by Jeremy Scahill & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n September 10, 2001, before most Americans had heard of Al Qaeda or imagined the possibility of a "war on terror," Donald Rumsfeld stepped to the podium at the Pentagon to deliver one of his first major addresses as Defense Secretary under President George W. Bush. Standing before the former corporate executives he had tapped as his top deputies overseeing the high-stakes business of military contracting -- many of them from firms like Enron, General Dynamics and Aerospace Corporation -- Rumsfeld issued a declaration of war.
"The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America," Rumsfeld thundered. "It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk." He told his new staff, "You may think I'm describing one of the last decrepit dictators of the world. ... [But] the adversary's closer to home," he said. "It's the Pentagon bureaucracy." Rumsfeld called for a wholesale shift in the running of the Pentagon, supplanting the old DoD bureaucracy with a new model, one based on the private sector. Announcing this major overhaul, Rumsfeld told his audience, "I have no desire to attack the Pentagon; I want to liberate it. We need to save it from itself."
Although Rumsfeld was later thrown overboard by the Bush administration in an attempt to placate critics of the Iraq War, his military revolution was here to stay. Bidding farewell to Rumsfeld in November 2006, Bush credited him with overseeing the "most sweeping transformation of America's global force posture since the end of World War II." Indeed, Rumsfeld's trademark "small footprint" approach ushered in one of the most significant developments in modern warfare -- the widespread use of private contractors in every aspect of war, including in combat.
The often-overlooked subplot of the wars of the post-9/11 period is their unprecedented scale of outsourcing and privatization. From the moment the United States troop buildup began in advance of the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon made private contractors an integral part of the operations. Even as the government gave the public appearance of attempting diplomacy, Halliburton was prepping for a massive operation. When U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad in March 2003, they brought with them the largest army of private contractors ever deployed in modern war. By the end of Rumsfeld's tenure in late 2006, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq -- an almost one-to-one ratio with active-duty American soldiers.
Contractors have provided the Bush administration with political cover, allowing the government to deploy private forces in a war zone free of public scrutiny, with the deaths, injuries and crimes of those forces shrouded in secrecy. The administration and the GOP-controlled Congress in turn have shielded the contractors from accountability, oversight and legal constraints. Despite the presence of more than 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq, only one has been indicted for crimes or violations.
"We have over 200,000 troops in Iraq and half of them aren't being counted, and the danger is that there's zero accountability," says Democrat Dennis Kucinich, one of the leading Congressional critics of war contracting.
While the past years of Republican monopoly on government have marked a golden era for the industry, those days appear to be ending. Just a month into the new Congressional term, leading Democrats were announcing investigations of runaway war contractors. Representative John Murtha, chair of the Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Defense, after returning from a trip to Iraq in late January, said, "We're going to have extensive hearings to find out exactly what's going on with contractors. They don't have a clear mission and they're falling all over each other."
Two days later, during confirmation hearings for Gen. George Casey as Army chief of staff, Sen. Jim Webb declared, "This is a rent-an-army out there." Webb asked Casey, "Wouldn't it be better for this country if those tasks, particularly the quasi-military gunfighting tasks, were being performed by active-duty military soldiers in terms of cost and accountability?" Casey defended the contracting system but said armed contractors "are the ones that we have to watch very carefully."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & ccupying the hot seat through these deliberations is the shadowy mercenary company Blackwater USA. Unbeknownst to many Americans and largely off the Congressional radar, Blackwater has secured a position of remarkable power and protection within the U.S. war apparatus. Blackwater has repeatedly cited Rumsfeld's statement that contractors are part of the "Total Force" as evidence that it is a legitimate part of the nation's "warfighting capability and capacity." Invoking Rumsfeld's designation, the company has in effect declared its forces above the law -- entitled to the immunity from civilian lawsuits enjoyed by the military, but also not bound by the military's court martial system. While the initial inquiries into Blackwater have focused on the complex labyrinth of secretive subcontracts under which it operates in Iraq, a thorough investigation into the company reveals a frightening picture of a politically connected private army.
Blackwater was founded in 1996 by conservative Christian multimillionaire and ex-Navy SEAL Erik Prince -- the scion of a wealthy Michigan family. At its founding, the company largely consisted of Prince's private fortune and a vast 5,000-acre plot of land located near the Great Dismal Swamp in Moyock, N.C. Its vision was "to fulfill the anticipated demand for government outsourcing of firearms and related security training." In the following years, Prince, his family and his political allies poured money into Republican campaign coffers.
While Blackwater won government contracts during the Clinton era, it was not until the "war on terror" that the company's glory moment arrived. Almost overnight, following September 11, the company would become a central player in a global war. "I've been operating in the training business now for four years and was starting to get a little cynical on how seriously people took security," Prince told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly shortly after 9/11. "The phone is ringing off the hook now."
Among those calls was one from the CIA, which contracted Blackwater to work in Afghanistan in the early stages of U.S. operations there. In the ensuing years, the company has become one of the greatest beneficiaries of the "war on terror," winning nearly $1 billion in noncovert government contracts, many of them no-bid. In just a decade, Prince has expanded the Moyock headquarters to 7,000 acres, making it the world's largest private military base. Blackwater currently has 2,300 personnel deployed in nine countries, with 20,000 other contractors at the ready. It has a fleet of more than 20 aircraft, including helicopter gunships and a private intelligence division.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Blackwater deployed in New Orleans, where it billed the federal government $950 per man, per day -- at one point raking in more than $240,000 a day. At its peak, the company had about 600 contractors deployed from Texas to Mississippi. Since Katrina, it has aggressively pursued domestic contracting, opening a new domestic operations division.
Its largest obtainable government contract is with the State Department, for providing security to U.S. diplomats and facilities in Iraq. That contract began in 2003 with the company's $21 million no-bid deal to protect Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer. According to the latest government records, since June 2004 Blackwater has been awarded $750 million in State Department contracts. It is currently engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign to be sent into Darfur as a privatized peacekeeping force.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & D & lt;/span & espite its central role, Blackwater had largely operated in the shadows until March 31, 2004, when four of its private soldiers in Iraq were ambushed and killed in Falluja. A mob then burned the bodies and dragged them through the streets, stringing up two from a bridge over the Euphrates. In many ways, it was the moment the Iraq War turned. U.S. forces laid siege to Falluja days later, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands, inflaming the fierce Iraqi resistance that haunts occupation forces to this day. For most Americans, it was the first they had heard of private soldiers.
After Falluja, Blackwater executives kicked into high gear, capitalizing on the company's newfound recognition. The day after the ambush, it hired a K Street lobbying firm. A week to the day after the ambush, Erik Prince was sitting down with at least four senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including its chair, John Warner. Two months later, Blackwater was handed one of the government's most valuable international security contracts, worth more than $300 million.
But while Blackwater enjoyed its new status as a hero in the "war on terror" within the administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, the families of the four men killed at Falluja say they were being stonewalled by Blackwater as they attempted to understand the circumstances of how their loved ones were killed. After what they allege was months of effort to get straight answers from the company, the families filed a ground-breaking wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater in January 2005, accusing the company of not providing the men with what they say were contractually guaranteed safeguards. Among the allegations: The company sent them on the Falluja mission that day short two men, with less powerful weapons than they should have had and in Pajero jeeps instead of armored vehicles. This case could have far-reaching reverberations and is being monitored closely by the war-contractor industry -- former Halliburton subsidiary KBR has even filed an amicus brief supporting Blackwater. If the lawsuit is successful, it could pave the way for a tobacco litigation-type scenario, where war contractors find themselves besieged by legal claims of workers killed or injured in war zones.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & everal bills are now making their way through Congress aimed at oversight and transparency of the private forces that have emerged as major players in the wars of the post-9/11 period. In mid-February, Senators Byron Dorgan, Patrick Leahy and John Kerry introduced legislation aimed at cracking down on no-bid contracts, providing for penalties of up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million for what they called "war profiteering."
This past fall, taking a different tack -- much to the dismay of the industry -- Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reserve lawyer and former reserve judge, quietly inserted language into the 2007 Defense Authorization, which President Bush signed into law, that places contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), commonly known as the court martial system. Graham implemented the change with no public debate and with almost no awareness among the broader Congress, but war contractors immediately questioned its constitutionality. Indeed, this could be a rare moment when mercenaries and civil libertarians are on the same side. Many contractors are not armed combatants; they work in food, laundry and other support services. While the argument could be made that armed contractors like those working for Blackwater should be placed under the UCMJ, Graham's change could result in a dishwasher from Nepal who works for KBR being prosecuted like a U.S. soldier.
In an attempt to clarify these matters, Sen. Barack Obama introduced comprehensive legislation in February. It requires clear rules of engagement for armed contractors, expands MEJA (the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act) and provides for the DoD to "arrest and detain" contractors suspected of crimes and then turn them over to civilian authorities for prosecution. It also requires the Justice Department to submit a comprehensive report on current investigations of contractor abuses, the number of complaints received about contractors and criminal cases opened. Obama said contractors are "operating with unclear lines of authority, out-of-control costs and virtually no oversight by Congress. This black hole of accountability increases the danger to our troops and American civilians serving as contractors."
Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House intelligence committee, has been a leading critic of the war contracting system. Her Iraq and Afghanistan Contractor Sunshine Act, introduced in February, which bolsters Obama's, boils down to what Schakowsky sees as a long overdue fact-finding mission through the secretive contracting bureaucracy. Among other provisions, it requires the government to determine and make public the number of contractors and subcontractors (at any tier) that are employed in Iraq and Afghanistan; any host country's, international or U.S. laws that have been broken by contractors; disciplinary actions taken against contractors; and the total number of dead and wounded contractors. Schakowsky says she has tried repeatedly over the past several years to get this information and has been stonewalled or ignored.
"We're talking about billions and billions of dollars -- some have estimated 40 cents of every dollar [spent on the occupation] goes to these contractors, and we couldn't get any information on casualties, on deaths," says Schakowsky. "It has been virtually impossible to shine the light on this aspect of the war and so when we discuss the war, its scope, its costs, its risks, they have not been part of this whatsoever. This whole shadow force that's been operating in Iraq, we know almost nothing about. I think it keeps at arm's length from the American people what this war is all about."
While not by any means a comprehensive total of the number of contractor casualties, 770 contractor deaths and 7,761 injured in Iraq as of December 31, 2006, were confirmed by the Labor Department. But that only counts those contractors whose families applied for benefits under the government's Defense Base Act insurance. Independent analysts say the number is likely much higher. Blackwater alone has lost at least 27 people in Iraq. And then there's the financial cost: Almost $4 billion in taxpayer funds have been paid for private security forces in Iraq, according to Rep. Henry Waxman.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & iweek after Donald iRumsfeld's rule at the iPentagon ended, U.S. forces had been stretched so thin by the "war on terror" that former Secretary of State Colin Powell declared "the active Army is about broken." Rather than rethinking its foreign policies, the administration forged ahead with plans for a troop "surge" in Iraq, and the president floated a plan to supplement the military with a Civilian Reserve Corps in his State of the Union address. "Such a corps would function much like our military reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces..." Bush said. The President, it seemed, was just giving a fancy new title to something the administration has already done. Yet while Bush's proposed surge has sparked a fierce debate in Congress and among the public, the administration's increasing reliance on private military contractors has gone largely undebated and underreported.
"The increasing use of contractors, private forces or as some would say 'mercenaries' makes wars easier to begin and to fight -- it just takes money and not the citizenry," says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has sued contractors for alleged abuses in Iraq. "To the extent a population is called upon to go to war, there is resistance, a necessary resistance to prevent wars of self-aggrandizement, foolish wars and in the case of the United States, hegemonic imperialist wars. Private forces are almost a necessity for a United States bent on retaining its declining empire."
With talk of a Civilian Reserve Corps and Blackwater promoting the idea of a privatized "contractor brigade," war critics in Congress are homing in on what they see as a sustained, undeclared escalation through the use of private forces. "'Surge' implies a bump that has a beginning and an end," says Schakowsky. "Having a third or a quarter of [the forces] present on the ground not even part of the debate is a very dangerous thing in our democracy, because war is the most critical thing that we do."