How did it come to be that the ostensibly best-educated and most refined representatives of the United States in Iraq are guarded by gun-toting mercenaries who kill innocent civilians? More urgently, why did State Department employees and their bosses in Washington tolerate-and pay to conceal-the wanton murder conducted on their watch?
That's the real scandal of the more than $832 million the U.S. State Department paid Blackwater, investigated this week by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, headed by Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). The issue is not simply that of the Blackwater forces' horrid behavior but, more important, why the mayhem they unleashed upon innocent Iraqis was approved and covered up by the Bush administration. For example, why did a top State Department official initially suggest a payment of $250,000 of American taxpayers' money to conceal the uncontested fact that, as the House committee report states, "a drunken Blackwater contractor killed the guard of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi"?
The State Department enabled the Blackwater shooter to be spirited out of the country within 36 hours, and although Blackwater subsequently fired him, he has never faced any criminal charges. Nor have any of the others involved in the 195 shooting incidents Blackwater officials admitted have occurred in the past two years, incidents in which 84 percent of the time Blackwater contractors fired first. According to Blackwater's own documents, the congressional committee reports, "in the vast majority of incidents ... Blackwater shots are fired from a moving vehicle and Blackwater does not remain on the scene to determine if their shots resulted in casualties." During one trip U.S. diplomats made to the Ministry of Oil, 18 different Iraqi civilian vehicles were smashed by the fast-moving motorcade. Those hit-and-runs were conducted in full view of the escorted State Department officials without any of them forcing a subsequent investigation.
Despite all the nonsense about a "liberated Iraq," one of President Bush's favorite phrases, the Iraqis still lack the authority to prosecute American mercenaries occupying their country because of a law pushed through by then-U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer, who was also guarded by Blackwater personnel. Bremer awarded the original no-bid contract to Blackwater, run by a major Republican campaign contributor, Erik Prince, who has donated $225,000 to the GOP. Prince's sister Betsy DeVos was Michigan's Republican Party chair and a Bush-Cheney "Pioneer" who came through with at least $100,000 for their 2004 campaign.
But this is not yet another story about payoffs to the GOP faithful who have predominated in the occupation and are totally untrained for their assigned tasks in the restructuring of a country that they know nothing about. The Blackwater guards know their job all too well, which is to guard top U.S. officials by any means necessary-including the casual extermination of innocent Iraqis.
Clearly, paid contractors are better for this task than American military personnel, since contractors operate outside of the restraints imposed on ordinary troops by law and by their own consciences. Many Blackwater contractors have been recruited from the U.S. military at much higher pay than direct service to their country afforded them. Whereas a top Army sergeant is paid $51,100 to $69,350 a year in salary, housing and other benefits, a Blackwater contractor (often a retired sergeant) receives six to nine times as much. The U.S. government pays Blackwater $1,222 per day for one Blackwater "Protective Security Specialist," which, the congressional report notes, "amounts to $445,891 per contractor" per year. In an unusual display of disapproval aimed at Blackwater from the right side of the aisle, Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., noted Tuesday that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus' annual salary amounts to less than half of what some high-ranking Blackwater security officials in Iraq earn.
Of course they're worth it, along with the Iraqi deaths they cause, if your own life is on the line and that's all that matters. This is clearly the position of the State Department employees in Iraq and their bosses in Washington who have covered up for Blackwater for years. As the House committee majority staff states: "There is no evidence in the documents that the Committee has reviewed that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater's actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater or the company's high rate of shooting first, or detained contractors for investigation."
No better evidence that the Iraqis are the Indians, attempting as imperfectly as they may to protect their ancestral terrain. But this time the imperial majesty of the United States, represented by American Ambassador Ryan Crocker, is established not by the U.S. cavalry but by a band of hired gunslingers.
Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.
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