Blackwater is the largest private security contractor working in Iraq. It was first hired by Paul Bremer’s CPA in 2003 in a $21 million no bid contract. This was followed by another no bid contract in June 2004 to provide security for State Department (DOS) personnel in Iraq. The no bid contract was let as a matter of urgency but if this was the case, it is unclear why Marines or Special Forces were not used, or why, despite the urgency, there was still time to do a comparative cost analysis of various security contractors before awarding the contract to Blackwater. The no bid contract was eventually shifted to a "competitive" one in May 2006 (actually 3 security contractors were each awarded $1.2 billion). DOS has paid the company $832 million for services in Iraq from 2004 to 2006. In all Blackwater has received over a billion dollars in federal contracts going from $737,000 in 2001 to $593 million in 2006.
It costs 6 times as much to use a Blackwater operative as it does for a US serviceperson or about $445,000 a year. Many of Blackwater’s contractors received their training in the US military.
The DOS has a detailed guide of how Blackwater is supposed to act in potentially threatening situations and how force is to be escalated, but in practice with convoys barreling down roads often the wrong way, these are routinely ignored and maximum force is used first not last. Between January 2005 and April 2007, Blackwater personnel were in 168 incidents involving firearms. In 143 or 85% of them, Blackwater employees fired first. The situation is complicated by the fact that private security contractors are responsible to no one. Just before leaving Iraq in June 2004, Paul Bremer signed Order 17 which placed all contractors outside Iraqi law. As civilians, contractors do not appear to fall under the military’s UCMJ, and federal investigation from the US is difficult and has not been rigorously pursued.
Blackwater first came to national attention on March 31, 2004 when 4 of its contractors were caught in Falluja in unarmored vehicles and killed. Their burned bodies were hung from a bridge. This incident sparked the first siege of Falluja and eventually the destruction of that city later that year. There have been other incidents.
On June 25, 2005 in al Hillah, Blackwater employees initially tried to cover up the shooting of an innocent bystander, a father of six. In a DOS effort to hush up the incident, the victim’s family was paid $5,000.
On November 28, 2005 in Baghdad, a Blackwater commander directed his convoy to randomly collide with 18 vehicles "for no apparent reason".
In an incident in 2006 in the Green Zone a Blackwater vehicle collided with a military Humvee. The Blackwater employees drew their weapons, disarmed the American soldiers, and holding them at gunpoint made them lie down in the dirt until the Blackwater vehicle could be cleared.
On Christmas Eve 2006 in the Green Zone, a drunk Blackwater employee shot and killed a bodyguard of Iraqi vice president Adel Abdul Mehdi. The DOS helped spirit him out of the country within 36 hours of the shooting. His punishment was that he was fired by Blackwater. The DOS also talked down a settlement to the victim’s family from $250,000 to $15,000 arguing that they did not want to set a precedent.
On September 16, 2007, Blackwater employees securing a square in western Baghdad for a second convoy escorting USAID officials (evacuated from a meeting because of a bomb) fired a single shot at a car (for no discernible reason) in a line of traffic some distance from their position. Although the driver had been killed, the car continued to roll forward and Blackwater employees opened up on it and the surrounding area with indiscriminate fire that killed 17 and wounded 24. A subsequent FBI investigation concluded in November 2007 that at least 14 of the killings were unjustified.
Blackwater was also involved in post-Katrina security and was criticized for its heavyhandedness. Prince originally sent 180 of his men into New Orleans on his own with no contract from anyone (think vigilantes) although shortly thereafter a very profitable one appeared.
The distinction between private contractor and employee is not an empty one. The private contractor designation has allowed Blackwater to avoid paying up to $49 million in Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes. However, according to an 2005 IRS finding, they are employees.
The company is owned by Erik Prince a well connected Republican and former Navy Seal. In addition to Prince’s own political ties, Joseph Schmitz COO and general counsel of Blackwater’s parent company the Prince Group is Jeb Bush’s brother-in-law.
Our country spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined yet essential government security services are being contracted out (at inflated rates) to private armies made up of cowboys and mercenaries. This is not only expensive in monetary terms, but the lack of accountability of these armed and dangerous actors seriously undercuts America’s already precarious position in Iraq. It rings hollow to talk about law and order to Iraqis when high profile security contractors show on a daily basis that they have no use for either.
One reason that contractors have had so little accountability is Lawrence Peter who was a consultant to the Pentagon’s Defense Reconstruction Support Office which administers contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time that he was director of the trade group representing private security contractors, the Private Security Company Association of Iraq. Some might find this a conflict of interest but not the Pentagon.
On October 24, 2007, assistant Secretary of State for diplomatic security Richard Griffin announced his resignation. He oversaw private security contractors hired through State and stonewalled in his Congressional testimony before Henry Waxman’s committee on October 2, 2007. At the same time that Condoleezza Rice accepted Griffin’s resignation, she promoted two senior staffers who also were supposed to have overseen private security contracts, Justine Sincavage head of the Overseas Protection Operation and Kevin Barry who previously had held this post. Barry and Sincavage are also to receive bonuses for their work to be awarded December 20, 2007. However, Barry appears to have retired November 30, having no doubt accomplished all that he could.
The September 16 shootings are being investigated by the FBI. Its task was complicated by being brought in a few weeks after the event and by "Garrity" immunity grants (statements for internal purposes only) which State officials gave to Blackwater employees. On being made aware of the immunity grant, the DOJ sealed the employee statements and shifted the direction of the FBI’s investigation from its Criminal Division to the National Security Division.
On April 4, 2008, the State Department said it would renew Blackwater’s license for its security work in Iraq pending the FBI investigation which it knew largely through its own bungling was going nowhere.
On December 8, 2008, 5 Blackwater guards Donald Ball, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nick Slatten, and Paul Slough were charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, and the use of a machine gun in a violent crime as a result of their actions in the September 16, 2007 Nisoor Square shootings. A sixth Blackwater employee Jeremy Ridgeway pled guilty in a plea bargain to manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting.