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An Indistinguishable Cog

Fallujah After a Major Offensive
Ahh, freedom. (Photo credit: Global Policy Forum, Fallujah, 2004)

The Virginia-Pilot has an extensive six-part series on Blackwater USA, the private security firm mercenaries based out of North Carolina. The company was founded by Erik Prince in 1997 and were awarded the $21 million contract to protect Coalition Provisional Authority viceroy, Paul Bremer, in Iraq. (For more background on Blackwater, including Prince’s deep Republican ties, check out my post at the Iraq for Sale blog.) Blackwater rose to worldwide notability after four contractors were killed in Fallujah in March 2004. The crowd of Iraqis partly dismembered the bodies and strung up two of them on a bridge over the Euphrates River.

Families of the four slain in Fallujah are suing Blackwater:

The Fallujah ambush had profound consequences on two fronts:

In Iraq, it irrevocably altered the course of the war. U.S. military commanders, who had no advance knowledge of the convoy’s presence in Fallujah, were ordered by Washington to change tactics and pound the city into submission, inflaming the Iraqi insurgency to new heights.

Back home, families of the four victims are suing Blackwater for damages. The outcome could be costly for the company. It also has implications for the entire private military industry if it sets a precedent for holding companies legally responsible when their contractors die on the battlefield.

Blackwater also is the target of a lawsuit involving three servicemen killed in a plane crash in Afghanistan in November 2004. Citing the pending litigation, Blackwater declined to discuss either incident. [emphasis added]

The company’s defense is that "although it is a private company, it has become an essential and indistinguishable cog in the military machine and, like the military, should be immune from liability for casualties in a war zone."

At stake, Blackwater says, is nothing less than the authority of the president, as commander in chief of the armed forces, to wage war as he sees fit.

The plaintiffs say it’s all about corporate greed, unaccountability and a private army run amok. [emphasis added]

Executive power is so expansive, even private companies get to use it! Take that anti-federalists! Paging John Yoo, paging John Yoo. Your services are needed.

Another article in the series —

“You can’t separate the contractors from the troops anymore,” Joseph Schmitz, general counsel of Blackwater’s parent company, said after a March federal appeals court hearing in Richmond. [ed. note: He is the former Inspector General of the Defense Department and hired by Blackwater last year. Round and round the revolving door we go.]

In court papers, Blackwater says its contractors perform “a classic military function” and asserts that the courts “may not impose liability for casualties sustained in the battlefield in the performance of these duties.” [emphasis added]

Following the Hamdan decision recently, Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly noted how that the same arguments presented by the government in a losing effort ported over to the NSA domestic surveillance program(s). I’m no legal expert but if the White House was denied this power by the Supreme Court, how can Blackwater mount an effective defense using very similar language? Christy?

One of those killed, Scott Helvenston, was star of Combat Missions and was contracted by Blackwater for a two-month tour in Iraq. (From what I could tell, he was overseas, Kuwait before heading to Fallujah, for about a week before he was killed.) In his last e-mail, he wrote about the "extreme unprofessionalism" of his employers:

Sent: Saturday, March 27, 2004 7:30 PM

Subject: extreme unprofessionalism

To the Owner, President and Upper Management of Blackwater Security,

It is with deep regret and remorse that I send you this e-mail. During my short tenure here with Blackwater I have witnessed and endured some extreme unprofessionalism. First, I would like to begin this e-mail with a few positive notes. My training began on March 1st. During my 10 days of training I experienced some quality training conducted by quality instructors. … Unfortunately though I must explain to you there is an individual amongst the ranks that has proven to be a very manipulative, duplicitive, immature and unprofessional.

Three days ago I was put on a team with two of the men who came down from Baghdad. Cool … ready to go! Yesterday that was changed. OK, things seem to be a bit disorganized but I am still on it. … At roughly 2200 hrs. this evening I receive a call asking me if I can leave tomorrow 0500 with a new team leader. God’s honest truth … my response was no. My bags were not packed and I just didn’t feel up to it.

As I sit here at 0300 in the morning finalizing this document I respectfully request to keep my job. I get along with everyone here. …

I intend to meet with all my teammates tomorrow. I ask you to speak with at least 3 of them to get the full picture.


Scott Helvenston [emphasis added]

Read more on Helvenston’s experiences in Iraq here. His mother said the Fallujah operation was a "suicide mission."

As part of their defense for a privatized military, people argue that it is cheaper to outsource roles traditionally reserved for uniformed U.S. military to private contractors because, among other things, there are no health plans or retirement pensions. And others…

Undergirding Blackwater’s profits, the plaintiffs say, is the workers’ compensation insurance that covered the Fallujah victims and has provided death benefits to their families under the federal Defense Base Act – insurance that is ultimately paid for by taxpayers.

The premiums are paid up front by Blackwater, then passed along to the government in the contracts. And if the insured person is injured or killed in a war zone, the government reimburses the insurance carrier for benefits paid. [emphasis added]

I’m sorry, you were saying?

The ambush led to large-scale military operations to pacify the city. Days after Bush was re-elected Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell delivered the state for Bush in November 2004, another major assault was waged against the city.

So how did all of that work out?

Over the course of the two sieges, U.S. forces carried out nearly 700 airstrikes in which 18,000 of the city’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. About 150 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis were killed. The city was locked down behind barbed wire, a curfew declared and access limited by military checkpoints.

A year later, only about half of Fallujah’s population of 300,000 had returned.

The insurgency was quelled in Fallujah but intensified elsewhere across Iraq. Before the second assault on Fallujah in November 2004, U.S. military leaders estimated active enemy forces at 20,000. By January 2005, Iraq’s national intelligence chief placed the number at 200,000.

“In some ways, the second Fallujah campaign was the end of any hope for success for the United States in Iraq,” said Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. [ed. note: That should be Yale! Damn those right-wing sons of bitches!]

The perpetrators of the Blackwater ambush were never found. [emphasis added]

Following Fallujah, the company hired Alexander Strategy Group (ASG) to do damage control and go on the public relations offensive. (More background on ASG and its GOP ties available at the Iraq for Sale blog.)

The Virginia-Pilot series includes an "In His Own Words" article featuring Kelly Capeheart, a former Blackwater contractor who worked in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, guarding Ambassador John Negroponte. Here are a few selected quotes:

“Everyone has the idea that we went looking for trouble. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t care what anyone tells you. No one wants to get shot.”

“The guys who do this are not money-hungry pigs. They’re not gun-toting cowboys, or guys who shoot first and ask questions later. Believe me, if a Blackwater guy shoots somebody, he’s going to answer to somebody.” [ed. note: Last I checked, defense contractors were immune from Iraqi law and were not subject to the Uniformed Military Code of Justice, either. I guess a wag of the finger will do.]

“We were bigger than life to a lot of the military guys. You could see it in their eyes when they looked at us – or whispered about us. A lot of them were very jealous. They felt like they were doing the same job but getting paid a lot less. “People complaining about the pay are usually sitting at home, pointing at the TV.” [ed. note: Two statements, listed right next to each other in the article, seem a bit contradictory, don’t you think? First, the soldiers were "very jealous" because "they were doing the same job but getting paid a lot less." Next, the only people complaining are "usually sitting at home, pointing at the TV." Yeah, Paul Rieckhoff and the IAVA have no freakin’ clue as to what the hell they’re talking about. And, what’s with this "bigger than life" remark? Of the Iraq War veterans I have spoken to, "positive" is not how I would describe their experiences with contractors.]

And finally, you want to get some idea as to how these companies scam the government with subcontracts?

Few of the contracts are publicly available. But a lawsuit stemming from the deaths of four Blackwater USA contractors in Iraq in 2004 has shed some light on the process.

According to contracts that have become part of the court record, Blackwater paid its security operatives $600 a day and charged its client, Regency Hotel & Hospital Co., $945 a day per man – a 58 percent markup.

In addition, Blackwater’s $11 million contract required Regency to provide room and board, heavy weapons, vehicles, laptop computers and satellite phones for its contractors.

And that’s just the first two layers.

Regency, a Kuwaiti company, was a subcontractor to ESS Support Services Worldwide, a Cypriot company. ESS, in turn, was a subcontractor to Houston-based Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton Inc.

Spokesmen for the private military industry insist the taxpayers are getting a good deal. “Yes, there’s a profit at each level, but ultimately it ends up being a lot cheaper than the military can do it itself,” said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for private military companies. [ed. note: Blackwater is a member of the IPOA. For Blackwater to be a member of the IPOA is akin to "When we’re talking about war, we’re really talking about peace."]

Shorter PMCs: "Yeah, we’re ripping you guys off. Whatcha gonna do about it?"

Republican-controlled Congress: "Not a damn thing. By the way, you guys making a donation today?"

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