Ausgabe 35/2009

Merchants of Death Memo Reveals Details of Blackwater Targeted Killings Program

A US district court will decide this week whether one of the darkest chapters of the Bush era, the relationship between the administration and the private security company Blackwater, should be reexamined. Former Blackwater employees want to shine light on the company's shadowy activities.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington

Susan Burke supported the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, during the 2008 US presidential campaign. But now that Obama is in office, she finds her views diverging widely from his.

Obama is opposed to investigating the excesses of the administration of his predecessor, former President George W. Bush. Burke, an attorney, favors an investigation. Obama has thus far avoided answering the question of whether the US Constitution was violated in Bush's so-called "war on terror." Burke wants an investigation to focus on precisely this question. Obama is looking forward, while Burke is looking back.

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Photo Gallery: Outsourcing War

What Burke sees when she looks into the rearview mirror is indeed ugly. She sees 17 dead, including women and children, lying on Nisoor Square in Baghdad, killed on Sept. 16, 2007 by mercenaries working for Blackwater, a private American security firm. She sees Blackwater employee Andrew Moonen who, after a Christmas party in 2006, drove through Baghdad, heavily armed, and shot a man for no reason. She hears the shot, fired from a Blackwater helicopter, that killed an innocent man on Baghdad's Wathba Square on Sept. 9, 2007.

But most of all, Burke sees Erik Prince, Blackwater's founder and former owner. In her suit, she refers to him as a "modern-day merchant of death," and she alleges that the 40-year-old created a "culture of lawlessness and unaccountability" at Blackwater, where the "excessive and unnecessary use of deadly force" was commonplace. In her motion, Burke also accuses Blackwater of war crimes. The US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria, Virginia, will now decide whether to take on Burke's civil suit.

Committed In the Name of America

The political world will also have to make some decisions. The first question is whether the US government will make public on Monday the most comprehensive report to date on the treatment of terrorism suspects. That alone would trigger a political hurricane in Washington, says former CIA Director Porter Goss. It would also make it much more difficult for the government to rebuff calls for it to finally investigate all the alleged illegal activity carried out in the fight against terrorism.

It was not until the end of June that US Attorney General Eric Holder read the report, which was prepared by the CIA's inspector general in 2004. But then he spent a full two days in his office in Washington D.C. studying the document. When he had finished reading it, he apparently stood at the window for a long time, staring out at Constitution Avenue. Horrified over what had been done in the name of America, Holder looked into the possibility of appointing a special prosecutor. Sources in Washington say that he has now achieved his goal, which puts him more squarely in Burke's camp than Obama's.

Blackwater characterizes Burke's accusations as "scandalous and baseless," and claims that the cases she cites were isolated incidents. According to Blackwater attorneys, "no diplomat under the protection of this service died or even was injured during the entire duration of the contract."

Symbol of an Era

Prince, who earlier in his career claimed to have "the heart of a warrior," is intent on preventing the civil suit from going to trial. To that end, he has hired a team of lawyers working for the law firm of Mayer Brown, which also represents 89 companies on Fortune magazine's list of the top 500 US companies ranked by revenues.

Peter White, the head of the Mayer Brown team, plans to convince the judges in Alexandria this week that the Blackwater case isn't a case at all. In his written response to Burke's lawsuit, White argues that any public disclosure of Blackwater's methods would endanger its personnel in war zones, and her suit should be dismissed.

White also argues that if there is any culpability, it rests with the individuals who committed the acts in question, not the entire company. He points to unsuccessful lawsuits that were filed against US corporations after the Vietnam War, including the case of Vietnamese plaintiffs who tried and failed to sue the US multinational corporation Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of the defoliant Agent Orange. In one respect, the comparison is apt: Blackwater has become a symbol of an entire era, just as Agent Orange was a potent symbol of the Vietnam War.

Outsourcing War

After the al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney began using large numbers of private security contractors for the first time. The mercenaries were intended to make up for a lack of manpower, especially in the area of personal security, as well as to perform the dirty work, such as interrogating detainees, thereby leaving US military personnel untainted. Erik Prince's company turned into an empire practically overnight, collecting more than $1 billion (€700 million) in revenues from US taxpayers. Seventy percent of Blackwater's contracts with the government were no-bid contracts.

The company's most important personnel, its fighters, who were known internally as "shooters," were recruited around the world, including from places like the Philippines and Latin America. In 2007, the company proudly changed its name to Blackwater Worldwide.

The advantage of privatizing the war was obvious for the Bush administration. Blackwater contractors are cheaper than regular US soldiers. When they were killed, their widows received only minor compensation, while the US military pays lifelong survivor benefits. Besides, Blackwater employees died quietly -- in other words, they were never part of the official death statistics, which was convenient for the president.

With the end of the Bush administration, Blackwater received fewer contracts and the company changed its name to Xe Services. But its founder's most determined adversary, Susan Burke, continued her fight.

'A Christian Crusader'

Burke now plans to call 40 witnesses to testify against Prince. If the court agrees to hear her suit on Friday, eyewitnesses to the various killings will be summoned from Baghdad. In the United States, Burke, who made a name for herself defending detainees subjected to abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, will ask the court to subpoena several former Blackwater employees, including a former executive.

Two affidavits that have been filed in the Alexandria court contain serious allegations against company founder Erik Prince. The men who signed the affidavits, fearing that their lives could be put in danger if their identities were revealed, are identified anonymously as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2.

In his affidavit, John Doe 1, who served in Iraq, writes that he "personally observed multiple incidents of Blackwater personnel intentionally using excessive and unjustified deadly force."

John Doe 2, who worked for Prince, writes that the former head of Blackwater "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe." He claims that company employees treated the killing of Iraqis as sport.

The Blackwater attorney questions the validity of these witnesses, saying that much of what they claim is based on hearsay. The fact that the witnesses are remaining anonymous, says White, makes it impossible to verify their credibility. He calls the tactics "unfair" and highly prejudicial to defendants.

But the key witnesses' fear of retaliation is considerable, which also has something to do with the fact that Prince has powerful friends in the government, particularly inside the CIA.


© DER SPIEGEL 35/2009
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