US Still Paying Blackwater Millions - Outcry Grows From Veterans, Elected Officials

Published on
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The Nation

US Still Paying Blackwater Millions - Outcry Grows From Veterans, Elected Officials

by
Jeremy Scahill

Just days before two former Blackwater
employees alleged
in sworn statements filed in federal court that
the company's owner, Erik Prince, "views himself as a Christian crusader
tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,"
the Obama administration extended a contract with Blackwater for more
than $20 million for "security services" in Iraq, according to federal
contract data obtained by The Nation. The State Department
contract is scheduled to run through September 3. In May, the State
Department announced it was not renewing Blackwater's Iraq contract, and
the Iraqi government has refused to issue the company an operating
license.

"They are still there, but we are transitioning them out," a State
Department official told The Nation. According to the State
Department, the $20 million represents an increase on an aviation
contract that predates the Obama administration.

Despite its scandal-plagued track record, Blackwater (which has
rebranded itself as Xe) continues to have a presence in Iraq, trains
Afghan forces on US contracts and provides government-funded training
for military and law enforcement inside the
United States. The company is also actively bidding on other government
contracts, including in Afghanistan, where the number of private
contractors is swelling. According to federal contracting records
reviewed by The Nation, since President Barack Obama took office
in January the State Department has contracted with Blackwater for more
than $174 million in "security services" alone in Iraq and Afghanistan
and tens of millions more in "aviation services." Much of this money
stems from existing contracts from the Bush era that have been continued
by the Obama administration. While Obama
certainly inherited a mess when it came to Blackwater's entrenchment in
Iraq and Afghanistan, he has continued the widespread use of armed
private contractors in both countries. Blackwater's role may be slowly
shrinking, but its work is continuing through companies such as DynCorp
and Triple Canopy.

"These contracts with Blackwater need to stop," says Representative Jan
Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat and a member of the House Select
Committee on Intelligence. "There's already enough evidence of gross
misconduct and serious additional allegations against the company and
its owner to negate any possibility that this company should have a
presence in Iraq, Afghanistan or any conflict zone--or any contract with
the US government."

On July 24 the Army signed an $8.9 million contract with
Blackwater's aviation wing, Presidential Airways, for aviation services
at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Bagram, home to a massive--and
expanding--US-run prison,
has been the subject of intense criticism from the ACLU and human
rights
groups for holdings hundreds of prisoners without charges and denying
them habeas corpus and access to the International Committee of the Red
Cross.

The Blackwater aviation contract for Afghanistan is described as "Air
Charter for Things" and "Nonscheduled Chartered Passenger Air
Transportation." The military signed an additional $1.4 million contract
that day for "Nonscheduled" passenger transportation in Afghanistan.
These payments are part of aviation contracts dating back to the Bush
era, and continued under Obama, that have brought Blackwater tens of
millions of dollars in Afghanistan since January. In May, Blackwater
operatives on contract with the Department of Defense allegedly killed
an unarmed Afghan civilian and wounded two others. Moreover,
Presidential Airways is being sued by the families of US soldiers killed
in a suspicious crash in Afghanistan in November 2004.

The sworn affidavits from the former Blackwater employees, first reported by
The Nation
on August 3, have sparked renewed calls on Capitol
Hill for the Obama administration to cancel all business with
Blackwater. "I believe that the behavior of Xe, its leadership, and many
of its employees, puts our government and military personnel, as well as
our military and diplomatic objectives, at serious risk," Schakowsky
wrote in an August 6 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"Given this company's history of abuse and in light of recent
allegations, I urge you not to award further contracts to Xe and its
affiliates and to review all existing contracts with this company."
Schakowsky sent a similar letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Meanwhile, VoteVets.org, a leading
veterans' organization, has called on the House Committee on Oversight
and Government Reform and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to
investigate the allegations contained in the sworn declarations
submitted in the Eastern District of Virginia on August 3. VoteVets.org,
which has more than 100,000 members, also appealed to the House and
Senate Judiciary Committees to "immediately hold hearings, and make
recommendations on a new legal structure" to hold private military
contractors accountable for alleged crimes.

"Given the charges made against Xe and Erik Prince in these sworn
statements, which include smuggling and use of illegal arms inside of
Iraq, as well as the encouraged murder of innocent Iraqis, it is
essential that these loopholes be closed, retroactively, so that Xe,
Prince, and his employees cannot escape proper prosecution in the United
States now or in the future," wrote the group's chair Jon Soltz, an Iraq
War veteran, in a letter to Senator John Kerry and other lawmakers. "It
is absolutely crucial that we show Iraqis and the rest of the world that
no matter who you are or how big your company is, you will be held
accountable for your conduct--especially when in a war zone. Failure to
do so only emboldens our enemy, and gives them yet another tool to
recruit more insurgents and terrorists that target our men and women in
harm's way."

For its part, Blackwater/Xe issued a statement responding to the sworn
statements of two of its former employees. The company called the
allegations "unsubstantiated and offensive assertions." It said the
lawyers representing alleged Iraqi victims of Blackwater "have chosen to
slander Mr. Prince rather than raise legal arguments or actual facts
that will be considered by a court of law. We are happy to engage them
there."

What Blackwater/Xe's statement did not flatly say is that the
allegations are untrue. "I would have expected a crisp denial," says
military law expert Scott Horton, who has followed this case closely.
"The statement had the look of a denial to it, without actually refuting
the specific allegations. I can understand why from the perspective of a
corporate public affairs officer--just repeating the allegations would
be harmful and would add to their credibility."

Blackwater also claims that the accusations "hold no water" because,
even though the two former employees said that they had already provided
similar information to federal prosecutors, no further Blackwater
operatives or officials have been indicted. The company claims that
according to the US attorney, the indictment of five Blackwater
employees for the September 2007 Nisour Square shootings is "very narrow
in its allegation" and does not charge "the entire Blackwater
organization in Baghdad."

But, as Blackwater certainly knows, there are multiple prosecutors
looking into its activities on a wide range of issues, and more than one
grand jury can be seated at any given time. Simply because indictments
were not announced regarding other actions when the Nisour Square
charges were brought by the Justice Department does not mean Prince,
Blackwater and its management are in the clear.

"We know that the federal criminal investigation is still ongoing, so
this prosecutor's statement was not really anything definitive," says
Horton. "Second, the presumption in US law is that, with fairly rare
exceptions, crimes are committed by natural persons, not by legal
entities like corporations. A corporation might be fined, for instance,
but if it's deeply entangled in criminal dealings, it's the officers who
would be prosecuted. Among other things, of course, it's impossible to
put a corporation in the slammer. So saying that Blackwater wasn't
charged with any crime really doesn't mean much."

Blackwater says it will formally respond to the allegations against
Prince and Blackwater in a legal motion on August 17 in federal court in
the Eastern District of Virginia, where Prince and the company are being
sued for war crimes and other alleged crimes by Susan Burke and the
Center for Constitutional Rights.

On August 5, Blackwater's lawyers filed a motion with the court
reiterating their request for a gag order to be placed on the plaintiffs
and their lawyers. That motion largely consisted of quotes from two
recent Nation magazine articles covering the case, including one
about the allegations against Prince. Despite the fact that the
affidavits of "John Doe #1" and "John Doe #2" were public, Blackwater
accused the lawyers of "providing this information" to the media.
Blackwater's lawyers charged that the plaintiffs' attorneys comments to
The Nation were intended "to fuel this one-sided media coverage
and to taint the jury pool against [Erik Prince and Blackwater]," adding
that The Nation articles and the "coordinated media campaign" of
the lawyers "demonstrate a clear need for an Order restraining
extrajudicial commentary by the parties and their counsel." On August 7,
Judge T.S. Ellis III, a Reagan appointee, denied Blackwater's motion.

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