2007-10-25 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Mercenary Group Leaves Black Mark On America
By Neil S. Friedman

By Neil S. Friedman

Any fan of spy thrillers knows Black Ops is CIA-speak for covert operations that involve activities that are typically of questionable ethics and legality. Non-fans now know it, too.

From all accounts, we know the history of the CIA and its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), is replete with black ops, as well as authorized covert actions against hostile governments - like inciting a rebellion or coup d'etat - and organizations or operations in support of allies or groups that are conducted in such a manner that the U.S. government can disavow any responsibility or connection. (That's probably how the "not responsible" disclaimer for "Mission Impossible" agents was hatched.)

Blackwater USA, a group that is indirectly an offshoot of the American intelligence system, though it operates privately but with our government's backing and blessing - and a reported $1 billion million worth of contracts since 2000 - has recently gotten the kind of attention it previously preferred to avoid since it was founded a decade ago.

With Blackwater, the American government outsources what is in essence a mercenary army, but the company calls its employees private security contractors. (That's like calling mob hit men, personal bodyguards.) Without any public fanfare, these soldiers of fortune - who are paid considerably more ($450-$650 a day) than America's GIs for specialized skills and hazardous duty - have been clandestinely part of America's overseas battles for decades. It would not be much of a stretch to surmise they could have been involved in a few domestic jobs before and after 9/11.

Privatizing has become a standard practice for large and small corporations, as well as government on all levels. It essentially is shifting of a service from the business or government to the private sector. With American forces stretched to the limit in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department hired Blackwater primarily to protect U.S. diplomats. Those who oppose the likes of Blackwater contend that due to the Bush Administration's many blunders in managing the war, it was forced to resort to private contractors. Some believe that Blackwater employees do more than just serve as protectors. But, no matter how you look at it, Blackwater is nothing more than a lawless group of hired guns.

By the way, according to reports, there are more private contractors, including Blackwater and Halliburton, in Iraq than there are GIs.

Last month, some Blackwater contractors were involved in what has been called an unprovoked incident on a crowded Baghdad street that left 17 Iraqi civilians, including several children, dead. In the aftermath, the Iraqi government, which we helped put in power, has called for Blackwater to be banished. If there's any positive outcome from the event, it has been to thrust Blackwater and its line of work - a quasi-military unit guarding diplomats when they travel outside protected areas - into the spotlight.

Sadly, this is probably not the only botched operation and loss of innocent lives for which Blackwater is responsible. It is, nevertheless, the only one that has received such awareness.

Military contractors, like Blackwater, have legal immunity, with loopholes allowing them to avoid prosecution big enough to drive a Hummer through, essentially putting them above the law. Civilian rules don't apply, nor do guidelines for GIs - the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Therefore, unless Congress creates precise legislation, they will remain unaccountable for their actions, regardless of the consequences. Furthermore, the U.S. conveniently established provisions that prohibit civilian contractors from being tried under Iraqi law. That's akin to diplomatic immunity.

Recently testifying before Congress, Erik Prince, Blackwater's chief executive, refused to submit financial records claiming the company was private. But, any company contracted to do government work should be obligated to present any and all records about its operations.

Whether the next president is a Democrat or Republican, he/she and Congress should do everything possible to outlaw - or at least limit - Blackwater and similar organizations from military activities with federal authorization. If foreign governments wish to employ specialized warriors, so be it. It seems these former soldiers, mostly from elite units like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, know little else but what they have been trained to do - killing. Now, it seems, they've become hired killers. Guess writing memoirs isn't satisfying enough.

Despite the shortage of manpower that currently hampers our armed forces, the United States should not hire and cannot condone what is fundamentally a private army of contract killers.

It's generally assumed vigilantism died when the lawless Old West was tamed, but, as we recently witnessed in Iraq, apparently not. Ultimately, Blackwater, like old soldiers, should just fade way.

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