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The New York Times

Sinking in a Swamp Full of Blackwater

Maureen Dowd

"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster," Nietzsche said. "And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

We're gazing into the abyss all right, and Blackwater is gazing back.

Besides having an army for hire, brave kids who are paid to fight so that most Americans are not personally touched by war, we have the real mercenaries. And they're a spooky cadre, careening outside the laws of Iraq, the United States and the military.

President Bush continues to preach that we must defeat the "dark ideology" of extremists with "a more hopeful vision."

But the compromises W. makes to slog on in Iraq, be it with warlords, dictators or out-of-control contractors, are spreading a dark stain on America's image.

"Blackwater appears to have fostered a culture of shoot first and sometimes kill, and then ask the questions," said Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, yesterday at a House hearing.

The Times reports today that Blackwater's explanation of an incident in Baghdad on Sept. 16 that left 17 dead and 24 wounded is sketchy.

It seems as though a bullet struck an Iraqi man driving his mother to pick up his father, a pathologist, at the hospital. The dead man's weight, The Times reports, "probably remained on the accelerator and propelled the car forward" toward a Blackwater convoy.

Blackwater guards then unleashed a spray of gunfire and explosives, even though witnesses did not see anyone shooting at the American convoy and even though Iraqis were turning their cars around and escaping the scene.

Newsweek quotes the Iraqi national police as saying that Blackwater vehicles "opened fire crazily and randomly, without any reason."

The Blackwater desperados are a sinister symbol of how little progress we've made in Iraq, that V.I.P.'s - or "packages," as the contractors call them - can't make a move in the country without the high-priced hired guns of the State Department.

Americans have been antimercenary since the British sent 30,000 German Hessians after George Washington in the Revolutionary War.

But W. outsourced his presidency to Cheney and Rummy, and Cheney and Rummy went to war on the cheap and outsourced large chunks of the Iraq occupation to Halliburton and Blackwater. The American taxpayer got gouged, and so did the American reputation.


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The mercenaries inflame Iraqis even as Gen. David Petraeus tries to win their trust.

Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, summoned the 38-year-old crew-cut chairman of Blackwater, Erik Prince, to defend his private security company yesterday.

Once there was the military-industrial complex. Now we have the mercenary-evangelical complex.

Mr. Prince, a former intern to the first President Bush and a former Navy Seal, is from a well-to-do and well-connected Republican family from Michigan.

He and his father both have close ties to conservative Christian groups. His sister was a Pioneer for W., raising $100,000 in 2004, and Erik Prince has given more than $225,000 to Republicans.

Blackwater, in turn, has been the beneficiary of $1 billion in federal contracts, including a no-bid contract with the State Department worth hundreds of millions.

Mr. Waxman yesterday called the State Department "Blackwater's enabler." His committee staff summarized State Department reports revealing a cascade of Blackwater trouble.

"In a high-profile incident in December 2006, a drunken Blackwater contractor killed the guard of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi. Within 36 hours after the shooting, the State Department had allowed Blackwater to transport the Blackwater contractor out of Iraq."

The State Department chargé d'affaires "suggested a $250,000 payment to the guard's family, but the Department's Diplomatic Security Service said this was too much and could cause Iraqis to 'try to get killed.' " In the end, they agreed on a $15,000 payment.

"The State Department took a similar approach," the report stated, "upon receiving reports that Blackwater shooters killed an innocent Iraqi, except that in this case, the State Department requested only a $5,000 payment to 'put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly.' "

Mr. Prince was pressed by Representative Paul Hodes about the penalty paid by the Blackwater employee who, while drunk and off-duty at a Christmas party, killed the Iraqi guard.

The man was fired. And he had to pay his own airfare home and forfeit his bonuses, amounting to a loss of about $14,697 - slightly less than the amount paid to the family of the Iraqi he blew away.

Maureen Dowd, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, became a columnist on The New York Times Op-Ed page in 1995.

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