Jeremy Scahill on Soldiers of Fortune
The writer speaks with Truthdig about his new book, “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” privatization in America and abroad, and our dysfunctional democracy.
(running time: about 24:29 mins / 22.4 MB)
This is Truthdig. James Harris here with Josh Scheer on the other side. We have author, writer and journalist Jeremy Scahill on the phone. Before we get into the book, how are you?
Jeremy Scahill: Good, it’s good to be with you and with Truthdig.
Harris: All right, you’ve written a new text, [on] Blackwater USA, and we’ve been reading some of the reviews. Some good, obviously, and some bad. I read the bad stuff, but I’d like to know what your intentions were in writing this book — what drove you.
Scahill: I’ve spent many years going in and out of Iraq. I first went to Iraq in late 1998 when the Clinton administration was gearing up to attack the country, and indeed President Clinton bombed Iraq for four days in December of 1998. And that was my first visit to the country, and I went in and out of Iraq many times between then and 2003. And I actually spent a fair bit of time in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. And so, on the morning of March 31st, 2004, four men identified as civilian contractors were ambushed and killed in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, and then the Bush administration responded with this merciless revenge attack, laid siege to the city, killed hundreds of people, displaced tens of thousands of others. I started to investigate: Who were those guys who got killed in Fallujah? Whose lives were so valuable that the Bush administration felt it was necessary to go in and essentially wipe out an entire city? And that began a several-year process of investigating the company Blackwater USA.
Josh Scheer: And some of the background information I was reading, it talked about the USS Cole bombing and that was their first big government contract and that’s what kind of led us to them now. Can you give us a brief history of this company and … you talk about who their founder is and his support for this president. … How did you guys cover that in the book?
Scahill: Blackwater USA was founded by a man named Eric Prince. And Eric Prince is … currently in his late 30s, but at the time of founding Blackwater in 1996 he was believed to be the wealthiest person that had ever enlisted in the U.S. Navy SEALs, which is widely considered to be the most elite force within the U.S. military. And Eric Prince came from a very conservative evangelical Christian family in the state of Michigan. His father was a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps businessman who started a very successful auto parts manufacturing business called Prince Manufacturing. And what the company was best known for was inventing the now ubiquitous lighted sun visor. Any time you’re in your car and you pull down that visor and it lights up, that’s Eric Prince’s family that invented that. So this company was very successful throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and really, young Eric Prince watched as his father used his very successful business as a cash-generating machine to fund the rise of the Republican revolution in 1994 that brought Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America to power. To give the kick-start money to Gary Bauer to start his group, the Family Research Council. They were heavy funders of James Dobson and Focus on the Family. And so young Eric Prince grew up in this family that was very strict Calvinist in their religion and then real free-market-gospel followers. And so he saw this sort of model from his father, and that really has been the model that he has picked up and ran with as he’s built up his Blackwater empire.
Scheer: I was reading a fact that was kind of shocking … one in every 60 soldiers in the first gulf war was a contractor. And in this war, it’s one to one. You know, what have you noticed, I mean is this war unique? Is this the most contractors we’ve ever used? How do you see these contractors, and what’s their role in Iraq that we’re seeing today? And in modern warfare in general?
Scahill: The Bush administration came to power with the most radical privatization agenda in U.S. history, and we see it in our schools, we see it in prisons, we see it in healthcare, we see it in local law enforcement in the United States, federal law enforcement as well. And now with the so-called war on terror and the occupation of Iraq, we’ve seen the most militant privatization agenda sort of unfold before our eyes. Donald Rumsfeld, on September 10th, 2001, gave one of his first major addresses at the Pentagon, and he laid out a plan for a wholesale sort of overhaul of how the U.S. would wage its wars. And he talked about a small-footprint approach and the use of the private sector, and at one point Rumsfeld said because governments can’t die, we need to find other incentives for bureaucracy to adapt and improve. And of course this was one day before this sort of new Pearl Harbor moment happened on September 11th and all of a sudden Rumsfeld and Cheney get this blank canvas on which to paint their privatization dreams. And so what we’ve seen is as tanks rolled in, in March of 2003, to Iraq, they brought with them the largest army of private war contractors ever deployed. Now, as you say, there’s some 100,000 contractors — I actually think there are probably more than that. That’s a strangely round number. But the fact of the matter is that we know from internal government audits that were done on the Iraq occupation that there are some 48,000 employees of private mercenary companies operating in Iraq right now. And what these companies do is they give the Bush administration extraordinary political cover. Their deaths don’t get counted, their injuries don’t get counted, their crimes don’t get reported, they don’t get investigated, they don’t get prosecuted. The fact of the matter is that with 100,000-plus contractors in Iraq, there’s only been one indictment of a contractor for a crime or violation committed in Iraq. And that contractor wasn’t even a mercenary contractor. It was a private contractor doing support work for the U.S. military. So what we see is a sort of revolving door. The mercenaries provide the Bush administration with the ability to bloat the occupation forces — effectively double the number of occupation personnel on the ground — and then in turn the Bush administration has given them almost total free-for-all environment where there’s no accountability, there’s no oversight, there’s no effective laws governing their presence there. And it’s interesting that Blackwater USA and its executives are heavy funders of the campaigns of President Bush and his Republican allies, and that these are the very individuals that have essentially created a Wild West environment for these contractors in Iraq.
Scheer: With the contractors, though, I feel some sort of sympathy. Not … obviously [for] the Prince family, but with the guys on the ground because these guys were once military or law enforcement. … What would you say to that? You know … when a helicopter goes down and four guys who were contractors die, I feel sympathy the same way I would if we lose one of our own soldiers. … Do you feel like that same kind of sympathy? …
Scahill: Well, I think that there are different types of motivations at play here. On the one hand, I’ve gotten to know some of the families of Blackwater contractors that have died in Iraq. And when you talk to those families and you say, you know, what did you think was going on when your son went over there, or your husband went over there? These people all believed that their loved ones were extending their patriotic duty to defend their country. They believed that what they were doing for Blackwater was what they had done as active-duty U.S. military personnel. And so their motives in going over to Iraq, some of these guys, was simply to continue serving their country, and that’s how they viewed it. And a lot of these guys are loyal Republicans and they believed in the Iraq war and so they felt that they were doing their part to defend their country. But the flip side of it is you also have guys who are just straight-up thugs who go over there — they’re soldiers of fortune, you know, they’re making six, seven times what a regular U.S. soldier is making. They have much better equipment, much better body armor and they’re simply in it for a buck. And I think that those are the guys that we really have to watch, because … we’re essentially privatizing the war to forces over which there’s no effective system of accountability. So yes, these guys are over there in the most violent and volatile country in the world. But the fact of the matter is that they have a choice on whether or not they want to be going over there, and they’re getting paid very well for doing it. The soldiers that Bush sends over there as cannon fodder don’t have a choice in the matter. You got guys that signed up to stop floods in the state of Pennsylvania [who] all a sudden find themselves in the middle of Baquba. That’s not [what] they signed up in the National Guard for. So, I think we do have to draw a line between the mercenaries and the active-duty soldiers there, in terms of how much sympathy we extend to them.
Scheer: No, and I understand that point of view, but when … people that I’ve talked to … go and say it is a volunteer Army and we know with stop loss and what you talked about with the National Guard sent over … for maybe the next 20 or 30 years. But with these contractors, some of them, they went over there with good intentions and they’re doing such a harried job, it’s just such a confusing time. …
Scahill: I think that the point you’re making, though, we have to break it down a little more and I think it depends on the category that an individual falls into. As I said, I know personally the families of guys that have died over there and I’ve done extensive research into their backgrounds, the kinds of people that they are, talked to their friends, and the fact of the matter is that a good part of these guys are probably guys who say, “I believe in defending my country and so I want to go over there.” Now I personally think that there’s nothing, there’s no defense of the United States happening in Iraq right now. This is an offensive aggressive war — but they believe it. And in going over there, their motives are true to what they believe. But I also think that there are a tremendous number of these guys who say, “Hey, I want to make a thousand bucks a day, tax free. I’ll go over there for two months and I’ll come back and I’ll live off that fat for the next year. And that’s problematic when you give people an incentive that’s monetary to go and fight a war, that’s no longer about defending the nation-state. That’s private profit motive for being engaged in a brutal, bloody, offensive war.
Scheer: Now, could we be in this war without the contractors? I mean, could we continue this war without them, because — .
Scheer: — Because it seems like there’s so many of these guys. They’re really doing a lot of the work that … our regular soldiers would do, right?
Scahill: Let me tell you about … what Blackwater is doing in Iraq; see, a lot of people don’t understand the role that Blackwater is playing in Iraq. Blackwater is largely not working for the U.S. military in Iraq. Blackwater has been paid $750 million, three-quarters of $1 billion, by the U.S. State Department alone, since June of 2004. And what Blackwater does is it guards the senior U.S. officials in Iraq. It guards Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, it guards State Department officials, it’s guarded 90 congressional delegations, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And so what the U.S. has done is to outsource what some would argue is one of the most mission-critical operations in Iraq: The protection of the senior U.S. officials on the ground in Iraq. So Blackwater really is at the front lines of protecting the most hated people in Iraq, and the fact that the U.S. sends that into the private sector speaks volumes to the faith that the administration or lack of faith that the administration apparently has in the active-duty U.S. military. But what contractors also do is they take away, they chisel away at the democratic process in this country because if you can deploy 100,000 contractors, that’s 100,000 soldiers you don’t have to convince to enlist in your military. That’s 100,000 soldiers whose deaths aren’t going to be counted in the official toll. And what I think is one of the most disturbing realities of this privatized war is that an adventurous president like Bush can simply just purchase soldiers to wage these wars. You no longer have to go through the Congress, you no longer have to try to convince young people in this country to join the military in the same kinds of numbers. You can hire troops from the United States, Chile, Columbia, Bulgaria, Honduras, Nicaragua, you name it. It’s a total subversion of what should be a necessary resistance to offensive wars.
Harris: But Jeremy, due respect, that’s speculative. Half of what you just said was speculation. What’s the alternative for furthering the fight against terror? You may say “go home,” but that’s a whole different argument. If we recognize that we are a nation built on war — we come across a conflict every 10 years or so. It’s … our MO. So how do we do this without privatization?
Scahill: Well, I would totally reject you saying that what I was saying wasn’t grounded in fact. The fact of the matter is that the Iraq occupation is an aggressive offensive war that would not be possible without the use of private contractors. That’s explicitly what I’m talking about. And the fact of the matter is that now a majority of the people in this country oppose the war. A majority of the world opposes the war and the occupation of Iraq. And without these privatized mercenaries running around Iraq, the Bush administration would have a very difficult time maintaining its occupation of Iraq, its partial occupation of Afghanistan, now its aggressive posturing towards Iran. These guys have changed the face of war-making, and I think it’s a very ominous development.
Scheer: I have to say … the fact is in the first gulf war, it was justified — and that’s why the U.N. came in. That’s why 60 or more countries came in and gave troops. [Editor’s note: Actually, roughly 30 countries.] With this war, it’s not justified. We don’t need private contractors in other wars, because if the war is justified enough, other countries will come and help and that’s kind of the idea of countries coming together, right? …
Harris: From your standpoint, is it about furthering the evidence against Bush and this war, or is it about doing something about the fact that we are privatizing most of what we do? This is not only true in Iraq. This is true for insurance, this is true for social services, this is becoming a part of our American culture. So, as opposed to privatizing, how do we governmentize these kinds of issues?
Scahill: Let me give you an example. The fact is that the Bush administration failed to build a coalition of willing nations to operate in Iraq. Yes, they had some nations that gave them a few hundred troops here and there and the British had 10,000 troops. But the reality was that they were unable, as Josh was just saying, to build a coalition of nations as they did in the so-called Gulf War. So what we’ve found is that the way that the Bush administration has internationalized its presence in Iraq is to recruit, through private companies, soldiers and other contractors from third countries to go and deploy in Iraq. Take the case of Chile, for instance. The nation of Chile — 92 percent of the population was against the Iraq war. Chile was on the Security Council at the time it went up for a vote and was against the Iraq war. And yet Blackwater and other companies went into Chile, hired up hundreds of their soldiers and deployed them in Iraq as part of the so-called coalition of the willing. Take the case of Honduras. They pulled their troops out of Iraq in 2005. Another U.S. mercenary company went into Honduras and hired those exact soldiers and redeployed them to Iraq. So as we talk about the ramifications of privatization in warfare, we have to look at the fact that not only is the democratic process in this country being subverted by it, but the democratic processes in other countries are being subverted by it. It’s a total, sort of, banging at the bottom of nation-state status. They’re really chiseling away at not only our democracy but the democratic processes in other countries. How dare the Bush administration deploy troops from countries that have said “we won’t join your coalition of the willing”? That, to me, is an extraordinary development in this history.
Harris: You’re saying that they are tampering with our democracy. That is the kind of destructiveness and destructive attitude that I think has defined this administration. What’s the next step? What do you hope to see happen after your book does well?
Scahill: Well, I think there are a couple things that I’ve tried to do. First of all, the book is long. I didn’t expect it to be as long as it is. It’s about 380 pages, and then, if you count, there’s also about 2,000 footnotes in the book. And one of the things I tried to do with the book, also, is to tell an alternative history of the war in Iraq. Alternative to what we’ve read in the major papers in this country. So, for instance, I tell the history of the city of Fallujah. I get deeply into the background people like Paul Bremmer and John Negroponte and the various individuals that run the Blackwater company. And what I think is the key point right now is that we need to start seriously looking in this country at the privatization of war as part of the bigger privatization agenda. Look at the prison system in this country right now. Not only do we have private corporations running prisons, but we also have faith-based prisons. One of Eric Prince’s, the founder of Blackwater, one of his close political allies, Chuck Colson, was Nixon’s hatchet man. One of the first people that went to jail for the Watergate conspiracy. Chuck Colson has now reinvented himself as this evangelical leader. He runs a faith-based prison in Sugar Land, Texas, the former district of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. And he runs the lives of 200 prisoners and they are running it as a Christian missionary operation. And Chuck Colson speaks openly about how we need to bring the Christian word into the prisons to battle the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in prisons. And so we see it in the prisons, we see it in law enforcement. Right now in this country there are more private law enforcement agents than there are official law enforcement agents. That’s incredible! That should disturb people. Because it’s not just about “is the private sector more efficient than the government?” It’s about accountability and oversight. Where are the laws that govern these privatized forces? We’ve seen that in Iraq there’s no laws that govern them, and in a way it’s the same at home here. If your kid gets killed by a private security guard outside of a Best Buy, what happens? How do you get justice for your son? I mean, I have a friend whose son was killed by a security guard. He’s gotten nowhere with it. What laws govern these people?
Harris: Do you think it’s apathy? This is public information. Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman — pick a liberal journalist. They’ve all talked about the privatization and how it is overtaking our American citizenship. Jeremy, I’d be interested to know, what do you think has us so paralyzed that we’re not responding? We’re not up in arms about this, as I think we should be.
Scahill: Well, I think you’re cutting at something really important here. I do agree with you that a lot of this stuff is in the public sphere, but I don’t think people understand how deep it has cut at this point. I was surprised, I wrote an Op-Ed for the L.A. Times [Jan. 25, 2007] and basically stated a bunch of things that we already know. There are 100,000 contractors in Iraq; the war has been greatly privatized. And I got so much mail from people who said “I had no idea about this,” including from congressional offices. And so I think that as much as we may think that this stuff is in the public sphere, that we may think people know about this, I don’t know that that’s so true. And I think that this is something that’s really going to come back to bite us and is coming back to bite us very fast. And the fact of the matter is that Blackwater is expanding to California. They’re looking to open a new facility in San Diego. They’re expanding to Illinois. They’ve applied for operating licenses in all coastal states in the U.S. Their representatives met recently with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to discuss doing disaster response in California after earthquakes. This is all part of that privatization agenda, and the companies that benefit from it are well-connected companies, and that sort of embodies everything that President Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address when he talked about unchecked corporate power with the rise of the military-industrial complex.
Scheer: Jeremy, I want to ask you about this because, there was the Greenwald movie, [“Iraq For Sale”] about private contractors and there’s CACI. … They’ve sued now, people with … blogs, and they’ve gone after, say, Randi Rhodes on Air America, and they’ve gone after these people. Do you feel safe with going after someone like this? Because they’re connected to military, they seem not to have any oversight. What was your opinion writing this book? When you were at people’s homes and talking to people at the company and doing the research, did you feel like you were in danger? Or that Blackwater might sue you? Or that now you’re a target?
Scahill: I think all of us as journalists, when you take on powerful people, when you take on powerful corporations, you have to know what you’re getting into. I think the fact of the matter is, when you look at the lawyers that represent Blackwater, it’s almost overwhelming. Their current counsel of record is Kenneth Starr, the man who led the impeachment charge against President Clinton in the 1990s. Their former lawyer was Fred Fielding, who is now Bush’s White House counsel. They have an army of powerful Republican lawyers. And also, the fact of the matter is, this is a mercenary company. These are guns for hire. These are frightening guys. But if I spent too much time wondering about if someone is going to break my kneecaps, or am I going to get sued, I’d be paralyzed. And the fact of the matter is, I believe with all of my heart that these guys need to be exposed, because I do think that it cuts to the very heart of the threats facing not only us in this country and the future of American democracy but people in Iraq, Afghanistan, countries throughout Africa — the mercenaries would love to deploy in Darfur. They’re already going into Somalia. These are life-and-death issues, and I think that if we truly want to be independent journalists, we have to be willing to take risks. And part of that risk of going up against a major war contractor or mercenary company like Blackwater is maybe they’ll sue you, maybe they’ll break your kneecaps.
Scheer: People want to go out and go home, they read your book, they’re inspired. Where’s a lot of your research coming from? What can people do if they want to continue exposing companies like Blackwater?
Scahill: One of the main things that I did, and it was a grueling process, was to file a whole series of Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests. I methodically went through and tried to get every single contract that Blackwater has, with not only the federal government, but I also looked into local governments here in the United States and tried to get a comprehensive picture of the company’s operations. And sometimes I succeeded and got documents and was able to get contracts and other business arrangements that Blackwater has. And I still have many, many FOIA requests that are pending and that are being reviewed and are being checked out by various offices. My researcher who I worked with, a great journalist named Garrett Ordower, he and I interviewed several of the people who were involved with the founding of Blackwater and talked to them extensively about the original vision of the company and what they saw as the problems of the current direction that it’s headed in. I talked to a lot of family members of Blackwater contractors in Iraq and interviewed some Blackwater contractors. Although I have to say that Blackwater as a company refused to grant me any interviews. They thanked me for my interest in the company but said that they would not be able to accommodate my request for interviews. And that’s exactly what happened with Robert Greenwald. He tried very aggressively to get Blackwater to come on the record, and of course they wouldn’t do that. And I also relied heavily on the reporting of some great beat reporters in Blackwater’s backyard. From newspapers like The Virginian Pilot and the Raleigh News & Observer. They’ve done great base reporting on Blackwater, just sort of drumbeat coverage of the company. So a lot of it had to do with getting documents, working the phones, traveling around and talking to people, reading every possible news report that’s ever emerged on the company. So, over the course of months and months, sort of piecing together this portrait of a private army.
Harris: I encourage all of you out there to have a gander at this text. [On] Blackwater USA. In this fight against privatization, there are consequences. And Jeremy in his text scratches the surface. This is Truthdig.