Article

Military: Worse Than Abu Ghraib

A shooting at a busy Baghdad intersection nearly two weeks ago that killed 11 Iraqis and wounded 12 has focused much-overdue attention on the role of American private security contractors operating in Iraq.

SEPTEMBER 27, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna,
Matt Corley, Ali Frick, and Jeremy Richmond
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MILITARY

Worse Than Abu Ghraib

A shooting at a busy Baghdad intersection nearly two weeks ago that killed 11 Iraqis and wounded 12 has focused much-overdue attention on the role of American private security contractors operating in Iraq. A comprehensive investigation by the Iraqi Interior Ministry concluded that the contractors hired by Blackwater USA fired “an unprovoked barrage” on the Iraqis, “while the company says its employees, who were working for the State Department, were responding to an attack on an American diplomatic convoy.” “This is a nightmare,” said a senior U.S. military official of the incident. “This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib.” As a result, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently dispatched a five-person fact-finding team to Iraq that concluded “military commanders there were unclear about their legal authority” over contractors. My “concern is whether there has been sufficient accountability and oversight in the region over the activities of these security companies,” Gates said. In a three-page directive sent Tuesday night to the Pentagon’s most senior officers, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England ordered them to review rules governing contractors’ use of arms and to begin legal proceedings against any that have violated military law. “Commanders have [Uniform Code of Military Justice] authority to disarm, apprehend and detain DoD contractors suspected of having committed a felony offense” in violation of the rules for using force, England wrote. Yet, while the Pentagon is cracking down, the State Department — under whose authority Blackwater currently operates — has not taken similar action, opting to side with Blackwater’s version of the story while merely hoping the rising tensions will resolve themselves.

STATE DEPARTMENT IN THE SPOTLIGHT:
Blackwater, which employs nearly 1,000 guards in Iraq, has been employed by the State Department from the very early stages of the Iraq war to protect U.S. diplomats. The Pentagon directive issued Tuesday night “does not affect private security guards under contract” to the State Department, and therefore has no impact on Blackwater. State Department officials “have been slow to acknowledge any potential failings” in their oversight of the company, but information leaked to the New York Times indicates that Blackwater “has been involved in a far higher rate of shootings” than other security firms providing similar services to the Department. “The real question…is why,” said a senior American government official. The State Department “rarely” conducts thorough investigations of incidents involving Blackwater in Iraq. “We get almost weekly reports of such shootings,” a State Department official told ABC News. “But it is close to impossible to go the crime scene and interview witnesses.” Blackwater “enjoys an unusually close relationship with the Bush administration.” It has received “government contracts worth more than $1 billion since 2002.” And now, it is being protected by the State Department, according to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA). The department has ordered Blackwater not to provide Congress with documents that might shed light on its operations.

IRAQIS TAKE ACTION: Blackwater, a North Carolina-based company, has “gained a reputation among Iraqis and even among American military personnel serving in Iraq as a company that flaunts an aggressive, quick-draw image that leads its security personnel to take excessively violent actions to protect the people they are paid to guard.” Senior Iraqi officials have “repeatedly complained to U.S. officials about Blackwater USA’s alleged involvement in the deaths of numerous Iraqis, but the Americans took little action to regulate the private security firm.” The shootings of 11 Iraqis have prompted the Iraqi government to aggressively assert its sovereignty. The Iraqi Interior Ministry has “referred its investigation of the Sept. 16 incident to a magistrate for possible criminal charges.” Moreover, Iraqi officials announced on Tuesday that they were drafting a new law to control private security contractors, which would make them “subject to Iraqi law” and “monitored by the Iraqi government.”

LEGAL AMBIGUITY: Under a directive signed by former Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer, all United States personnel were exempted from Iraqi law. But under a provision “slipped into the Pentagon’s 2007 budget legislation,” contractors’ “get out of jail free” card was torn to shreds, writes Brookings analyst Peter Singer. The Pentagon’s fact-finding team discovered that U.S. military commanders were “not certain whether they had the authority to enforce existing laws, including the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice” against contractors. That may be because, despite the legal authority that now exists, “contractors are almost never prosecuted.” “I think it’s a very serious tension and one that this case exacerbates,” said Rep. David Price (D-NC), who has been working on legislation that will hold U.S. contractors to federal law. “It’s really affecting attitudes toward the United States when you have these cowboy guys out there,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) said. “These guys represent the U.S. to them and there are no rules of the game for them.”

UNDER THE RADAR

IRAQ — BUSH SET ON WAR ONE MONTH BEFORE GOING TO U.N. IN 2003: A transcript of a conversation from February, 2003 between President Bush and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar published yesterday in the Spanish daily El Pais shows a president dead set on invading Iraq, promising his Spanish counterpart, “We will be in Baghdad by the end of March.” Though Aznar asked Bush to “have a little patience,” Bush insisted, “We must take him [Saddam Hussein] right now. We have shown an incredible degree of patience. There are two weeks left. In two weeks we will be militarily ready.” But just days later, Bush pressed on, stating, “I’ve not made up my mind about military action” and assured  that “[w]e are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq.” Bush also told Aznar that Saddam discussed exile with the Egyptians “if they would let him take one billion dollars and all the information he wants on weapons of mass destruction.” But Bush told Aznar, “He’s a thief, a terrorist and a war crimina.” Even today, Bush insists that “the United States did not choose war — the choice was Saddam Hussein’s.”

ENVIRONMENT — BUSH ADMINISTRATION PRAISES RESULTS OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRAMS IT OPPOSED: As President Bush opens talks on climate change and energy at a United Nations conference, the Washington Post reports today that the administration has been taking “unearned credit” for emissions reductions from programs it originally opposed. Those programs include “gas mileage standards for vehicles, efficiency standards for home appliances and state laws requiring utilities to increase their use of renewable energy sources.” In many cases, the administration has “actively fought against” the implementation of these programs. For example, the administration “initially delayed plans to set improved energy-efficiency standards for 22 appliances, which led to a court battle with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).” “The White House also tried to reverse strict efficiency standards for central air conditioners upon Bush’s taking office in 2001, a move the NRDC had reversed in a separate lawsuit.” At the climate change talks, Bush will attempt to impose “voluntary” greenhouse gas emissions standards on the U.N. “We need to make commitments to each other, not just to ourselves,” said the U.K.’s climate change representative said, rebuffing Bush.

VETERANS — VETERANS RECEIVE POOR TREATMENT DESPITE ADMINISTRATION’S PROMISES: A Government Accountability Office report released yesterday details the continuing failure of the administration and Pentagon to improve health care treatment for wounded veterans. It reports that “delays for disability payments still average 177 days — nearly six months — with no indication that dramatic improvement is in the offing.” It also found “that even though the Army has touted creation of more personalized medical care units so that wounded veterans don’t slip through the cracks, nearly half — or 46 percent — of returning service members who were eligible did not get the service due to staffing shortages.” In February, the Washington Post revealed that wounded veterans at Walter Reed were living in deplorable conditions of “neglect” and “indifference.” Following the reports, the Bush administration, Congress, and the military promised to fix the problems. The administration touted the creation of  “‘Warrior Transition Units’ for returning active duty and reserve service members… But the GAO reports that ‘critical’ staff shortfalls exist, and that many of the personnel now assigned to the units are only temporary.” Congress held hearings yesterday examining the report and the administration’s failing efforts. 

THINK FAST

During his Senate testimony, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that despite his “intent” to move towards closing Guantanamo Bay, he has run “into several obstacles put up by lawyers within the executive branch.”

Gates also asked Congress yesterday for “an additional $42.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” bringing the total request for 2008 to $190 billion — “the largest single-year total for the wars so far.”

A federal judge ruled yesterday that “two provisions of the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional” because they allowed federal surveillance and searches of Americans without demonstrating probable cause.

Verizon Wireless is refusing to allow Naral Pro-Choice America “to make Verizon’s mobile network available for a text-message program,” claiming it has “the right to block ‘controversial or unsavory‘ text messages.”

3,801: the number of American soldiers who have died in Iraq as of today. One of the most recent casualties, Sgt. Zachary Tomczak, 24, of Huron, OK., was on his fourth tour of duty in Iraq.

Yesterday kicked off the third annual Clinton Global Initiative, drawing more than 50 current and former world leaders and 1,300 other attendees. Commitments included “$150 million to provide health services to 30 million women and children” and $2.4 billion for a Florida clean energy program. Make your own commitment HERE and follow the event’s activities at the CGI blog.

Insurgents in Iraq staged six car bombings across the country yesterday, killing at least 30 people and wounding dozens. “We have seen an upturn in levels of violence in the last few days,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner.

“Seven months after a major investigation spelt out Europe’s involvement in a murky U.S. torture and kidnapping programme, the EU’s governments have claimed they are powerless to prevent such human rights abuses in the future.”

And finally: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his protege, columnist Armstrong Williams, are bonded by “storms” in their lives. “For Thomas, it was [his] contentious confirmation process. For Williams, it was his government contract promoting President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which triggered a Justice Department investigation.” “That is a bond for us,” says Williams.

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GOOD NEWS

“A federal judge has struck down two provisions of the Patriot Act, dealing another blow to the government in its legal war on terror.”

STATE WATCH

VIRGINIA: Air pollution levels in northern Virginia will increase dramatically unless new regulations are put in place.

IMMIGRATION: States with punitive laws targeting undocumented immigration are seeing an exodus of “frightened and scared” immigrants.

IRAQ: What is your state paying for the war?

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: Sean Hannity and Fox News lay out their battle plan for attacking “ticking bomb” Iran.

YEAS AND NAYS: CBS’ Katie Couric blasts Bush on Iraq, says the war was “a mistake.”

CGI 2007 BLOG: Live blogging and updates on the third annual Clinton Global Initiative in New York City.

CONSUMERIST: In order to deny a claim, Blue Cross Blue Shield calls a miscarriage an “elective abortion.”

DAILY GRILL

“I’ve not made up our mind about military action. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully.”
— President Bush, 3/6/03

VERSUS

“We must take him right now. … There are two weeks left. In two weeks we will be militarily ready.”
— Bush, 2/22/03

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