The real Blackwater scandal is that the State Department kept hiring them

Monday, June 30, 2014

 The real Blackwater scandal is that the State Department kept hiring them

An Iraqi woman looks inside one of the cars shot up by Blackwater contractors in Baghdad’s Nissour Square in 2007. ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images
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It did not seem possible that Blackwater’s reputation could get any worse, but on Sunday night, it did. The New York Times reported that the security contractor’s Iraq project manager had, in August 2007, openly and plausibly threatened to murder a State Department investigator who was visiting the country.

The investigation team was in Iraq to examine Blackwater’s already-dire reputation for misconduct and fraud. Shortly after the threat, the team was asked to leave the country by the US embassy in Baghdad, which sided with Blackwater against the investigation. A few weeks later, Blackwater contractors opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nissour Square, killing 17 people, including a nine-year-old boy.

the blackwater was easily foreseeable, but the state department refused to cut them loose

The story is yet another scandal for Blackwater, who operated with such cavalier lawlessness in Iraq that its country lead felt comfortable threatening to murder an official from the same State Department that purchased many of its contracts. If they talked to Americans this way, imagine how they treated Iraqis.

But this should be an even bigger scandal for the State Department, which invited Blackwater into Iraq despite its reputation and continued to use them for years even after incidents like this and Nissour Square. Even with everything that happened in 2007, all the well-documented abuses, the State Department continued giving Blackwater contracts in Iraq until 2009, when it was finally banned from the country by the Iraqi government. That Blackwater behaved the way it did in Iraq is awful. That the State Department put them there, kept them there, and worked to shield them from scrutiny is worse.

Blackwater did not leave much mystery as to who they were or what to expect from them — to the contrary, the company’s gung-ho, cowboy culture were key selling points. And its contractors’ behavior in Iraq was often on full display. This is not to excuse the company’s often-horrific actions, of which Nissour Square was the best-known but far from only example. If anything, it makes the State Department’s handling of Blackwater all the more egregious.

When the State Department invited a bunch of poorly regulated, heavily armed, hard partying mercenaries into an active war zone, gave them functional immunity, and then shielded them from even an internal State Department review, it was asking for disaster, which it got, over and over. Nothing about this was unforeseeable.

Yet the embassy in Baghdad was so adamant about preserving Blackwater’s role that it sided with the private security firm against their own State Department investigators, whom they asked to leave the country so as to avoid bothering Blackwater too much, even though Blackwater’s country lead had just threatened to murder a State Department employee. That is a stunning example of just how far the US embassy in Baghdad was willing to go to protect Blackwater’s contracts, even though Blackwater’s abuses were a point of zero uncertainty.

No one was more addicted to Blackwater that the US embassy in Baghdad

To be fair, the Times story shows that there were divisions within the State Department over what to do about Blackwater, which clearly some people back in Washington wanted to at least investigate. And, in 2008, then-Senator Hillary Clinton came out in favor of banning Blackwater completely from Iraq — in the middle of the democratic presidential primary. Once she became Secretary of State, by all indications she tried to break the State Department’s addiction to Blackwater but really struggled; US diplomats work in almost every country on Earth, they need protection, and the US can’t station hundreds of troops in every single country to give it to them. And Blackwater made itself available to take lots of these contracts.

No one was more addicted to Blackwater that the US embassy in Baghdad, though. Partly this was because Blackwater was willing and able to take necessary security jobs that others weren’t, especially after 2004 when four Blackwater contractors were killed, burned, and hung from a bridge in Fallujah.

But it was also partly because the embassy, as diplomats often do, had a habit of putting short-term goals before bigger, longer-term aims — something that’s especially easy to do in a war zone, an environment that tends to compel short-term thinking, especially when it comes to security. Embassy staff weren’t blind to the threats posed by Blackwater, to Iraqis especially but also to the US’s strategic goals in Iraq. But they were also trying to get through the war alive, and when those two aims came into conflict, short-term security won out.

One of the many great tragedies of the Iraq War is that the US embassy and others worked so hard to protect Blackwater in the short term, but in the long-term not only was Blackwater banned from the country in 2009, but two years later Iraqi leaders declined to sign a deal to keep some residual US forces in Iraq, in part because of Blackwater-based fears that the troops’s immunity would enable them to do terrible things to Iraqi civilians.

The Obama administration was also not too eager to keep troops in Iraq, but the point is that protecting Blackwater contributed to the full withdrawal of all US troops, which left the Iraqi military far weaker when the extremist group ISIS invaded northwest Iraq this month and seized multiple cities. That led, in an ironic twist, the US embassy in Baghdad to evacuate many of their personnel for fear of their safety. But it was Iraqi civilians who suffered most in ISIS’s advance, just as they did under Blackwater’s lawlessness, and under the 2003 invasion that preceded it.

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