It’s good to be a Prince.
That way, when your company’s employees are accused of killing unarmed civilians – including children – and selling weapons to terrorists, and avoiding taxes, you can keep on getting your multi-million dollar contract from the government.
This week, several Iraqis were in Washington to testify in federal court about the horrific incident in which private security guards from Blackwater Worldwide, founded and run by Erik Prince, allegedly shot up 17 civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle on Sept. 16, 2007. By all reports at the time, the carnage was devastating. In once instance, guards were accused of shooting into a car, killing a mother and infant inside. Then they torched it – fusing the baby’s body to hers. In another, a grieving Iraqi man described identifying his wife and son’s bodies, both had been shot in the head – their skulls torn apart.
Witness accounts say the Blackwater guards not only fired first, but were the only ones shooting that day (officials for the company still say they were acting in self-defense), and initial findings from our US military back-up the civilians’ story. But because the law is so “fuzzy” and there was some kind of Coalition Provisional Authority decree, which by all reasoning should be useless now, saying foreign contractors in Iraq were immune from prosecution, the Blackwater guards may never be brought to justice there.
So, the Iraqi witnesses brought to DC this week were called to testify before a grand jury so that federal attorneys can determine whether those guards can be charged here in the US. But the State Department seems to have so much confidence that its favorite armed security squad won’t be tainted by the case that it renewed the company’s current contract for another year in April. The official reasoning? Blackwater has been on its best behavior since the September incident, and it shouldn’t be “pre-judged” before the FBI concludes its investigation (note: the Sept. 16 incident may have been the deadliest, but it isn’t the only case in which Blackwater guards have been accused of murder).
Meanwhile, Blackwater is also under investigation for reports that illegal weapons smuggled by its guards in Iraq ended up in the hands of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) which have been accused guerilla attacks against the Turks on the Northern Iraq/Turkey border and are considered a terrorist group by the US.
Blackwater is also accused of avoiding $50 million in taxes by asserting its employees are “independent contractors” rather than full-time workers, thus avoiding paying federal withholding taxes like every other honest employer in the US.
Erik Prince is the scion of a powerful Republican businessman and philanthropist who helped to establish the Family Research Council. His ties extend from the CIA, to the White House and State Department, which has been giving Blackwater lucrative contracts since former Iraqi viceroy L. Paul Bremer apparently needed a security detail to match that of a Saudi royal back in 2003. Prince has been accused by Iraqis and American military alike of hiring cowboys who have treated Iraq like one big Deadwood. Nonetheless, his once tiny enterprise has racked up some $1.2 billion in government contracts since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began.
And it should come as no surprise that the money keeps on coming, despite the fact that Blackwater has become such a dark symbol of US authority among Iraqis — I personally interviewed ex-GIs who told me that the behavior of private security goons put them at risk among civilians who didn’t distinguish between US military and the men with black hats and sunglasses. But like Halliburton/KBR, Blackwater has powerful friends and lobbyists on Capitol Hill: golden-tongued and high-priced attorneys, former defense guys and other beltway bandits working to ensure its place at the trough. Blackwater contracts keep growing and growing – they were even hired and deputized to patrol the streets of New Orleans after Katrina hit!
The US judicial system may ultimately find the Blackwater guards accountable for the crimes of Sept. 16. It may very well set a precedent in how contractors can be effectively prosecuted in the future. But as for now, these high-paid guards will still be strutting around with their heavy weaponry on the taxpayers’ dole, and the message will be clear: justice comes to those who pay, now hapless Iraqi, get out the way.