Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Blackwater Thing is Probably Bigger Than You Think It Is

From TPM:

US suspends all land travel by US diplomats and other civilian officials in Iraq over Blackwater incident.

Wow ... That says two things: (1.) Blackwater is such an integral part of the security apparatus of State Dept. and other gov't officials (this would include visiting legislators, consultants, civilian DOD, etc.) that if the company is removed from the equation diplomacy almost comes to a grinding halt ... or at least moves only when a helicopter is available.

That's not good. Remember, it's the "political progress" in Iraq that needs to start showing some legs (or at least that's what the administration says), and that will only happen with a solid diplomatic effort. That will require mobility ... secure mobility.

(2.) Is a little more complicated and basically boils down to either (a.) the U.S. has finally had it with all the shit Blackwater has gotten away with, or (b.) the Iraqis have finally had it with all of the shit Blackwater has gotten away with to the extent that the company is now becoming a political liability to U.S.-Iraqi relations.

P.W. Singer told Danger Room that this was inevitable:

Blackwater has been one of the most visible [private military contractors] -- unusual for an industry that typically tries to avoid the limelight. This notoriety makes Blackwater a fatter target than, say, an unknown British or Bulgarian company.

The relationship between the Iraqi government and Blackwater is particularly tense -- and not just because armed Blackwater guards are the contractors that senior Iraqi government officials run into the most. On Christmas Eve 2006, a Blackwater employee allegedly got drunk while inside the Green Zone in Baghdad and got in an argument with a guard of the Iraqi Vice President. He then shot the Iraqi dead. The employee was quickly flown out of the country. Nine months later, he has not been charged with any crime. Imagine the same thing happening in the U.S.: An Iraqi embassy guard, drunk at a a Christmas party, shooting a Secret Service agent guarding Vice President Cheney. You can see some potential for underlying tension there. In May 2007, there was another reported shooting of an Interior Ministry driver by Blackwater employees. That led to an armed standoff and had Matthew Degn, a senior American civilian adviser to the Interior Ministry's intelligence directorate, describing the ministry as "a powder keg" of anger at the firm.

(Singer is something of the world's leading expert on, dare I say, "post-modern" developments in warfare, such as the rebirth of privatized armies and the use of children in combat. Corporate Warriors is as comprehensive a history and analysis of the the modern private military industry as one can find. I haven't read his book on child soldiers in Africa, Children at War, largely because I'm pretty sure it would be too depressing.)

RJ Hillhouse thinks this will only be a minor setback for Blackwater and expects to see them back in action:

It looks like the incident happened when BW was performing the contract for State, so it will be interesting to see if the US government allows the Iraqis to put limits upon who it's contracting with--for both white and black contracts. Regardless of whatever gymnastics State goes through to appease the Iraqis, somehow I suspect that the CIA contracts are not going to be subject to Iraqi government licensing. Smart money says that Blackwater is in Iraq for the duration.

Larry Johnson concurs:

First problem. Blackwater does not have a license to operate in Iraq and does not need one. They have a U.S. State Department contract through Diplomatic Security. Instead of using Diplomatic Security officers or hiring new Security officers or relying on U.S. military personnel, the Bush Administration has contracted with firms like Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and others for people capable of conducting personnel security details. State Department is not about to curtail the contract with Blackwater, who is tightly wired into Washington. Plus, State Department simply does not have the bodies available to carry out the security mission.

Second problem. The Iraqi government has zero power to enforce a decision to oust a firm like Blackwater. For starters, Blackwater has a bigger air force and more armored vehicles then the Iraqi Army and police put together. As Spencer Ackerman reported, Blackwater’s little bird helicopter (an aircraft normally used by U.S. special operations forces) that was firing mini guns at Iraqi targets on the ground this past weekend.

Supposedly the Blackwater incident has provided the Iraqi government with enough cause to review all private security firms, which is no small matter since there are currently more contractors in Iraq than there are soldiers. At a very minimum this should provide an impetus for U.S. law makers to codify some kind of legal doctrine for private security firms operating in country because right now there is none:

The legal position of private military contractors in Iraq has long been the subject of controversy, with an order from the former Coalition Provisional Authority, never rescinded, that grants them immunity from Iraqi law.

And under U.S. law?

A court martial of a private-sector employee would likely be challenged on constitutional grounds, the research service said, while Iraqi courts do not have the jurisdiction to prosecute contractors without permission from the United States.

"It is possible that some contractors may remain outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, civil or military, for improper conduct in Iraq," the report said.

Basically, because they are not "soldiers" as the armed forces would define the term, the Uniform Code of Military Conduct does not apply to them.

Untangle that mess, if you can ...

Just a reminder: Cofer Black, Blackwater's Vice Chairman, is a principle on Mitt Romney's foreign policy advisory team.

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