by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & U & lt;/span & ntil March 31, 2004, when four men were ambushed, dragged through the streets of Fallujah and set on fire, Jeremy Scahill hadn't even heard of Blackwater. He watched the grisly news footage. "I remember one young Fallujan holding up a small sign that read: 'Fallujah is the Graveyard of the Americans,'" Scahill recalls.

Several reports called the men "civilians," which wasn't exactly true, Scahill says. They were private soldiers sent to Iraq by the private contractor and their deaths unleashed a massive U.S. raid on Fallujah.

"As I watched the destruction of Fallujah, I determined to investigate Blackwater," he recalls via e-mail. "It started with a simple question: How were the deaths of these four men -- not civilians, not active-duty military -- in the employ of a for-profit corporation worth the decimation of a city and all that would follow?"

That first question would lead to many more for Scahill, an investigative reporter who regularly writes for The Nation and "Democracy Now!" He began investigating and soon learned how powerful and politically connected Blackwater was -- landing lucrative contracts in Iraq and even in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, fulfilling the traditional role of the U.S. military without the oversight.

His reporting would become a best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, released in February 2007. Since its publication, Scahill has given talks around the country and is speaking in Spokane on Tuesday, Sept. 30.

"I think it is of central importance for people to realize that Blackwater is a product of a radical privatization laboratory," Scahill tells The Inlander. "In a way, Blackwater is a metaphor for much of what has happened over the past eight years with U.S. policy -- at home and abroad. The country is in the midst of the most radical privatization agenda in its history. We see it in schools, health care, law enforcement, intelligence and, in a very Frankenstein way, with the U.S. war machine. The corporations have all the power."

Despite high-profile scandals -- including the killing last fall of 17 Iraqis, 14 of them "without cause," according to the FBI -- Blackwater and other security contractors continue to do swift business. "I believe that this radical privatization is a cancer that has already metastasized so rapidly that it would be virtually impossible to stop. It would require a whole new set of lawmakers and political parties -- ones which are not tied completely to major corporate interests. The war business is -- and has always been -- a bipartisan affair."

Scahill says that while Barack Obama has been more critical of these contractors -- more so than John McCain -- he hasn't endorsed a ban on their use. "These companies have, in the words of one industry analyst, become the American Express card of U.S. foreign policy and they will thrive under either presidency," the author says.

Scahill says he plans to continue writing about "radical privatization" and will be an election correspondent on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher.

"In general, I am trying to do reporting that hopefully will provide people with information that will empower them to confront those in power, to stand up and to make informed decisions, not just regarding U.S. electoral politics, but in envisioning what kind of foreign policy we want," he says.

He adds: "To me, what is more important than who people vote for on November 4 is what they stand for on November 5."

Jeremy Scahill will speak at the Bing Crosby Theater in Spokane on Tuesday, Sept. 30, at 7 pm. Tickets are $10.

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