Monday, November 05, 2007

Seeing Through Blackwater's PR Strategy

Bosom Buddies: L Paul Bremer and Blackwater Guards (AP Photo)As long as we allow private military contractors in Iraq to commit human rights violations with impunity, we are complicit in the reckless endangerment and deaths of innocent civilians. All contractors must be held accountable under law, and every innocent life – American and Iraqi – must be equally protected.

Today’s New York Times editorial Legal Loopholes in Iraq concurs:

It is folly to outsource the tasks of combat to private contractors with no commitment to the nation’s broader goals in Iraq, undermining the already hard job of gaining Iraqis’ trust... That folly was compounded by the decision to allow gun-toting mercenaries to run around Iraq without any clear legal tether holding them accountable to Iraqi law, American criminal law or military law. The killings in Baghdad last September were not the first crimes involving private contractors working for the American government. Still, four years after the start of the war, not one contractor has been prosecuted for crimes committed against an Iraqi. That is no way for a nation to behave if it prides itself on following the rule of law.
Last month, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight held a hearing on the Blackwater killings. In opening statement, Chairman Henry Waxman offered the following interesting stats: According to Blackwater’s own incident reports, the security firm has been involved in at least 195 ‘escalation of force’ incidents in Iraq since 2005. In 80% of those cases, the company reports that its people fired first. Furthermore, the company acknowledges that (prior to the Sept. 16th incident) it was involved in 16 Iraqi civilian casualties and 162 incidents with property damage, primarily to Iraqi civilian vehicles.

So how did the chief witness at the hearing, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince respond? He simply downplayed the deaths of innocent civilians as “traffic accidents” while emphasizing Blackwater’s record in providing protective services for U.S. diplomats. Sadly, a few lawmakers appeared to know of Blackwater’s public relations strategy in advance, and eagerly played along. Here’s an example, courtesy of Dana Milbank’s play-by-play commentary on the hearing for the Washington Post:

"How many individuals under your protective service have been injured or killed?" asked Patrick McHenry (N.C.).


McHENRY: Zero?

PRINCE: Zero, sir.

McHENRY: Zero individuals that Blackwater's protected have been killed in a Blackwater transport?

PRINCE: That's correct.

McHENRY: Zero?


Yet by far, the biggest disappointment was to see 60 Minutes help Blackwater get its message points out there unchallenged. Fortunately, most lawmakers and Americans aren’t buying it. The more Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and his defenders insist that the only thing that matters is the safe escort of Americans in Iraq, regardless of how many innocent bystanders are killed along the way, the more Americans see the dangers of allowing such contractors to run amuck in Iraq.

Every time Blackwater fails to safeguard Iraqi civilians in the conduct of their “protective services,” they foster an environment that prolongs the war and further endangers Americans. Recognizing this, the U.S. House passed a bill (389 to 30) to make all private security contractors in Iraq and other combat zones subject to prosecution by U.S. courts. Now it is time for the Senate to follow suit.


Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what the terms of Blackwater's contracts are like? e.g. do they contain clauses about refraining from unnecessary violence, improper behavior, etc. while executing their contracted responsibilities. While the individual mercenaries on the ground themselves might not be able to be held accountable at this point, perhaps their company as a whole can for breach of contracts. Granted it's a little bit like trying a murderer for tax evasion but at least it's a start- and it hits the company in the only place companies feel pain: the ledger.

Erik K. Gustafson said...

The contract ought to be available to the public courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act. But not even Congress has gotten all of the facts related to the terms of Blackwater's contract, which originated during Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority.

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