Red, White and Blackwater
An interview with Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill leads his book with a disquieting snapshot.
“My son! My son!” The police officer sprinted toward the voice and found a middle-aged woman inside a vehicle holding a twenty-year-old man who had been shot in the forehead and was covered in blood. ...
“Don’t shoot, please!” Khalaf recalled yelling. But as he stood with his hand raised, Khalaf says, a gunman from the fourth Blackwater vehicle opened fire on the mother gripping her son and shot her dead before Khalaf’s ... eyes.
The account happened less than a year ago on Sept. 16, 2007, in Nisour Square, Baghdad. Scahill says 20 minutes after the shooting, where a total of 17 Iraqis were shot and killed by Blackwater operatives, U.S. military investigators were on the scene. The Blackwater operatives from that day claimed they were ambushed by the 20-year-old medical student and his mother in their white Opal sedan, but Scahill says the investigators found otherwise—that the killings were unjustified and unprovoked, and they labeled the incident a “criminal event.”
Scahill says, “Had the Blackwater men that day been soldiers, they would have been court-martialed, and yet they walk around as free individuals.” He adds that the Iraqi government said the day after the shootings that it wanted Blackwater out of the country. Instead, the Bush administration extended the company’s contract by a year.
Here arises one of Scahill’s primary concerns with Blackwater, a private military force contracted by the U.S. government: Blackwater operatives aren’t held accountable, he says, and they act like they know it.
The release last year of Scahill’s book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, dragged the company out of the proverbial shadows, along with the 176 others like it that are now operating in Iraq. Blackwater rose to the bestseller lists and garnered numerous awards, including the George Polk Book Award, and Scahill was later asked to give testimony on Blackwater to the U.S. House of Representatives and later to the U.S. Senate. After the Nisour Square shootings, the company’s name haunted the media and the din of dining rooms across the country.
Now, as media coverage is slipping, Scahill, who has reported from Iraq in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, is releasing an update to his book. The new version includes a thorough account of that infamous day at Nisour Square, along with details on the Blackwater operative who shot and killed the Iraqi vice president’s bodyguard on Christmas Eve of 2006. In a new conclusion, Scahill divulges new Blackwater ventures, including its $15 billion bid to the U.S. government to fight the “War on Drugs” in Latin America.
Scahill didn’t go to school for journalism (“I’ve never taken a journalism course in my life”). Instead, he got his start as “the errand guy” at “ Democracy Now!” But getting in wasn’t easy. “I began calling Amy Goodman and saying, ‘I’ll walk your dog, I’ll do anything, I just want to be a part of the show.’ ” After a couple months, Goodman finally agreed to let Scahill come on as a volunteer. “I ended up staying there for 14, 15 hours that first day and sort of never left,” he says. Scahill learned journalism by working with the show and he eventually became a reporter. He’s been a regular contributor ever since.
In 1998, Scahill started writing for The Nation magazine and came on full-time as a fellow in 2005. It was at The Nation where the idea to write a book on Blackwater emerged. At one point, Scahill was submitting an article on the company every week. “My editor sat me down and said, ‘Look, pal, we like these stories, but you either got to get a different beat or write a book.’ They basically just said, ‘We’re a small weekly magazine. We can’t be doing a story every week about the same company.’ ” And Blackwater was born.
But Scahill didn’t anticipate the book’s success, nevermind that he would speak in front of both congressional houses as a result of it. The subject has all but overtaken his journalistic life. And although it’s an issue he’s obviously impassioned by, he says he can’t wait to get back to regular reporting. “I’d love to be able to talk about something other than Blackwater for a change,” he says. “Maybe I’ll start being a sports reporter, or write a cookbook ... except I only know how to make toast.”
In the meantime, Scahill is traveling the country to promote the updated copy of his book, trying to educate people on Blackwater. He usually finds audiences responsive, like a group of former marines he recently spoke to in San Francisco.
Members of the military are oftentimes critical of Blackwater, Scahill says, and one of their largest concerns is with the salaries of Blackwater agents. Scahill quotes those earnings at between $650 and $1,000 a day. “In contrast to that, Gen. David Petraeus makes $180,000 a year, and he's the commanding general,” he adds. “So in some cases, he might be protected himself by private security that make more than he does." Scahill says an average U.S. soldier makes about $45,000 a year.
Another point Scahill brings up is that many U.S. officials use Blackwater operatives for protection when traveling to Iraq. It’s a habit Scahill says is a conflict of interest, since officials’ lives depend on the very people they’re responsible for overseeing and investigating. He says many politicians still haven’t woken up to the issue, and it’s one that defines his political views.
"I don't have an ideal presidential candidate,” he says, discussing candidates’ positions on Blackwater. “The reality is this: The Republicans could run a head of lettuce for president. Head of Lettuce could be the candidate supported by the war industry. Ideologically and business-wise, they'd be talking about how Head of Lettuce is going to keep us safe. You know, Head of Lettuce is a patriot. And they've managed to find a candidate with slightly less charisma than a head of lettuce.”
But Scahill’s not a Sen. Barack Obama fan, either. "Obama's position on this is stronger than John McCain's, there's no question about it,” he says. “But I have not guzzled the Obama Kool-Aid, because I've just spent too many years reporting on the Iraq story both from inside Iraq and elsewhere to back the plan that he has.” Scahill says Obama’s plan would require 20,000 to 80,000 troops to remain in Iraq, which would require the use of Blackwater agents.
The U.S. government is now so dependent on mercenary agents in the war that if they were removed, the occupation of Iraq would become “untenable,” he says. " ... The contractors have replaced nation-state allies and forces that would be provided by a draft.”
But an untenable war isn’t necessarily a problem, he adds. Scahill doesn’t believe we need a stronger military. “We should have a military that only engages in defensive operations, not one that is used to conquer other nations at great human cost to people from the U.S. and many nations around the world, not the least of which is Iraq.”
If Blackwater operatives were taken out of Iraq, Scahill believes Iraqis would be instantly safer. “Their job has nothing to do with hearts and minds or counterinsurgency. Their job is only to keep alive the most important people in Iraq by any means necessary; and those people are not Iraqis, they're U.S. officials.”
Scahill doesn’t believe those operatives should be trusted, and he references an analogy used by Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, to make his point. “[Prince] describes Blackwater as the Federal Express of the national security apparatus,” he says. “His sort of line at it is, We want to do for the military what FedEx did for the post office. But the problem with that analogy ... is you can track a FedEx package, you can insure a FedEx package against loss or damage. You can't track Blackwater; that's been abundantly clear for five years. And there's no insurance when something goes lethally wrong. There's no recourse, there's no justice, there's no consequences at all."
Jeremy Scahill will give a talk, Q&A and book signing this Friday, June 27, at 7 p.m. The event will be held at the UNM Continuing Education Auditorium (1634 University NE). Tickets are $10 and can be purchased through Bookworks (344-8139) or at the door. If you buy a book with your ticket, you'll get another ticket free. Proceeds benefit KUNM.