Juhasz interviews Jeremy Scahill: Blackwater is Still in Charge.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons - Gage Skidmore

Think Blackwater’s days are numbered? Think again. Jeremy Scahill explains why its slaughter of Iraqis has not stopped the notorious mercenary firm.

On June 3, Jeremy Scahill’s bestselling Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army was released in fully revised and updated paperback form. The new edition includes reporting on the now-famous Nisour Square massacre on Sept. 16 of last year, in which Blackwater mercenaries opened fire in a Baghdad neighborhood, brutally murdering 17 Iraqi civilians. The killing spree, which the U.S. Army would label a “criminal event,” would reveal the extent of the lawlessness enjoyed by private contractors abroad and the lengths the Bush administration will go to protect its private army of choice.

Antonia Juhasz caught up with Scahill on the phone the day the new edition was released. A fellow at Oil Change International and author of The Bush Agenda, Juhasz is also the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry, and What We Must Do to Stop It. Juhasz and Scahill discussed, among other topics, the story behind Blackwater, congressional inaction, radical privatization, Barack Obama, corporate vs. independent media, GI resistance in the age of private mercenaries, getting real about challenging corporations and the power of dissent.

Antonia Juhasz: I first have to admit that, until now, I had not read Blackwater and that, as someone who had been reading your Nation articles, I had quite erroneously assumed that I knew what you had to say about this company. I could not have been more wrong. This is a fantastic, informative, insightful and critically important book.

Jeremy Scahill: Thank you. I started writing this book by accident. I’d been writing about Blackwater when my [Nation] editors Katrina vanden Heuvel and Betsy Reed sat me down and said, “We’ve published ten articles about one company and you’re doing great work, but you either need to write a book or get a new beat.” Once I began researching the company in the context of a book, I realized that, in many ways, it was a metaphor for so much that was happening with the country, particularly with the privatization agenda of the war machine. So, while there are some parts of the book that are based on reporting I did for the Nation, the vast majority is new investigative research.

AJ: What drew you to Blackwater?

JS: I was in Yugoslavia during the 1999 NATO bombing that Bill Clinton prosecuted … Halliburton and other war contractors, like Dyncorp, were very much present on the ground during the Yugoslavian civil war, primarily in Bosnia. And so that was really my first direct interaction with this sort of parallel army of contractors.

Then the [U.S. attack on] Iraqis in Falluja was very important to me as a reporter, because I had been there many times and had friends inside of Falluja. I remember watching on March 31, 2004, when those four Blackwater contractors were ambushed and killed inside Falluja, and my immediate response after seeing the way it was covered in the press — that they were “civilians” [or] “civilian contractors” — was “Oh my god, Bush is going to destroy that city.”

I began my reporting on Blackwater [in April 2004] based on a very simple question: “How were the deaths of these not-active-duty U.S. soldiers — not civilians, but four corporate personnel working for Blackwater, a mercenary company — how do their deaths warrant the destruction of an entire city?”

I realized that it was a story that spoke volumes to what we were seeing happening in this country with the export of this incredibly violent foreign policy, the connections of political allies of the president to the war industry. [So I began] an in-depth investigation of Blackwater: Who runs the company? What are their connections to the Bush administration and the national security apparatus of the U.S., etc.?

AJ: What did you hope that writing the book would accomplish — and has it?

JS: When I was writing, I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of what I hoped to accomplish. What I was looking at was: Here is this company that was on no one’s map, basically, before March 31, 2004, and even in the weeks and months after that, was really just a blip on the media radar screen. I was hoping to expose this company as something much bigger than just its boots on the ground in Iraq, or its role in Falluja, Najaf and elsewhere — but to explain, in a readable way, that this is a very dangerous trend that has been put on a radical fast track almost overnight.

Once we started to realize just how deeply embedded in the occupation of Iraq Blackwater has been, and its connection to the Bush administration, then the point of the book (became) raising hell in Congress and in the public — saying to people, “We have to wake up and do something about this!”

Has that been a success? Well, probably not. I learned a very humbling lesson after the Nisour Square killings in September 2007, when it really appeared as though this company was on the ropes, and that it was quite possible that their time in Iraq was at an end. And I largely blame the Democrats in the Congress for failing to deliver that knockout blow. Because this was a company that had been involved in the worst massacre of Iraqi civilians to date in the Iraq war involving a private company, and yet their contract gets renewed in April 2008 and the Democrats continue to fund their operations — and with the exception of [congressman] Henry Waxman [D-Calif.], almost no one in the Congress has done anything to effectively take on these individuals or this company.

AJ: You write in the book about the lack of both serious congressional inquiry and mainstream media coverage, but the book is filled with examples of congressional hearings, investigations, stand out members and references to many mainstream media reporters and stories. You also write in the new introduction to explain Democratic inaction, almost as a throwaway line, that “the Democrats take mercenary money too,” but then you tell a story that is uniquely about the Bush administration in particular and the Republican Party in general. Talk about these seeming inconsistencies. What explains congressional inaction? And, in terms of informing the public, why aren’t a few excellent stories at the LA Times, Washington Post, New York Times and other outlets enough?

JS: Change does not happen through one-off articles or one-off hearings. Only drumbeat coverage in the media, drumbeat action by Congress, leads to change. You can find examples of corporate media outlets doing a great job explaining one incident involving Blackwater or a congressional hearing where some very important things were said, but the action has not been aggressive, and most importantly, it has not been sustained.

Blackwater is unique among war contractors in that it only butters one side of the bread — the Republican side. [Founder and CEO] Erik Prince and other senior executives at Blackwater are die-hard ideological Republicans. They are foot soldiers for President Bush’s domestic and international agenda. But Blackwater is unusual. Most war contractors give depending on which way the political wind is blowing. Right now, Antonia, for the first time in 14 years, weapons manufacturers are actually donating more to the Democrats than to Republicans — about 52 percent of the defense industry’s donations. In 1996, Democrats got just 32 percent.

AJ: Could Democratic inaction be summarized as: (1) money, and (2) there is an inherent contradiction that, if they really blow the cover on the private contractors, they will simultaneously be challenging the very continuation of the war, which far too many are not truly prepared to do?

JS: I interviewed one Democratic congressperson starting to work on this issue, and he said repeatedly, “I don’t want to be portrayed as anti-contractor,” almost like contractor was the new Israel. No one who has political aspirations is going to give the perception that they are anti-business, and war is very, very big business in this country. I’ve also learned that congresspeople are just flat-out lazy. A lot of them have a pack of kids in their early 20s, in the case of the House, who are only looking at job listings for jobs on committees and to hop over to the Senate, and they couldn’t care less!

AJ: Jeremy, you do know that I was once one of those kids, right?

JS: You would have been extraordinary and an exception. I’ve had congresspeople say to me, “My staffers are a bunch of frat boy idiots whose only aspiration is to move up the chain.” One congressman asked me to help him write a bill. I asked him about his legislative aides and he said, “Legislative aides? Are you kidding me?! I’d have to write my own bill. These kids couldn’t write their way out of kindergarten.”

I’d never had any experience on the Hill. I learned the lesson that if the member wants to do something, unless the member makes this a priority, probably nothing will be done. I also think that the Democrats are too busy funding the war, they can’t even get straight what they want to do about official U.S. forces in Iraq, much less the shadow army of contractors.

AJ: Talk about the presidential candidates.

JS: There is something deeper here when you talk about Sen. Obama’s Iraq plan (which) is going to necessitate using these private contractors for the foreseeable future in Iraq. Obama refuses to rule out using Blackwater or other private security companies in Iraq. The reason is simple, [there is] no one who can step in and fill Blackwater’s role come Jan. 21, 2009. [Obama has] identified them as unaccountable, above the law, out of control, jeopardizing the safety of U.S. troops — but, because he does not plan to end the U.S. occupation, he may very well have to use them.

[However] Obama is the author of the Democrats’ contractor reform bill that passed the House and is now before the Senate [the “Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting Act”]. He introduced it eight months before Nisour Square. I have problems with that legislation, but it’s a start. Obama more than probably anyone in the Senate, except for Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.], probably understands this issue.

But, I did a story in the Nation in February 2008 [in which Obama’s] staffers acknowledge that he will not sign on to the Sanders-Schakowsky bill, “Stop Outsourcing Security Act,” which seeks to ban the use of these companies in U.S. war zones and make all of the diplomatic security agents full-time employees of the U.S. government, which means that they would have an accountability structure in place.

AJ: Is it a good bill?

JS: I would back it 75 percent. There is a part of it that will allow a sort of permanent status of a paramilitary force in the U.S. State Department and just transfer the job from the private guys to full-time State Department employees. But in terms of trying to get those companies out of Iraq and shut down their operations there, the bill would go very far in doing that.

AJ: Let’s talk about the impact of private mercenaries on U.S. troops and anti-war organizing.

JS: That’s my challenge to the anti-war movement moving forward. This plays into some of the actions that you’ve been involved with, Antonia. Right now in Iraq there are 180,000 private contractors operating alongside 150,000 American troops, those contractors are not all armed individuals. In fact we don’t know the exact numbers.

AJ: What percentage do you think are mercenaries?

JS: The GAO estimated approximately 70,000 people working for private security firms in Iraq. In 2006, the estimate was about 48,000. But it’s incalculable because of the labyrinth contracting system. It took Congressman Waxman three years just to find out who the Blackwater contractors were working for when they were attacked in Falluja.

So, when you realize that there are 630 companies on the U.S. government payroll in Iraq right now, with personnel from 100 countries — we would need hundreds of people working in the Congress making this their priority to get the kind of answers to the question you’re asking. Realize that we’re in a situation now where the private army, the corporate army, is now bigger than the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

The top priority of anti-war movement should be a two-pronged attack: Go after the war corporations, without whom the occupation of Iraq would be absolutely untenable, and those congresspeople who purport to be for change and continue to fund this corporate army.

We have many allies who are coming out of the ranks of the U.S. military, we should embrace them as a lot of us have with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and move forward and realize that this is now a corporatist state, and the corporations have been let off the hook for far too long with the exception of a few dedicated activists across the U.S. This needs to be priority No. 1 for the anti-war movement, because that’s the way to shut down the war, is to shut down the business of the companies that make it possible.

AJ: You and I were both at IVAW’s Winter Soldier hearings in Maryland, and I was just at the Northwest Winter Soldier in Seattle. GI resistance, the organizing of veterans, and counter-recruitment are all key organizing strategies against this war. Much of this is based on a model from Vietnam. But, the key difference today is the role of private mercenaries. Talk about this resistance within the context of the private mercenaries. Is there an impenetrable weakness in this strategy if private contractors can simply take their place? Or, would it be impossible to entirely fight a war using private contractors? What about organizing the private contractors against the war?

JS: It would not be possible to fight the entire war with contractors. Right now, we have the most powerful army on earth and a parallel army of contractors in Iraq, yet the U.S. is still militarily losing the war to a disorganized resistance that is also killing itself. The U.S. military is far more coordinated and organized than any army of contractors would ever be.

We have to adapt and adjust our tactics to those of the war machine. The war contracting companies are also taking advantage of the economic conditions of those they end up hiring. Who gets killed in Iraq for Halliburton? Poor people who go over there as truck drivers because they are in debt.

I think that raising the visibility of the counter-recruitment movement to include those people targeted for employment with these war companies would be a very difficult undertaking, but a very important one if we’re serious about ending this war and stopping this system of radical privatization of the war machine.

AJ: Do you think that private mercenaries should be outlawed? That they shouldn’t exist?

JS: Yes. I think that we have a grave threat, not only to democratic processes of the U.S., but to global peace and stability when a system that intimately links corporate profit to an escalation of war and conflict is not only permitted but actively supported. And we can talk until we’re blue in the face about the misdeeds of Blackwater in Iraq, but the reality is, Blackwater wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a demand. Blackwater is the fruit of a poisonous tree — this unquenchable thirst for offensive war and U.S. domination. The only function that these companies play in U.S. society is to enable unpopular, aggressive wars of conquest and a subversion of democratic oversight and accountability over U.S. taxpayer-funded operations.

AJ: I was fascinated by your discussion of the role of private security companies and oil corporations. We are in a historic moment with cases moving in U.S. courts against Chevron for its operations in Nigeria and against ExxonMobil in Indonesia. The companies are accused of using domestic military forces to brutally suppress local resistance. What if the companies had used private mercs? Mercenaries against whom, as you describe in great detail, we essentially have no laws?

JS: That’s a very interesting question, and I don’t know. Blackwater has a private intelligence company called Total Intelligence Solutions that offers what they describe as “CIA-type services” to Fortune 1000 corporations when they go into hostile areas. The U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries said recently about Latin America that, and I quote, “an emerging trend in Latin America and also in other regions of the world indicates situations of private security companies protecting transnational extractive corporations whose employees are often involved in suppressing legitimate social protest of communities and human rights and environmental organizations of the areas where these corporations operate.” It’s on right now, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds.

I think it would be very difficult for local people in those communities to even know who did the action if mercenaries did it. Nigerians knew exactly who the people were who attacked them, from their insignias on their uniforms. And that information is being used in the case brought against Chevron. In the case of these private companies, often they operate with no indicator of who they are. It would take a huge amount of effort just to discover who the hell it was doing the torturing or whatever. We’ve already seen that its tremendously difficult to get any information about the official work of official forces, not to mention when you put it through layers of secrecy that come with contractors and subcontractors.

AJ: Let’s talk about the incredible success of the book. What makes a politically charged book, which bucks the popular narrative, an international bestseller?

JS: When the book came out — and, really, up until this moment — corporate newspapers largely ignored it. There were no reviews. When it debuted at No. 9 on the New York Times bestseller list, the paper did a favorable little 150-word article on it. But that’s it. Instead, it was a tremendous victory for independent media that the book debuted in the way it did because it was community media, grassroots activism, and online media activists and journalists that pushed this book around the country and raised awareness about it.

We did this very long book tour organized largely through the network of community radio stations that I’ve worked with over my life. In many places these were fund-raisers for stations [which] are often at the center of activism in their local communities. They connected me to activists, independent newspapers, online journalists, etc. The power of grassroots community media around the U.S. is what kept the book afloat and the issue afloat for the many months preceding the Nisour Square killings.

AJ: Nisour then brought the issue in to the headlines and brought you into mainstream media. Talk about that experience.

JS: On Sept. 16, I was just starting to think to myself that maybe I should start working on something different. I wouldn’t drop this issue, but I was wondering, “What’s the next phase of this work for me?”

I woke up the next morning and before I know it, I’m in a car on my way to CNN. I’m on live for five minutes, and it was clear from the beginning that they didn’t exactly know who I was, that maybe a producer had just quickly googled “Blackwater,” saw there is someone who wrote a book, and let’s get them on the show. A lot of the interview was about the basics of Blackwater. Then at one point the host says, “So it sounds like you’re critical of these companies and of Blackwater,” and asked, “So, what are the alternatives?” What I think he meant was, “Should the military do this instead? Is there another company?” But I said, “I think that U.S. should withdraw all of its military forces from Iraq, all of the mercenary companies and the army of contractors.” I thought for certain that was it, that they would shut down in the interview, and there was sort of a pause, and I decided well, hell, I’ll just keep going if they’re going to let me talk, and I said, “and I think that the U.S. should pay reparations to the Iraqi people for the destruction of their country.” And with that the interview ended.

I left there thinking that I’d likely never be on CNN again or any other corporate media. [Instead] I was asked to be on almost every corporate media outlet except FOX. In one night, I was on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News. All of a sudden all of these journalists who were ignoring the book and the story systematically for a year were calling me up and demanding to speak with me.

I took it deadly seriously, and it was a very humbling experience, because I felt like this is one chance that we have to have someone who is firmly against this war to get on corporate media. I viewed it as a campaign to try to inject as much truth about the war as possible into the corporate media landscape. For almost two months, all I was doing with my life was going on these shows. It really seemed as though it was having an impact, as though something was really going to happen in Congress. I learned a lesson about power, and Congress, and media. The ball was dropped at the moment when it mattered the most.

AJ: What does it say about the mainstream media that they were so eager to have you on? Why did they continue to have you on after it was clear that you were an anti-war voice?

JS: In all candor, I have no idea. It was one of those rare moments where the media took this story very seriously and realized that this was legitimate criticism of a very powerful company. I also think it was a sensational story in a true tabloid sense, so everyone was interested. There were also very few people who have any sort of in-depth knowledge of Blackwater and what it is and does.

To your bigger point, though, about the anti-war movement, I think its one of the great media crimes of our lifetime that articulate anti-war people have been completely and totally wiped out of the media landscape in this country.

But did it go anywhere? You know, it’s sort of depressing when I think about that. I think it did raise awareness in a much broader segment of the population about the dangers of the radical privatization agenda with these companies. But, where it really matters, in the halls of Congress — I don’t know that it had any real effective impact.

If anything, the real lesson was a very powerful reminder of the importance of small groups of grass-roots activists who are determined, who show up every Thursday afternoon in front of the federal building or at a company headquarters. It reinforced my belief that the conscience of this country can be found in those people in small groups across the country who are standing up against this madness. Those who have made a personal lifelong dedication. Congress is fickle, but activism is consistent.

Our challenge is to keep those actions going and growing but also to become very serious about what we’re doing to stand up to the Democrats in the Congress about the war and what they’re doing (or not doing) to confront these corporations. The war machine is very sophisticated. We have brilliant people in our movement — there’s no reason why we can’t elevate to the level of taking them on in a way that actually impacts their bottom line.