Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jeremy Scahill

Hero of the day: Jeremy Scahill

Last night I saw Jeremy Scahill (The Nation, Democracy Now) speak at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Houston, and it lived up to all of my lofty expectations. I had already read his book (just released in paperback revised and updated to include recent transgressions), Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, one of the best non-fiction books I have read on the Iraq occupation. The story is incredible and shines an entirely new light on the war and government, though the event last night was a discouraging look at who the progressives in Houston are. We don't get a plethora of important speakers here, so it is interesting that when we did finally get one, the crowd consisted mainly of baby boomers who listen to KPFT (the event was sponsored by KPFT). I have nothing against the boomers, but it is embarrassing that we can't get any young people out to progressive events. He spoke for a while about the last two years of Blackwater since the book was published (turns out they're still dicks!) and then opened things up for an intelligent discussion of current events pertaining to the media and the privatization of the government.

The book takes the approach of chronicling the history of Blackwater as an example of all military privatization. The story starts with Erik Prince's childhood in a very influential Michigan evangelical conservative family. It moves on to his college and army days toward his founding of Blackwater in the surprisingly recent 1997. In just 10 years, this small North Carolina company has built itself into the state department's largest contractor, and is one of the world's largest armies. They have accomplished this impressive feat through lobbying, recruiting directly from our government (CIA, FBI, State Department) and the world's armies (including regimes such as Pinochet's), and a very effective PR department (he spoke of the Orwellian renaming of divisions, including my personal favorite: the IPOA, and the PMCs, or mercenaries). Maybe the most impressive aspect of Blackwater is that you would never have heard of them if it wasn't for Scahill or the brutal slaying of innocent civilians abroad.

*Scahill told the story of how this incident started last night. Apparently a mother and son, nurse and med student respectively, were driving down a street to work when a Blackwater convoy, traveling the wrong way down a one way street in the middle of a crowded district, saw them and opened fire, shooting the son in the head. Blackwater kept firing into a crowd of people trying to help the felled mother and son in the car, reportedly firing until the car exploded, killing 17 civilians. This is the finding of the Iraqi investigation as well as that of the United States Military, who conducted an immediate investigation. Unfortunately, Blackwater is immune to any court of law in any country in the world, and got to send in their own investigation team (this is a common theme) a few weeks later who decided everything was okay. Their punishment: their activities in Iraq were suspended for three days then reinstated. A high military official stated that if they had been part of the 'official' military, they would have been Court Marshalled.

It seems like each chapter of the book describes a horrible event in which Blackwater plays the lead role, the hiring of an important government player by Blackwater, and the refusal of the United States government to regulate or oversee them, often choosing to completely immunize the company from questions and hearings into their shadowy activities. Other interesting sections of the book describe dangerous cost cutting measures that put peoples lives in danger, a greater evangelical mission that sounds suspiciously like a crusade, and our governments complicity in all of it.

There is no question they are a shoot first ask questions later firm. That ongoing wars, conflicts, occupations, natural disasters, and terrorism benefit them is a fact. This book leads you to the next logical question. Our army has a vested interest in seeing the war end. Blackwater has the exact opposite interest. Yet they are so entangled with the government that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. So how can two entities at cross purposes survive and fight the same battle?

Standing next to every United States government worker is a private contractor making triple the money and subject to none of the laws. Why is recruitment down? By renting a mercenary army, our government avoids a lot of bad press: they don't include them in casualties and fatalities, there is no draft, there are no public human rights abuses. This doesn't even get into the corruption, war profiteering, and cronyism that has flooded the system. Or the long term damage done to our central government agencies (army, intelligence, police) by Blackwater poaching our best people. Or the long term damage done to our countries reputation by having armed ungoverned thrill-seekers running around the world, as well as inside America, using lethal force without compunction under our name.

My favorite Blackwater people:

Joseph Schmitz
: The son of John Schmitz, a former hyper-conservative congressman who ran for president in 1972. It was discovered that although he was the family values (anti-gay and abortion) candidate, he had been having extramarital affairs and had 2 two children out of wedlock. John's daughter and Joseph's sister, Mary, was the 34 year old schoolteacher famous for sleeping with her 13 year old student and then divorcing her husband from prison to marry him, after having a few of his children. Joseph, though, is famous for being the Inspector General appointed by Bush to police the war in Iraq, including the private corporations paid to fight there. Needless to say, he allowed them to literally get away with murder. He announced, during his tenure, that he was resigning to work for Blackwater. No conflict of interest there.

Cofer Black: A long time CIA operative who earned his reputation in the early 90's by capturing terrorist Carlos the Jackal, arming the anti communists in Angola, and working in Sudan during a period of time when they were harboring Bin Laden. He eventually became the CIA director of counter terrorism in 1999, where his main charge was tracking Osama Bin Laden (Good Job!). In 2002 he became the Department of State Coordinator of counter terrorism until just after the start of Bush's second term, when he left office to be the vice chairman of Blackwater, as well as launch Total Intelligence Solutions, a Blackwater subsidiary focusing on private intelligence (their version of the CIA) for Fortune 1000 companies. Absolutely nothing scary about that.

Paul Bremer: Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Post-War Iraq. He famously disbanded the Iraqi army, effectively sending 400,000 armed and trained soldiers into the streets with no jobs and no money. His tenure of governor of Iraq only lasted for the first year of the occupation, but during that time he gave Blackwater their first of many contracts in Iraq (guarding him) and managed to pass a thank you law on his way out of the country immunizing them to any prosecution for wrongdoing. Also impressive was that he was able to repair every aspect of the oil industry except the meters that count how much oil is being shipped, leaving quite a bit of room for corruption. After shutting down an Iraqi newspaper he drew the attention of some that didn't understand why the stemming of free information was essential to building a democratic Iraq. Even with all that, his lasting legacy in Iraq will probably be defined by his 100 orders, passed as he was fleeing the country early to avoid protests, and imposing an economic shock therapy on the country.

100 orders: These included the privatization of Iraq's 200 state owned companies, allowing foreigners to own 100% of Iraqi businesses, 40 year ownership licenses, a corporate flat tax of 15%, income tax cap at 15%, full immunity from Iraqi laws to foreign contractors, no import or export taxes, and changing the banking system from being state run to market driven by allowing foreign banks to enter and buy 50 percent of Iraqi banks. To put this in perspective, no other country in the world has economic policies like these. They are Milton Friedman's wet dream, essentially allowing wealthy foreign companies and individuals to enter Iraq and buy their profitable enterprises while paying minimal taxes and facing no legal issues. They can then take their money out of the country and face no consequences. For more, I highly suggest Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine.

John Negroponte: Succeeded Paul Bremer in Iraq, the first ambassador to post-war Iraq. Negroponte cut his teeth as the ambassador to Honduras when we were supporting death squads in an effort to overthrow leftist governments under Reagan. Bush appointed him to be the ambassador to the UN in 2001, where he served until his reign as the ambassador to Iraq after Bremer, from 2004 until leaving in 2005 as the Director of National Intelligence, where he privatized the previously CIA function of preparing the classified daily intelligence brief to the President. It is widely thought that sectarian violence greatly increased during his time in Iraq.

During Katrina, Blackwater was the first to respond, "volunteering" a peacekeeping force, which quickly turned into a government contracted private police force. There have been plenty of scandals, but Scahill believes Katrina offered us a glimpse of the future, where private mercenaries, many just home from Iraq, will descend on any disaster zone in an effort to capitalize on the confusion. Making it easier is the lack of government workers (the Louisiana national guard happened to be in Iraq) available due to conflict abroad. These companies have a very different agenda than our government should. Continuing conflicts mean more contracts and thus more profits. This is a conflict of interest that cannot be ignored.

Obama and private contractors video. Obama v Clinton. It will be largely ignored this election.

No comments: