Old Blackwater Keeps on Rollin’

You know about those five Blackwater guards who shot up 17 Iraqis in Sept. 2007 for no apparent reason and who recently got their case dismissed by a federal judge on a technicality?  Well, the U.S, prosecutors knew their case would go down like the Hindenburg from the get go.  (Blackwater has officially changed its name to "Xe" but everybody still calls it "Blackwater," so we will too.) 

The prosecutors based their case on statements the Blackwater guards had made in an initial report on the massacre.  As government contractors, the guards were required to make those statements.  The Constitution protects defendants from having to testify against themselves, so the statements in the required report couldn’t be used in a prosecution.  But the prosecution built its case around the statements anyway.   

Less than two weeks after the bloodbath occurred, lawyers at the State Department cautioned that the prosecutors might be poking the pooch by basing their case on the mandatory statements.  Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of Federal District Court in Washington, in handing down his decision to throw the case in the dumpster, said the prosecutors had failed to take "common sense precautions" to avoid the self-incrimination problem. 

One can’t help but wonder if the prosecutors failed to apply common sense on purpose.  The prosecution team, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Kohl of the District of Columbia, "purposely flouted" repeated warnings of a Justice Department "taint team" not to rely on compelled statements from the guards, Judge Urbina wrote. 

Kenneth Kohl worked for the Bush administration’s Justice Department, which primarily existed to define anything Dick Cheney wanted to do in Bush’s name as "legal."  Blackwater founder and ex-Navy Seal Erik Prince is a wealthy, fundamentalist Christian Republican who comes from a powerful Michigan Republican family.  Prince was a member of the Bush/Cheney ’04 Organization in Arlington, Virginia, and has been a generous contributor to GOP candidates and organizations.    

And five of his employees just got away with murder because of a foul up by a Bush administration Assistant U.S. Attorney that could have been easily avoided.  

Spies of Fortune  

Two of the seven "CIA officers" killed in Afghanistan on Dec. 30 were Blackwater contractors.  The CIA considered the Blackwater mercenaries to be CIA officers.  A former top CIA officer says that the agency and Blackwater have developed a "brotherly relationship" and that the mercenary group has become "an extension of the agency."  One has to wonder if these spies of fortune had to take an oath of office, or if they were subject to the same rules and laws as real CIA agents.  I doubt it.  Mercenary security guards like the ones who just skated in federal court are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as the Baghdad slaughter case Judge Urbina just threw out clearly illustrates.   

The bomber who killed the CIA folks in Afghanistan was being courted as an intelligence source, and was invited on base and was not searched.  It’s both ironic and disheartening to realize that eight years and change into the Af-Pak project our intelligence apparatus there is still so broken, despite its brotherly relationship with mighty Blackwater, that seven CIA agents got blown away by someone they thought they could trust.  The narrative, dictated by the CIA, originally blamed the Taliban for the bombing (the Taliban took credit for it).  Later, the bomber became a "double agent," for al-Qaeda.  The latest twist has the Associated Press telling us the bomber was actually working for Jordanian intelligence, that the Jordanians coerced him into trying to penetrate al-Qaeda for them.  I can’t wait to see whom gets blamed next.  This is starting to sound like a satiric spy novel by Graham Greene or John Le Carre, isn’t it?  

In that vein, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official told news agencies that "This attack will be avenged through successful, aggressive counterterrorism operations.”  Given the way our intelligence agencies have performed from the skivvy bomber affair clear back to missing the signs that Iraq was about to invade Kuwait, the vengeance for the Afghanistan bombing is likely to resemble the vengeance we took on Saddam Hussein for having nothing to do with 9/11: The CIA will hire Blackwater to fly its remote controlled zeppelin (yes, they really have one) over Yemen and carpet bomb it.  

In 2004 the CIA, then headed by Porter Goss, hired Blackwater contractors as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top al-Qaeda operatives.  This was the program that Dick Cheney told the CIA to withhold from Congress for seven years.  Cheney told the spy agency it didn’t need to inform Congress of its activities because it already had authority to kill al-Qaeda leaders.  As with so many other sins of the Bush era, Dick Cheney had no legal or constitutional authority to make this kind of decision or issue orders to the CIA.  The vice president is president of the Senate, and that’s all, folks.  He doesn’t even get to vote on legislation unless there’s a tie.     

The story on this program gets fuzzy.  Leon Panetta, current director of the CIA, supposedly canceled the program before he told Congress in June that it had ever existed.   

Blackwater supposedly contributed planning, training, and surveillance to the program, and in August 2009 the New York Times reported that the program never really got underway because of "logistical, legal and diplomatic hurdles." 

Pavlov’s Dog of War

Current and former CIA officials told the NYT in August that the spy agency did not issue Blackwater employees with a "license to kill," but hired it merely to collect intelligence, carry out surveillance, and train for "possible missions."   

But lo and behold, a Dec. 10, 2009 Los Angeles Times article reported that "Staffers with [Blackwater] sometimes operated side-by-side with CIA field officers in Iraq and Afghanistan on missions to kill or capture insurgents, according to a former government official and a source familiar with the operations." 

A Dec. 11 piece in the New York Times reported that Blackwater personnel participated in so called "snatch and grab" operations and provided security for extraordinary rendition flights.  

A former senior Blackwater executive confirmed to The Nation in Nov. 2009 that Blackwater also provides personnel to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the assassination squad formerly commanded by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and that reported directly to Cheney’s office.   

A January 2010 Vanity Fair article on Eric Prince was even more revealing.  For the past six years, Prince has been leading a double life: one as Blackwater’s CEO and chairman who raked in more than $1.5 billion in government contracts from 2001 to 2009, the other as a CIA asset, "helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into ‘denied areas’ — places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating — to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies." 

Blackwater also hires former special-forces commandos and CIA agents.  As Vanity Fair author Adam Ciralsky puts it, to get his "jobs done — protecting, defending, and killing, if required — Prince has had to employ the services of some decorated vets as well as some ruthless types, snipers and spies among them." 

Blackwater represents the very worst of what Dwight Eisenhower warned would become the "unwarranted influence" of the military-industrial complex.  Prince hires former government operators to fill contracts to do work for the government that they would have done on active duty for less pay.  Oh yeah, and Prince is a GOP big shot who contributes a lot of money to the party and its candidates and is himself a vetted CIA asset.  Interests don’t get any more conflicted than that.  

To make things even more frightening, Prince is said to be a Gordon Liddy-class right-wing nutcase.  On top of that, in August, two former Blackwater employees filed sworn statements in federal court connecting Prince to behavior ticks that range from illegal-arms sales to wife swapping to murder.   

It may well be that America — the country that spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined — can no longer wage the kinds of wars we’re now fighting without the help of Prince and his crew and their type.  As former chief of staff to Colin Powell Lawrence Wilkerson says, "We’ve outsourced nearly everything."  On the use of mercenary Special Forces and covert intelligence operators, Lawrence says. "Part of this, of course, is an attempt to get around [congressional] constraints." Use of mercenary outfits like Blackwater provides "plausible deniability" to the military and intelligence agencies for deeds they aren’t supposed to be doing.     

Adding to that deniability, much of Blackwater’s efforts were financed "off the books."  Prince provided the funds up front and the government reimbursed him later.  Further distancing government troops and agents from dirty deeds, Blackwater operatives performed on an "ad hoc" basis in roles not specified in their contracts.  (One of Blackwater’s favorite non-denials, as delivered by spokesmodel Mark Corallo, goes, "Blackwater was never under contract to participate in covert raids with CIA or Special Forces troops in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else."  So the legal and moral standard has become that we can’t hold a contractor responsible for anything it did that it didn’t do under contract, I guess.   

If we need the likes of Prince to fight our wars, it’s time we took a hard look at why we’re fighting the kinds of wars that require the likes of Prince before what’s left of our national soul vanishes like a wet wicked witch.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.