Blackwater Busted?

After more than five years of rampant violence and misconduct carried
out by the massive army of private corporate contractors in
Iraq--actions that have gone totally unpunished under any system of
law--the US Justice Department appears to be on the verge of handing
down the first indictments against armed private forces for crimes
committed in Iraq. The reported targets of the "draft" indictments: six
Blackwater operatives involved in the September 16, 2007, killing of
Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square.

The Associated Press reports, "The draft is
being reviewed by senior
Justice Department officials but no charging decisions have been made. A
decision is not expected until at least later this month." The AP,
citing sources close to the case, reports that the department has not
determined if the Blackwater operatives would be charged with
manslaughter or assault. Simply drafting the indictments does not mean
that the Blackwater forces are certain to face charges. The department
could indict as few as three of the operatives, who potentially face
of five to twenty years, depending on the charges.

If the Justice Department pursues a criminal prosecution, it would be
the first time armed private contractors from the United States face

But that is a very big "if."

"The Justice Department has had this matter for fourteen months and has
almost everything imaginable to walk away from it--including delivering
a briefing to Congress in which they suggested that they lacked legal
authority to press charges," says Scott Horton, distinguished visiting
professor of law at Hofstra University and author of a recent study of
legal accountability for private security contractors. "They did this
notwithstanding evidence collected by the first teams on the scene that
suggested an ample basis to prosecute. The ultimate proof here will be
in the details, namely, what charges are brought exactly and what
evidence has Justice assembled to make its case. Still, it's hard to
miss Justice's lack of enthusiasm about this case, and that's

Even if some Blackwater operatives face charges, critics
allege it is the company that must be held responsible. "I am encouraged
that the Justice Department is finally making progress in the
investigation, but I am disappointed that it took over a year and a lot
of pressure for the department to take any action," says Illinois
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who introduced legislation that seeks to
ban using Blackwater and other armed security companies in US war zones.
(She was also the national campaign co-chair of Barack Obama's
presidential campaign and is a top candidate to replace him in the US

"While it is important to hold these individual contractors accountable
for their actions, we must also hold Blackwater accountable for creating
a culture that allows this type of reckless behavior," adds Schakowsky.
"The indictments do nothing to solve the underlying problem of private
security contractors performing critical government functions. The
indictments will likely get rid of a few bad apples, but there will be
no real consequences for Blackwater. This company is going to continue
to do business as usual--the solution is to get them out of this

News of potential indictments over the Nisour Square shootings comes as
the State Department is reportedly preparing to hit Blackwater with a
multimillion-dollar fine for allegedly
as many as 900
automatic weapons to Iraq without the required permits. Some of the guns
may have made their way to the black market.

Blackwater has served as the official bodyguard service for senior US
occupation officials since August 2003, when the company was awarded a
$27 million no-bid contract to guard L. Paul Bremer, the original head
of the Coalition Provisional Authority. To date, the company has raked
in more than $1 billion in "security" contracts under its arrangement
with the State Department.

Despite widespread accusations of killings of civilians and other
crimes, not a single armed contractor from Blackwater--or from any other
armed war corporation--has faced charges under any legal system.
Instead, they have operated in a climate where immunity and impunity
have gone hand in hand. At present, private contractors--most of them
unarmed--outnumber US troops in Iraq by roughly 50,000 personnel.

There is no doubt that the Bush administration will continue
enthusiastically to use armed private forces until the second Bush
office. This means that the future of Blackwater and the hundreds of
for-profit war corporations servicing the Iraq occupation will
lay with President-elect Barack Obama. This includes Blackwater and at
least 300 other companies, which have been hired by the US government
for privatized armed services in Iraq to the tune of about $6
billion in taxpayer money.

"One of the biggest problems that Barack Obama is going to have is
turning the government back into a civil service and getting rid of all
the private contractors," says Washington Democratic Representative Jim
McDermott. "The private contracting thing is the most erosive thing that
administration has done.... You look at all the things that are being
run by private contractors, you simply cannot be handing money to a
private contractor who is not under the law of that country or the law
of this country and can do anything they want. They're really--they're
rogue outfits."

Obama has been a passionate critic of the war industry and is
the sponsor of the leading Democratic legislation in the Senate to
bring more effective regulation and oversight to it. But he
has stopped short of supporting Schakowsky and Senator Bernie Sanders's
legislation seeking a ban on using Blackwater and other armed
contracting companies in Iraq. One of his top foreign policy advisers
earlier this year that Obama "can't rule out [and] won't
out" using these companies in Iraq.

In a brief interview with Democracy
in February, Obama
his position when asked about the report in The Nation.

"Here's the problem: we have 140,000 private contractors right there, so
unless we want to replace all of or a big chunk of those with US troops,
we can't draw down the contractors faster than we can draw down our
troops," Obama said. "So what I want to do is draw--I want them out in
the same way that we make sure that we draw out our own combat troops."

As Obama's inauguration day draws near, he is facing increased calls
from Democrats who have spent years investigating Blackwater to
ban the company. Most prominent among these is Henry Waxman, chair of
the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called on
Obama to cancel Blackwater's security contracts. "I don't see any reason
have a contract with Blackwater," says Waxman. "They haven't lived up to
their contract, and we shouldn't be having these private military
contracts. We should use our own military."

As of now, Blackwater's Iraq contract expires in April (it was extended
for a year by the State Department despite numerous investigations). "I
think there should be very strong handcuffs put on this whole
outsourcing question, but particularly with these private security
contractors like DynCorp and Blackwater," says Vermont Democrat Peter
Welch, who serves on the Oversight Committee with Waxman and supports
the calls for Obama to cancel Blackwater's security contracts. "It's
just an incredible waste of taxpayer money. It
dishonors the Code of Military Conduct. Our soldiers are over there.
They abide by rules. Blackwater doesn't."

But not all Democrats agree. Senator John Kerry, who is reportedly among
the people being considered for Secretary of State in the Obama
administration, shares the president-elect's view. "I don't think they
should be
banned," says Kerry. "I think they need to operate under rules that
apply to the military and everybody else."

As of January 20, 2009, if Obama decides to keep Blackwater and other
armed war corporations on the US payroll, these private forces would go
from being Bush's mercenaries in Iraq to Obama's. As commander in chief,
he would be responsible for their crimes. As for the accountability
issue, many critics allege that the most serious problems in holding
contractors responsible for their crimes stem from the Bush
administration's covering-up of their misconduct and immunizing them
from prosecution, and the total lack of political will to bring them to
justice. When Obama appoints a new attorney general, there will be more
than five years' worth of crimes to investigate--and prosecute.

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