Does Blackwater Play By Its Own Rules in Iraq?
An arrogant attitude only adds fuel to the criticism.
By Rod Nordland and Mark Hosenball
Oct. 15, 2007 issue - The colonel was furious. "Can you believe it? They actually drew their weapons on U.S. soldiers." He was describing a 2006 car accident, in which an SUV full of Blackwater operatives had crashed into a U.S. Army Humvee on a street in Baghdad's Green Zone. The colonel, who was involved in a follow-up investigation and spoke on the condition he not be named, said the Blackwater guards disarmed the U.S. Army soldiers and made them lie on the ground at gunpoint until they could disentangle the SUV. His account was confirmed by the head of another private security company. Asked to address this and other allegations in this story, Blackwater spokesperson Anne Tyrrell said, "This type of gossip has led to many soap operas in the press."
Whatever else Blackwater is or isn't guilty of—a topic of intense interest in Washington—it has a well-earned reputation in Iraq for arrogance and high-handedness. Iraqis naturally have the most serious complaints; dozens have been killed by Blackwater operatives since the beginning of the war. But many American civilian and military officials in Iraq also have little sympathy for the private security company and its highly paid employees. With an uproar growing in Congress over Blackwater's alleged excesses, the North Carolina-based company is finding few supporters.
Responsible for guarding top U.S. officials in Iraq, Blackwater operatives are often accused of playing by their own rules. Unlike nearly everyone else who enters the Green Zone, said an American soldier who guards a gate, Blackwater gunmen refuse to stop and clear their weapons of live ammunition once inside. One military contractor, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution in his industry, recounted the story of a Blackwater operative who answered a Marine officer's order to put his pistol on safety when entering a base post office by saying, "This is my safety," and wiggling his trigger finger in the air. "Their attitude was, 'We're f---ing security; we don't have to answer to anybody'."
Congress disagrees. Until now, private security contractors working for the State Department, as Blackwater does, have effectively not been covered by either U.S. or Iraqi law, or military regulations. A bill that overwhelmingly passed the House last week would close that loophole. But the law would also require the FBI to establish a large-scale presence in Iraq in order to investigate accusations against private contractors. Law-enforcement officials worry that this would draw valuable resources away from FBI efforts to combat terrorism in the United States. Also, whenever FBI agents venture into Iraq now they are guarded by ... Blackwater operatives. The bureau has sent a team to Baghdad to investigate the Sept. 16 shooting in Nasoor Square, in which Blackwater guards are accused of killing as many as 17 Iraqi civilians. In order to avoid "even the appearance of any conflict [of interest]," according to an FBI spokesman, the agents will be defended by U.S. government personnel.
It is not an idle concern. Blackwater's staunchest defenders tend to be found among those whom they guard. U.S. officials prefer Blackwater and other private security bodyguards because they regard them as more highly trained than military guards, who are often reservists from MP units. A U.S. Embassy staffer, who did not have permission to speak on the record, said, "It's a few bad eggs that seem to be spoiling the bunch." Late last week the State Department announced that it would increase oversight of Blackwater in particular, installing cameras in its vehicles and having a Diplomatic Security Service officer ride along on every convoy. But another State Department official, also speaking anonymously, says that DSS agents in Baghdad have not been eager to rein in the contractors in the past: "These guys tend to close ranks. It's like the blue wall."
Testifying before Congress last week, 38-year-old Blackwater chief Erik Prince vigorously defended his company's "dedicated security professionals" who "risk their lives to protect Americans in harm's way overseas." Prince probably had no reason to be as smug as he seemed to many observers. In deflecting questions about a drunken Blackwater operative who allegedly shot and killed a bodyguard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi in the Green Zone on Christmas Eve last year, Prince said that the employee, later identified as Andrew Moonen, had been fined and fired. But on Friday House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman released a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounting evidence that Moonen was able to return to Iraq and worked there for another company. Moonen's attorney, Stewart Riley, told NEWSWEEK his client denies wrongdoing and is not facing criminal charges. Blackwater is no doubt in for further fire fights.
With Larry Kaplow in Baghdad and Michael Hastings in Washington