The mercenary firm Blackwater has become a symbol of the utter lawlessness and criminality that permeates the privatised wing of the US war machine. The company's operatives have shot dead scores of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, while former employees allege in sworn statements that Blackwater's owner Erik Prince "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe", and that Prince's companies "encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life". Five Blackwater employees will stand trial in federal court in the US on charges that they slaughtered 14 innocent Iraqis, while a sixth Blackwater operative has already pleaded guilty. The company faces allegations of illicit weapons-smuggling and tax evasion, and is being sued for war crimes. The private army is under fire. And yet, despite all the action, none of the legal bullets has – to date – landed a serious blow.
An explosive report in the New York Times today could change that. The paper alleges that in the aftermath of the infamous 2007 Nisour Square massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians, top Blackwater officials "authorised secret payments" of about $1m into Iraq intending to bribe officials to allow Blackwater to remain in Iraq despite Baghdad's position that the company would be banned and the killers prosecuted. Blackwater continued to operate in Iraq for two years after the Iraqis announced the company would be kicked out – a fact that has baffled and angered Iraqis. In fact, Blackwater remains in Iraq to this day on a $200m contract that was recently extended by the Obama administration. The new report, if true, could help explain why Blackwater has survived so long in Iraq. It could also be a window into what may become the most serious legal issue facing Prince and other executives.
Claims that Prince was aware of the bribery scheme – and that his deputy, the company president Gary Jackson, directed the transfer of the money to Blackwater's hub in Jordan, from where it was funnelled to a top Blackwater manager in Iraq – are reported in the New York Times. Such actions would be illegal under US law. At the time of the alleged bribery scheme, FBI agents were on the ground in Baghdad conducting a criminal investigation of the incident and were, in part, relying on the cooperation of Iraqi officials – particularly from Iraq's interior ministry, the alleged intended recipients. If true, that means that Blackwater or its executives could face charges of obstruction of justice. There is a grand jury investigating Blackwater in its home state of North Carolina.
Blackwater swiftly denounced the story as "baseless", while a former Blackwater official – the CIA veteran Cofer Black – denied the New York Times's claim that he confronted Prince over the bribery. Jackson told the paper: "I don't care what you write."
Among the most serious issues raised by this scandal is who else may have been involved. Was Blackwater freelancing or was there government involvement? At the time of the alleged bribery plan, Blackwater worked hand-in-glove with the Bush administration and, at times, the two forces colluded. Following the Nisour Square massacre, evidence emerged of a clear pattern of the state department urging Blackwater to pay what amounted to hush money to Iraqi victims' families. "In cases involving the death of Iraqis, it appears that the state department's primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to 'put the matter behind us', rather than to insist upon accountability or to investigate Blackwater personnel for potential criminal liability," according to a report of the House Oversight Committee released in late 2007.
After a drunken Blackwater guard allegedly shot and killed an Iraqi bodyguard inside the Green Zone on Christmas Eve 2006, the Charge d'Affaires of the US embassy in Iraq initially suggested Blackwater make a $250,000 payment but the department's diplomatic security service said this was too much and could cause Iraqis to "try to get killed so as to set up their family financially". In the end, the state department and Blackwater reportedly agreed on a $15,000 payment. During his Congressional testimony in October 2007, Erik Prince corrected that figure, saying Blackwater had actually paid $20,000. In another case, in al Hillah in June 2005, a Blackwater operator killed an "apparently innocent bystander" and the state department requested that Blackwater pay the family $5,000. "Can you tell me how it was determined that this man's life was worth $5,000?" Representative Danny Davis asked Prince when he appeared before the US Congress. "We don't determine that value, sir," Prince responded. "That's kind of an Iraqi-wide policy. We don't make that one."
After Nisour Square, the Iraqi government eventually demanded $8 million in compensation for each victim. In the end, the state department, on behalf of Blackwater, offered family members between $10,000-12,500, which many of them refused.
Blackwater and the US state department had a mutual interest in keeping the company in Iraq. The company provided the elite bodyguards for occupation officials and when Blackwater stopped work for three days after Nisour Square, those officials could not leave their fortress in the Green Zone. For Blackwater, the contract meant big money--more than $1 billion. In the aftermath of Nisour Square, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials basically read the riot act to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Blackwater was back to business in Iraq on the fourth day after the massacre and remains in the country. After Nisour Square, one US diplomat described the relationship between the US Embassy's security office in Baghdad and Blackwater. "They draw the wagon circle," the diplomat said. "They protect each other. They look out for each other. I don't know if that's a good thing, that wall of silence. When it protects the guilty, that is definitely not a good thing."
While the Bush administration certainly protected Blackwater after Nisour Square, part of the reason for the alleged or attempted bribes may be this: as the US and Iraq negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement and the Iraqi government attempted to impose more authority over private military companies, the stakes got higher for Blackwater. An official licence to operate in Iraq, which Blackwater did not have and long believed was an unnecessary formality, became crucial for Blackwater in order to continue on as the state department's prime contractor. To many Iraqis, Blackwater's continued presence was a stark symbol of the country's lack of sovereignty. It is an incredible fact that Blackwater has remained as long as it has in the country given the severity and extent of its alleged crimes and the rhetoric from Iraqi political figures about the company. It was not until March 2009 that the Iraqi government announced it would not extend Blackwater an operating licence. In May 2009, Blackwater's prime contract was awarded to competitor Triple Canopy, but a downsized Blackwater remains armed in Iraq. And the company continues to do robust business with the US government elsewhere.
Today, Blackwater works in Afghanistan for the state department, the CIA and the defence department. It protects US officials there and guards visiting congressional delegations. Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a close friend of President Obama, says she was guarded by Blackwater on a recent trip to Afghanistan and that the company is involved with the security details of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke when they visit the country. But as the investigations into Blackwater deepen and the scandals expand, perhaps the most urgent question is this: why does President Obama continue to use this company?
Jeremy Scahill, the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.