airport and sent to Syria where he was systematically tortured under that program.

So Cofer Black is the man who stands in front of Congress and says, “There’s a before 9-11 and after 9-11; and after 9-11 the gloves come off.” It’s a chilling statement from this man who is now number two at Blackwater USA. And, in fact, Mitt Romney just tapped him to be his senior counterterrorism adviser for his presidential campaign. Cofer Black’s most recent initiative is something that is a glimpse into the future, and that is privatized intelligence. Cofer Black and another senior Blackwater executive, Robert Richer, who was the former deputy director of operations at the CIA, and then another former senior CIA official, Enrique Rick Prado, are the three people at the center of something called Total Intelligence Solutions. It’s like a privatized CIA, and it’s being bankrolled by Erik Prince of Blackwater. These frightening individuals, who talk about chopping off heads, gloves coming off, and who support and have actively participated in the torture and abduction of people, are now privatizing their CIA careers, and marketing them to Fortune 500 companies.

This is an extraordinarily frightening development, and we see it as a trend. These private intelligence companies are popping up across the board. There are a number of other figures at Blackwater I could talk about, but I realize I’m short on time, so I want to run through a couple of other things that I think are crucial to discuss. One is that Erik Prince wrote an op-ed called, “Nothing mercenary About Blackwater Activities.” He finally speaks up. And he says, “Clearly the mercenary label is intended to polarize the discussion and craft the most negative image possible of Blackwater. The highest authority on rhetoric, the Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines mercenary as ‘a professional soldier serving a foreign power.’ Blackwater does not now, nor has it ever, provided security services for or on behalf of any country other than the United States of America.”

Well, I find this fascinating that this is the definition that Erik Prince uses to describe a mercenary. He says it’s a “professional soldier serving a foreign power.” Blackwater, beginning in 2003, started working with a recruiter in Chile, a guy who had been in Pinochet’s military. I tracked him down and interviewed him for two hours, and he explained to me how the whole Latin American recruitment operation worked for Blackwater. This guy is named Miguel Pizarro Ovalle. He starts working with Blackwater; he opens up some camps in Chile; he puts out ads in the paper seeking former commandos, Special Forces operatives—in Chile. Pinochet’s man is now looking for former Special Forces operators and commandos to work for an American company in Iraq. The day after he put that out in the paper he had over a thousand people respond to it. He sets up these camps, he begins evaluating soldiers. He tells me three Blackwater officials come down, and they evaluate the soldiers.

By February of 2004, Chilean mercenaries were heading up to Moyock, North Carolina, before being sent over to Iraq. In all, this man told me he provided 756 Chilean mercenaries to Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and a couple of other companies. Now what’s interesting about this is that Chile, of course, knows suffering well at the hands of the United States, economically, militarily; the brutal regime of Pinochet; the devastating economic policies of the Chicago Boys. But what’s interesting about Chile in 2003 was that it was a rotating member of the UN Security Council opposing the invasion of Iraq. Ninety-two percent of Chileans were against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Chile said no to the coalition of the willing. And so Bush turns to Blackwater and the coalition of the billing, and they go in and they violate the sovereignty of the nation of Chile, and they hire up their thuggish, human-rights-abusing soldiers that are left over from the Pinochet era, and they send them over to Iraq to work as part of the occupation force.

They also went into Colombia, and they recruited Colombian mercenaries—similar operation, putting out the ads, always promising more money than you’re going to end up getting paid. The Colombians arrive in Baghdad, in the Green Zone, and they finally read the final contract—it had been changed a number of times—and they find out they are getting paid $34 a day. Some of best-paid U.S. mercenaries get a $1,000 a day; the Colombians—$34 a day. The Bulgarians working for Blackwater start laughing at the Colombians and saying, “No one comes here for a $1,000 a month.” So the Colombians staged a strike of sorts inside the Green Zone. (Fast-forward a little bit in time here. A couple of weeks ago, the Colombian recruiter who sent them over to Iraq was gunned down in the streets of Bogotá.)

What we see here is an insidious system where you want to avoid having a draft in your country; you want to keep it off the table for political reasons. You can’t convince the world to participate in your global wars of conquest, and so what you do is you make the whole world your recruiting ground. You use these private companies to go into the poorest countries of the world, countries that have been systematically destabilized by the United States, and you hire up the poor of the developing world, and you deploy them to kill and be killed in Iraq against the poor and suffering of Iraq. There is also a racist element to this, in the pay structure. We’ve got American mercenaries, U.S. mercenaries in Iraq right now, who make more money than Secretary Gates; they make more money than the commanding generals.

To tell you how pervasive this privatization agenda is, General David Petraeus in January, when he testified in front of the Senate, admitted that on his last tour in Iraq he had been guarded not by the U.S. military, but by British mercenaries.

We have a situation right now, where we have years of [a Republican-dominated] Congress. And a lot of people thought, “Oh, the Democrats are in the Congress and everything’s going to be great, they’re going to stop the war. And instead, all they’ve continued to do is fund it at a 100 percent level—in fact, at times offering the president more money than he was asking for.

There are a handful of Democrats who are nobly taking on the issue of the privatization of war, but you know their names, probably. And here’s a fact. We have a uniform code of justice being applied to soldiers, but we have almost no law whatsoever being applied to the contractors. So the Democrats come up with a plan, and this is their idea: We’re going to send an FBI field unit over to Iraq. So we’re going to deploy more forces in Iraq. And somehow this FBI field unit is going to monitor the activities of 130,000 private personnel in the war zone. Have you heard of a more ridiculous plan? We have enough trouble keeping track of what the official U.S. military does. The Democrats’ best-laid plan is to send the FBI over to Baghdad to monitor the mercenaries, men who are sent to places no one else will go and no one wants to go?

I interviewed the person who thought up this legislation, David Price, who’s a Democrat from North Carolina, and I said to him, “Representative Price, let me ask you, who’s going to protect the investigators as they go around Iraq? How are you going to interview victims of Iraqi contractors if they’re in, say, Hilla or Baquba, places that are difficult for the U.S. military to get into? Who’s going to do the translating for all these investigators? And then, who’s going to arrest these contractors—many of whom are former Navy Seals—and then send them back to the United States where they’re going to be prosecuted in a U.S. court?” He said, “Those are very good questions,” as though he had never thought of that before. And so, that’s the state of affairs when it comes to the privatization of the war agenda in the mainstream of the Democratic Party in the U.S. Congress.

I was actually invited to testify in Congress in front of the Armed Forces Appropriations Committee, and the night before I testified, I got a call from the committee saying that at least ten of the most powerful private war companies in the United States had called the committee and demanded that I not testify. And then they said, well, if he’s going to testify, then one of our lobbyists has to appear. Their lobbyists are constantly on Capitol Hill, and I’ve been there about three times in my life. And so, Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, very bravely said to them, “No. We’re going to do this, and we’re going to have this hearing.” And so we had that hearing, and it was Web-streamed. C-SPAN of course didn’t cover it. And the only people inside the room besides the Democrats on the committee was one lone Republican—the Republicans boycotted.

Jack Kingston, the single most conservative member of Congress, from Georgia, he and I got into an argument about the religious Right. He was very offended at my characterization of Erik Prince as a radical right-wing Christian. He said that’s him too. On one side of the room is me and a handful of other people, and on the other side of the room are all the industry lobbyists, from Titan and Khaki and Blackwater. They have a trade association, all of them together, called the International Peace Operations Association. I wish it were a joke. It’s this Orwellian thing. Its logo is a cartoon of a sleeping lion, like something from a Disney movie.

Those four guys that got killed in Fallujah, their families spent months trying to get answers as to the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Because what happened after those four men were killed was that the Bush administration laid siege to Fallujah and destroyed the city. They surrounded it; they carried out an incredible 37,000 air strikes that killed hundreds of civilians, and displaced thousands upon thousands of others. My friend Dahr Jamail, who’s here tonight—I think one of the finest, if not the finest unembedded reporter in the world today—made it into Fallujah during the siege. Dahr gets into the city, and he reported on Democracy Now! and other places that there were U.S. snipers firing on ambulances, that Iraqis had turned two football fields into mass graves, and he described the smell of death that had overtaken the city. And this collective punishment was meted out against the people of Fallujah over the deaths not of four U.S. soldiers, not of four U.S. civilians, but of four mercenaries sent there by a private and politically connected company.

The families of those four men, like so many thousands of American families, went through a process of trying to figure out what had happened to their loved ones. They discovered that Blackwater, they said, wasn’t being transparent with them, wasn’t being straightforward. At one point, one of the mothers of one of the guys killed said she was told by a Blackwater representative that if she wanted to see the company’s investigation of their murder, she would have to sue the company. Her son was killed—her son had been in the military and Special Forces—all of them were Special Forces. You have to sue us if you want to know why your son was killed and what the circumstances were.

[The reason they were killed is] because they weren’t in armored vehicles. They were sent out short two men and they didn’t have any heavy weaponry on them. These families, after being told this, decide in January 2005, we’re going to take Blackwater up on their challenge and we’re going to sue Blackwater. They file a groundbreaking wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater. It sent shivers and shockwaves through the war industry. Blackwater enlisted a high-powered team of attorneys. The original lawyer on the case was Fred Fielding, who is now Bush’s White House council defending him against scandaldom. More recently, it was Kenneth Starr. They’ve had five, six different law firms representing them on this, all of them high-powered Republican law firms. These families have their two law firms from Santa Ana, California, and they’re fighting Blackwater.

Blackwater hasn’t made much of disputing the specific allegations of the families—that their men were sent in without vehicles, that they were short two men, and without heavy weaponry. Instead, Blackwater put forward a very novel defense—they said we can’t be sued. And the reason Blackwater can’t be sued they said is because Donald Rumsfeld recognized Blackwater as part of the U.S. total force, the U.S. war machine, and we should be entitled to the same immunity from civilian litigation for wrongful death enjoyed by the U.S. military. At the same time Blackwater made that argument, the company’s high-paid lobbyists were waxing poetic in the media about how it would be inappropriate to apply the Uniform Code of Military Justice to Blackwater because “we’re civilians.” When it’s convenient we should get the immunity of the military, and when it’s convenient we should get the protection of civilians from being protected in the court-martial system.

Blackwater was rejected at every level. They tried to get the case thrown out, and failed. They tried to get it moved to federal court—failed. Ken Starr twice appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though John Roberts was the chief justice, and it was a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, and twice the Supreme Court rejected it. That trial was set to begin this past May. At the eleventh hour, you have all this maneuvering happening behind the scenes. This was going to be the trial of the war. It was going to put the war contractor system on trial—public forum, jury in a state court, in North Carolina, right in Blackwater’s backyard. A jury of peers was going to decide if Blackwater was liable for the deaths of those four men, and then responsible for what comes after, if you think about it. But at the last moment, Blackwater goes to a senior judge, almost retired, in the eastern district of North Carolina, and somehow gets him to cast aside the rejections of the Supreme Court, to cast aside the rejections of the Fourth Circuit, to cast aside the rejections of the state court; and they get him to order the case into private arbitration, where there will not be witnesses in the same way, it won’t be open to the public, and the decision will likely be sealed. What’s perhaps most important is that there will be a gag imposed on those families from talking about it.

So it appears right now that Blackwater was finally able, after two years of battling this, to remove it from a public forum. And what they’ve done is an act of extraordinary cynicism. Blackwater USA, the powerful war contractor connected to the Bush White House, has filed a counterclaim against the estates of those four dead men, seeking $10 million in damages. Blackwater says that the lawsuit violated the contracts they signed that said they wouldn’t sue Blackwater. So now they are going to punish the estates in a $10 million counterclaim against them.

Now, these families have put up a defense fund to keep this case alive. They are, on the one hand, trying to fight this contractor, and on the other hand now facing the fact that their deceased sons and husbands are now being sued for $10 million by this powerful war contractor.

I want to end on this note. I think we, and I feel like I’ve said this a number of times at this very conference—but it’s true every single year—we live in very dark times. We live in very violent, and vicious, and bloody times. I just got back from Bolivia. I was there for two weeks. And, I’ve never in my life seen a country where the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is so stark. Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous population of any country in the world. It’s insane, because you have the rich in Bolivia building themselves into these communities they call urbanizaciones; and they have their private security companies guarding the perimeter.

And now the indigenous populations of Bolivia are becoming like the scorned street art that no one wants. They’ve been forced into the cities to try and make some money for themselves, and you have this incredible disparity between the rich and poor. It’s a country that is truly ripe for an outright revolution. The Evo Morales thing is very complicated, but Bolivia is ripe for an outright revolution. The reason I say that after I said we live in dark times, is that I found it incredible, when you talk to so many indigenous Bolivians, the incredible spirit—it took them over 500 years to have an indigenous leader rise to power in that country. Whether people like him or not, there’s a pride that the conquistadors are no longer running the presidency of Bolivia. It’s moments like that, and it’s the kind of people that we meet at this conference, that give me great hope that we can win.

And you know what? It’s not only about winning. I was talking to a friend tonight, and remembering the quote that I’ve mentioned before here, and I’ll end on this, of Ammon Hennessy, the great anarchist who was protesting in front of the White House. He had been a World War I draft resister, a war resister. And a newsman came up to him and said, “Mr. Hennessy, you’re not going to change them, the men in the White House.” He said, “That might be true, but they’re sure as hell not going to change me.”

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