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Monday, August 13, 2007

Criminal, Unaccountable, and Tax Financed

Blackwater 'security guards'

It may be stating the obvious, since war encompasses everything that is the worst in humanity, but war brings out the worst in people. It's hard to imagine a more stressful situation than being a professional target or obstacle to people with guns and bombs. Nothing makes any damned sense -- at least, not in any way we've been brought up to believe. Killing is desirable and non-aggression is cowardice. Destruction is celebrated, not the human impulse to build. Anger and hatred propel you forward, where empathy, morality, and love for humanity can only hold you back.

When you drop someone in the middle of this society in reverse and they lose it, it shouldn't surprise anyone. We pretend to be shocked, but we know the history of war. It's never been any other way. When you 'let slip the dogs of war,' crime -- beyond the crime of war itself -- is unleashed as well. It can't be any other way and it's unrealistic to imagine any other outcome.

The military has some controls in this system of legalized crime. There are still lines that can't be crossed and crossing those lines turns on the justice machine -- in theory, anyway. It doesn't always work that way, but that's the way it's supposed to work. There are checks on the soldier's behavior, even if they're terribly inconsistent.

But in this war, in our time, there are more than soldiers on the ground in Iraq. Private contractors, who aren't governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and who, according to the Associated Press, "are exempt from prosecution by Iraqis for crimes committed there," also exist there. The only real check on these people are the fact that they can be fired. Technically, they're supposed to provide security, but they act as far more than rent-a-cops. They are a collection of private armies.

Writes Deborah Hastings for AP:

There are now nearly as many private contractors in Iraq as there are U.S. soldiers - and a large percentage of them are private security guards equipped with automatic weapons, body armor, helicopters and bullet-proof trucks.

They operate with little or no supervision, accountable only to the firms employing them. And as the country has plummeted toward anarchy and civil war, this private army has been accused of indiscriminately firing at American and Iraqi troops, and of shooting to death an unknown number of Iraqi citizens who got too close to their heavily armed convoys.

Not one has faced charges or prosecution.

You don't get these guys for free, this is your tax dollars at work. Hastings tells us, "Security firms earn more than $4 billion in government contracts" -- even though we have no idea how many 'security officers' are on the ground or even where many of them are. "I understand this is war," says Rep. Jan Schakowsky, "But that's absolutely no excuse for letting this very large force of armed private employees, dare I say mercenaries, run around without any accountability to anyone."

These security officers suck rocks at supplying security. On Christmas Eve, 2006, for example, a drunken Blackwater USA employee shot and killed a guard for the iraqi Vice President. The employee made his way to the US embassy, where he was flown out of the country. Eight months after this murder, he hasn't been charged with any crime.

Back to the AP story, another example involves an "incident in which a supervisor for a Virginia-based security company [Triple Canopy] said he was 'going to kill somebody today' and then shot at Iraqi civilians for amusement, possibly killing one, according to two employees" -- it was the witnesses who were fired for reporting the crime, not the shooter for committing it.

Other crimes came to light when "employees of London-based Aegis Defence Services, holder of one of the biggest U.S. security contracts in Iraq - valued at more than $430 million - posted videos on the Internet in 2005 showing company guards firing automatic weapons at civilians from the back of a moving security vehicle."

Here's an interesting and obvious question -- if armed thugs were doing this sort of thing on your street, what would you do? The answer probably depends on your age.

It may seem anti-intuitive, but kids join gangs to protect them from crime. At least, in the US. In Iraq there are other organizations they can turn to. "I returned to the bureau in tears after hearing one story after the others of brutal killings at the hands of the Mahdi Army," wrote Laila Fadel of McClatchy Newspapers in June, "It was Lord of the Flies, young boys ruling and killing in a Baghdad neighborhood." It begs the question, how much do these hired seciurity officers contribute to insecurity?

You might remember the fate of four Blackwater employees lynched in Iraq. On March 31, 2004, they were burned, beaten, decapitated, and their bodies hung from a bridge over the Euphrates in Fallujah. It was a horrific crime. But there was no explanation as to why those employees were in Fallujah -- there was no legitimante reason for it and, at the time, the city could only be considered 'enemy territory.'

That's when things got really weird:


...Following these gruesome deaths which were broadcast on worldwide television, the surviving family members looked to Blackwater for answers as to how and why their loved ones died. Blackwater not only refused to give the grieving families any information, but also callously stated that they would need to sue Blackwater to get it. Left with no alternative, in January 2005, the families filed suit against Blackwater, which is owned by the wealthy and politically-connected Erik Prince.

Blackwater quickly adapted its battlefield tactics to the courtroom. It initially hired Fred F. Fielding, who is currently counsel to the President of the United States. It then hired Joseph E. Schmitz as its in-house counsel, who was formerly the Inspector General at the Pentagon. More recently, Blackwater employed Kenneth Starr, famed prosecutor in the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, to oppose the families. To add additional muscle, Blackwater hired Cofer Black, who was the Director of the CIA Counter- Terrorist Center.

Blackwater sued the families for $10 million to get them to shut the hell up. These people, who are thugs on the streets of Iraq, are thugs all the way up to the executive level. And likely criminal -- you don't go to such lengths to cover up something where there's no wrongdoing. Those contractors were in Fallujah and the most likely reason was that they were sent there.

We can also see that these security contractors are very well connected -- and, in the case of Blackwater, to one party exclusively. With connections like these, how likely do you think it is that anyone in the Justice Dept. or the Pentagon is going to investigate them? These people are a street gang and the only difference between them and the punk on the street are expensive suits, glass executive towers, and well-connected buddies. They shoot at iraqis and americans with impunity, they're unaccountable for their crimes, they're given absolute free reign in Iraq, and they're doing it all on the public dime.

Back in March, I wrote about a single death in Iraq, quoting Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher, "Col. Ted Westhusing, a West Point scholar, put a bullet in his head in Iraq after reporting widespread corruption. His suicide note -- complaining about human rights abuses and other crimes -- was addressed to his two commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus, now leader of the U.S. 'surge' effort in Iraq. It urged them to 'Reevaluate yourselves....You are not what you think you are and I know it.'"

Col. Westhusing chose death before dishonor. Those who defend hired thugs like Blackwater USA, Triple Canopy, or Aegis Defence Services embrace dishonor.

And they do so on your dime and in your name.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

By Christopher Dickey/Colonel Westhusing
Aug. 20-27, 2007 issue - On the afternoon of Feb. 5, 2006, at a small church in the Turkish Black Sea city of Trabzon, Father Andrea Santoro was kneeling in prayer when a bullet from an Austrian-made Glock 9mm pistol hit him in the back and pierced his heart. The soft-spoken 60-year-old Italian priest, who lived in poverty ministering to the city's tiny Christian community, slumped to the floor, and the killer squeezed off another round. "Allahu akbar!"—"God is great"—said the shooter, a 15-year-old boy with a grudge against the West.

In May of last year, another Muslim fanatic, guns blazing, attacked Turkey's supreme court in Ankara. Four justices were wounded and one was killed. The assassin's weapons of choice were a pair of Glock pistols.

The attacks were no mystery. What puzzled Turkish police was the weapons' origin. Glocks are high-quality sidearms, but by last year they had practically become common street weapons in Turkey. More than 1,000 had been taken from criminals, guerrillas, terrorists and assassins all over the country, and authorities believed tens of thousands more had found their way onto the black market—but from where? The Austrian government repeatedly checked the serial numbers of the murder weapons. The manufacturer informed Ankara that the pistols were consigned originally to " 'US Mission Iraq' [formerly the Coalition Provisional Authority], address: Republican Presidential Compound, Ministry of the Interior, Baghdad, Iraq."

There are many more where those came from. At least three U.S. government agencies are now investigating the massive "disappearance" and diversion of weapons Washington intended for Iraqi government forces that instead have spread to militants and organized gangs across the region. The potential size of the traffic is stunning. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last month showed that since 2004, some 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols, bought with U.S. money for Iraqi security forces, have gone missing.

At retail prices in the United States, a Glock 19 costs about $500. On the black market in Turkey, it can fetch up to $3,500, according to the national police. A senior Turkish security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said his government estimates some 20,000 U.S.-bought Glock 9mm pistols have been brought from Iraq into his country over the last three years. "The problem on our side is that this corruption is so big they [the Iraqi and U.S. governments] cannot stop it," said the official.

The U.S. military has investigated the problem repeatedly—and the losses look more appalling every time. Major U.S. arms transfers began when Gen. David Petraeus was commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command—Iraq (MNSTC-I), better known as Minsticky. Its mission was to train, arm and organize Iraq's military and police forces, but the Iraqis' weapons came via the State Department, and the supply line was actually run by private contractors. A certain sense of drama militated against good bookkeeping, too. In a recent radio interview, Petraeus—now the commander of all Coalition forces in Iraq—reminisced about helicopters ferrying weapons to Iraqi troops under fire at night in Najaf. Men were "kicking two battalions' worth of equipment off the ramp and getting out of there while we could," he said.

But there were also signs of problems more serious than bad record-keeping. One of Petraeus's subordinates, Col. Theodore Westhusing, had taken leave from his position as a professor of ethics at West Point to serve a six-month tour as commander of the unit training counterterrorism and Special Operations Forces. By the spring of 2005, Westhusing had grown increasingly concerned about the corruption he thought he saw in the program. He was especially upset after receiving an anonymous letter on May 19, 2005, which claimed there was outright fraud by government contractors. Among the alleged problems: failure to account for almost 200 guns.

Westhusing passed the letter up the chain of command. A few days later he wrote a formal memo saying he thought the charges were off-base. But at the same time his conversations and e-mails with his family members became cryptic and he seemed concerned for his safety. Colleagues said he looked exhausted and preoccupied. On June 5, 2005, Westhusing was found dead in his temporary quarters at Camp Dublin near Baghdad airport, apparently having shot himself with his own pistol. "I cannot support a [mission] that leads to corruption, human rights abuses and liars," he wrote in a note found near his body. "Death before being dishonored any more. Trust is essential—I don't know who to trust anymore."

Military investigators concluded that Westhusing's death was a suicide and that the various complaints he leveled against commanders and contractors were "unfounded." Westhusing had had trouble fitting in with other officers, became increasingly withdrawn and seemed depressed when he thought his tour might be extended. But his older brother doesn't believe he killed himself, especially not, as it happened, on his mother's birthday. "Everything he talked about and reported up his chain of command is coming out now: contract fraud, stolen guns and equipment, issues with killings," says Tim Westhusing, who works for IBM in Oklahoma.

General Petraeus declined to comment for the record on the death of Westhusing or the diversion of arms. A senior Pentagon official, talking on background because of the issue's sensitivity, said that a few weeks ago Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent the department's general counsel, Jim Haynes, to "meet with the Turks, hear their concerns and convey that we take them very seriously." The senior official added that in December 2005 the Pentagon launched a "wide-ranging" investigation—which he said was still ongoing—into corruption among contractors in Iraq.

But the first detailed investigation of the missing weapons was conducted last summer by Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. His team found there was a special problem with Glocks: 13,180 were missing, worth as much as $46 million on the black market. The more recent GAO study puts the total figure for missing pistols closer to 80,000.

Neither report comes to any conclusion about where those guns went—at least not publicly. A classified version of the GAO report will be submitted to Congress next month, and the Pentagon's investigation has been handed over to its criminal division and the FBI. But the Turks know what happened to hundreds of those guns, and the congregation of a little church in Trabzon knows only too well how one of them was used.

With John Barry in Washington, Owen Matthews and Sami Kohen in Istanbul, Larry Kaplow in Baghdad and Gretel C. Kovach in Dallas

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