Monday, September 17, 2007

What prescient CEOs-- they couldn't have picked a better name for what would become their rather villainous greed-driven private security company: Blackwater. I mean I suppose it could have been Deathwater or Bloodwater, but the obviousness of those monikers takes all the fun out of the mere insinuation of evil, which is far more insidious and also makes it easier for the company to, like, land jobs and stuff. It's not that Blackwater's greed and mercilessness is an exception to the way most companies conduct their business, it's just that they have the added component of men in black suits with scary guns. Lots of them. In the worst places. At the worst times.

The company was formed in 1997 as a small group of overly militaristic men who could be hired out to help frightened rich men feel more at ease with their basic paranoia towards the rest of the population. Fine. But the Bush Administration in their not so subtle attempt to completely dismantle the service-providing role of the American government commissioned Blackwater for the two greatest disasters of the decade: Iraq and Katrina. For a cool $300 million Blackwater easily sent its employees into Fallouja without adequate armor, not to mention the stark absence of legal constraints. Blackwater men could shoot without rules, die without being counted in the official tally, and be held entirely unaccountable. It was a great deal for our government, though not so much a prize bargain for the misled Blackwater employees or the Iraqi people. Families of Blackwater employees killed in Iraq are suing the company:

More than 428 private contractors have been killed to date in Iraq, and US taxpayers are footing almost the entire compensation bill to their families. "This is a precedent-setting case," says Marc Miles, an attorney for the families. "Just like with tobacco litigation or gun litigation, once they lose that first case, they'd be fearful there would be other lawsuits to follow."

The families' two-year quest to hold those responsible accountable has taken them not to Falluja but to the sprawling Blackwater compound in North Carolina. As they tell it, after demanding answers about how the men ended up dead in Falluja that day and being stonewalled at every turn, they decided to conduct their own investigation. "Blackwater sent my son and the other three into Falluja knowing that there was a very good possibility this could happen," says Katy Helvenston, the mother of 38-year-old Scott Helvenston, whose charred body was hung from the Falluja bridge. "Iraqis physically did it, and it doesn't get any more horrible than what they did to my son, does it? But I hold Blackwater responsible one thousand percent."

In late 2004 the case caught the attention of the high-powered California trial lawyer Daniel Callahan, fresh from a record-setting $934 million jury decision in a corporate fraud case. On January 5, 2005, the families filed the lawsuit against Blackwater in Wake County, North Carolina. "What we have right now is something worse than the wild, wild west going on in Iraq," Callahan says. "Blackwater is able to operate over there in Iraq free from any oversight that would typically exist in a civilized society. As we expose Blackwater in this case, it will also expose the inefficient and corrupt system that exists over there."

The stories of Blackwater's presence in post-Katrina New Orleans are chilling as well--they were hired, however misguidedly, to aid the reconstruction process, to make New Orleanians feel more at ease. The city was a disaster-zone, not a war zone. But the Blackwater employees sent to New Orleans-- many fresh off the plane from Iraq-- treated the people of New Orleans in the same manner they're heavily trained to treat the "threat" in all their commissions: as potential enemies, not to be trusted, rather than victims of a horrific natural disaster.

About 150 heavily armed Blackwater troops dressed in full battle gear spread out into the chaos of New Orleans. Officially, the company boasted of its forces "join[ing] the hurricane relief effort." But its men on the ground told a different story.

Some patrolled the streets in SUVs with tinted windows and the Blackwater logo splashed on the back; others sped around the French Quarter in an unmarked car with no license plates. They congregated on the corner of St. James and Bourbon in front of a bar called 711, where Blackwater was establishing a makeshift headquarters. From the balcony above the bar, several Blackwater guys cleared out what had apparently been someone's apartment. They threw mattresses, clothes, shoes and other household items from the balcony to the street below. They draped an American flag from the balcony's railing. More than a dozen troops from the 82nd Airborne Division stood in formation on the street watching the action.

Armed men shuffled in and out of the building as a handful told stories of their past experiences in Iraq. "I worked the security detail of both Bremer and Negroponte," said one of the Blackwater guys, referring to the former head of the US occupation, L. Paul Bremer, and former US Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte. Another complained, while talking on his cell phone, that he was getting only $350 a day plus his per diem. "When they told me New Orleans, I said, 'What country is that in?'" he said. He wore his company ID around his neck in a case with the phrase Operation Iraqi Freedom printed on it.

In an hourlong conversation I had with four Blackwater men, they characterized their work in New Orleans as "securing neighborhoods" and "confronting criminals." They all carried automatic assault weapons and had guns strapped to their legs. Their flak jackets were covered with pouches for extra ammunition.

Jeremy Scahill is responsible for the majority of the reporting on Blackwater since they were commissioned for the Iraq war. The book is brilliant, and I also babysat with Jeremy once and he's really nice (so you should read it, obvs).

Today, the Iraqi government announced that they would revoke Blackwater's permit to operate in Iraq and prosecute any foreign contractors who are found to have used excessive force. Some government has to put a stop to privatized vigilantism, and evidently it's not going to be ours.

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