Monday’s indictment charging five Blackwater “security guards” with voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of 14 unarmed Baghdad civilians on September 16, 2007, reminded me of investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill’s excellent exposé of Blackwater USA, the private army of mercenaries hired and funded by the U.S. government.

In his 2007 book, Scahill pointed out that during the Gulf War in 1991, only 10% of people deployed in the war zone were private contractors. However, when George Bush came to power in 2000, the neocons led by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney was determined to change that. By the time Rumsfeld left office, there were 100,000 private contractors on the ground, nearly a one-to-one ratio to active duty troops. In 2003, the job of protecting senior officials in Iraq was outsourced to Blackwater rather than the U.S. Army.

As of 2007 Blackwater had more than 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries including inside the U.S. Most people are unaware that the Department of Homeland Security hired Blackwater armed mercenaries during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. taxpayers were billed $950 per day. In less than a year, the company collected more than $70 million in federal hurricane related contracts or $243,000 a day. Blackwater now has a database of 21,000 former Special Forces troops, soldiers and former law enforcement agents. It has a 7, 000 acre headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina, the world’s largest private military facility.

Blackwater, which has not been charged in the Baghdad shootings, has previously declared that its forces are above the law and has resisted all attempts to subject its private soldiers to the Pentagon’s Uniform Code of Military Justice. At the same time, Blackwater has insisted their soldiers are civilians and thus immune from civilian litigation and prosecution in the U.S.

Separate investigations of the Baghdad shootings by the Iraqi government, the FBI and the U.S. military found that the Blackwater guards were the only ones who opened fire that day. One of the six guards charged has already pleaded guilty. The killings of innocent civilians have led to one of the key features of the recently signed U.S. Iraqi security agreement. The agreement now gives Iraq the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over U.S. forces and civilians (contracted by the U.S. Defense Department) for grave premeditated felonies when such crimes are committed outside their designated facilities and areas and while not on duty. Iraq also has the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over United States contractors and their employees.

Dwight Eisenhower once warned of the “grave implications” of the rise of “the military-industrial complex” and “misplaced power”. Scahill reminds us of the dangers of privatizing the military. One hopes that the next administration will listen to these warnings and sever government ties and taxpayer dollars with this group of mercenaries who pose a danger not only to other countries, but to the U.S. as well.

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