Despite the many obstacles to reporting on military contractors, a few journalists have pursued the story. Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise Of The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, talks about what it takes to see even a small part of the contracting picture.
BOB GARFIELD: Some journalists have tackled the private contracting story, despite the reporting constraints. For example, Jeremy Scahill, who had reported from Fallujah, began to wonder about the secretive Blackwater Company when four of their contractors in Iraq were ambushed, burned to death and hung from a bridge in 2004.
The incident launched Scahill on an investigation that lasted long after the story faded from the front pages. His book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, details the private force that he says has received U.S. government contracts worth more than three-quarters of a billion dollars since 2004. Jeremy, welcome to the show. JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s good to be with you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: How did you go about doing your reporting? It strikes me that this would have been something of a challenge. I’m going to take a wild guess that Blackwater did not invite you in with open arms to see its operations. JEREMY SCAHILL: Let’s just say I wasn’t embedded with Blackwater [LAUGHS] in Iraq. Any journalist who sets out to investigate a company immediately goes and says, oh, I want to go and look at shareholder reports and start looking at documentation.
Well, Blackwater’s a privately held company, so already you’re up against a wall, unless you can convince someone to leak them to you or hand them over to you. And so, we had to go through a process of filing a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests, which we did with the U.S. State Department, with the Pentagon, with the Department of the Interior, and we started to get some of those requests fulfilled. And then once you see some contracts and documentation, then it raises more questions; it sends you in different directions. So we were feverishly filing all of these FOIA requests over the course of a year.
At the same time we were reaching out to people who had previously worked in an executive capacity for Blackwater and, in fact, interviewed a number of the people who were involved in the early stages of the company, and they gave us great insight into how the company functions.
I talked to former contractors who had worked in Iraq and Afghanistan with Blackwater, as well as the families of contractors. And through all of the great reporting of local reporters in Blackwater’s area, from The Virginian Pilot and The Raleigh News and Observer, we were able to paint what I think is about one percent of the picture about Blackwater, because it’s such a secretive company and it’s very much protected by the national security bureaucracy in this country. BOB GARFIELD: Now we saw in the Pat Tillman friendly fire incident in Afghanistan that a U.S. Army regular can lose his life, and his family, back in the States, can really only through a series of investigations find out what actually happened.
There have been 917 private contractors killed in Iraq, 14,000 of them wounded. Do their families ever find out the circumstances of these casualties? JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, it depends on the company and how much the company wants to share with them. In the case of the four Blackwater contractors who were ambushed and killed in Fallujah, their bodies strung up from a bridge, the families of those four men say that Blackwater refused to answer their questions and wasn’t being transparent with them. And so, they actually filed a groundbreaking wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater in January of 2005.
And Blackwater has fought back ferociously against that lawsuit and, in fact, the entire war industry has been paying close attention to that case because what could happen, if it’s heard in open court, is that Blackwater would have to hand over documents, executives of the company would be deposed. It could be an incredibly damning moment for the war industry itself.
Now, what’s interesting about the statistics that you cite, the 917 contractors that we know have been killed in Iraq, the 14,000 wounded, those are just people whose families have applied for federal death or injury benefits.
I believe it only represents a fraction of the contractors killed in Iraq. And the fact is that the majority of contractors in Iraq right now are actually Iraqis working in the service of these other companies for the United States, and so it’s a way of masking the human costs of the occupation. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned that you filed many Freedom of Information requests, and I’m curious how forthcoming the various agencies were in giving you information about what’s going on over there, you know, behind the shroud of private contracting. JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, it depends on the agency that you’re applying through. I had one incident that happened where I got a hold of a document through the U.S. State Department and reported on it, and it caused a congressional investigation both in the Senate and the House, and the next time I went to apply for a document from the U.S. State Department, I was told that because I had created such a “nut roll,” was the phrase, the last time I had done this, and that they’re having to deal with all these congressional calls, that they may not have time to deal with journalists’ FOIA requests.
And that, I think, gives you a sense of how unusual it is for someone to actually ask for these kinds of documents because when you do, and when the right people in Congress realize it, then they start to go to work on it, and that ultimately should be the role of journalists in a democratic society.
But this is a labyrinth system here, and the fact of the matter is we can’t get documents for any of the contracts through the intelligence agencies. But what’s even more disturbing is that some of these contracts have four or five layers of subcontracts, and none of the companies are required to come forward and say who their subcontractors are.
So it’s a really stunning threat, I think, to democratic media and democratic governance. BOB GARFIELD: Okay Jeremy, thank you very much. JEREMY SCAHILL: My pleasure, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Jeremy Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise Of The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, Radio Liberty’s problem with President Putin, and Croatian teenagers sport fascist symbols as fashion statements. BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media from NPR.