Much Ado about Blackwater: Part I – What were they (we) doing in Iraq anyway?

In a series of blog posts, I will humbly try to contribute clarity to the plethora of news coverage recently devoted to Blackwater Worldwide, a company which, among other things, provides military and security services to the US government in Iraq. Together, we will sift through the criminal prosecution of the Blackwater contractors involved in the Nisour Square killings of 2007, the Iraqi license denial, the contract with the State Department, the US-Iraq Security Agreement and what this all means for corporate accountability on the battlefield.

Today, let’s start with the yesterday’s coverage of the letter signed by Defense Department Deputy Secretary Gordon England, stating that companies, including Blackwater, working on State Department Diplomatic Security contracts were not engaged in “employment in support of the DOD mission”.

Though it seems Mr. England is quite clear on this point, others are not, and have been debating it literally for years. (It’s an important point because it’s the part of the law that gives the DOJ jurisdiction over the contractors.)

What happens next in court might explain why there has been such a delay in getting to this brink of accountability in the first place – someone has to finally figure out what “the mission” in Iraq is. Maybe there were/are many missions. Once the court gets that sorted out, I suppose the next step will be to interpret the now famous (infamous?) Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act to decipher what is meant by “supporting a DOD mission,” and finally to decide whether Blackwater was doing that.

These decisions could have sweeping implications not only for the state of US law and foreign policy, but also in interpreting the recently enacted US-Iraq Security Agreement, and possibly setting the State and Defense Departments on a trajectory of cooperative regulation of companies they contract – something, despite all the hoopla over Blackwater these days, that has yet to happen.

Exec Orders – Did you see the part about contractors?

One positive piece of President Obama’s much heralded executive orders that seems to be overlooked in all the excitement is the unambiguous statement that contractor abuses fall within the scope of inquiry and review and that that work will be done by government employees, not contractors.

Companies hired by Defense, State and other agencies of the US government have been involved in almost every stage of the ‘war on terror’, from escorting convoys to building and maintaining facilities to interrogating detainees and providing security to US officials, and all too often with no accountability when implicated in a range of human rights abuses. As Senator Feingold brought to light, contractors were also hired to oversee other contractors at the State Department.

In his executive orders, President Obama (a champion of regulation of security contractors while in the Senate) made clear that only full-time or permanent employees or officers of the United States would be able to:
- Serve on the special task force to identify lawful options for the disposition of detainees
- Review status of individual detainee cases
- Serve on the special task force on interrogation and transfer policies

At the same time, the orders are comprehensive in covering facilities run by, or acts committed by, “agents” of the United States, ie, contractors, to be reviewed.

In a way, the President has proffered crucial first steps on a number of issues. We wanted Guantanamo closed, he’s set a timeline; we’re calling for investigation and accountability, he gave us a nod to transparency in the face of executive privilege; we documented abuses not only by US government officials, but also by the corporate sector, he’s got them covered and ruled them out of oversight functions.

Now it’s time to keep pushing to ensure that doors that are cracked open don’t swing back and slam shut the hope for an end to torture, indefinite detention and attacks against civilians.

US-Iraq Security Agreement Forgets Blackwater

Yesterday, the Associated Press ran the headline US Contractors Lose Immunity in Iraq Security Deal.

But, if what comes to your mind when you think of US contractors operating in Iraq with immunity is, for example, the indiscriminate shooting and killing of civilians by Blackwater personnel, read the fine print – the new assertion of joint Iraqi-US jurisdiction doesn’t apply to companies contracted by anyone other than the Defense Department.

This means Blackwater personnel working on a contract with the State Department — the same one under which Nisoor Sq killings occurred – are good to go with Iraqi immunity.

There are murmurings that US State Department contractors will be subject of similar, future agreements. It’s not clear why this agreement couldn’t have defined contractors more broadly to begin with.