Shasta High grad critical of Blackwater
Record Searchlight (2007-11-02) Ryan Sabalow
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By Ryan Sabalow (Contact)
Friday, November 2, 2007
For the past month, a former Redding resident has become a vocal critic of Blackwater USA, the private security contractor in Iraq accused of murdering civilians.
From 2003 to 2005 Janessa Gans, a 31-year-old political science professor in Illinois, experienced firsthand what she said were overly aggressive tactics one security firm used as they ferried her around Baghdad, where she worked as an official for the U.S. government in Iraq.
The 1994 Shasta High School graduate has made appearances on CNN, CBS, National Public Radio, “Democracy Now,” and “Radio Netherlands” among others, describing her experiences with Blackwater, the largest private security firm employed by the U.S. government in Iraq.
Earlier this week, The Associated Press reported that the firm had been granted immunity by the U.S. government for crimes that may include murder. The AP said Blackwater had a State Department guarantee that it wouldn’t be prosecuted for alleged criminal activities.
The Iraqi government demanded that Blackwater leave the country after the civilian shootings, without provocation, allegations surfaced in September. The company denies the claim, saying the 17 people the contractors shot were insurgents.
Gans’ role in the debate stems from an op-ed piece she submitted to the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. In her article, Gans provides a firsthand account of being driven through downtown Baghdad in Blackwater convoys at speeds over 100 mph. Gans said the Blackwater drivers had no problem pushing civilian vehicles off the road if they got in the way.
Gans said Wednesday from her office at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., that she never expected so much media attention. Three earlier op-ed articles about Middle Eastern issues that she published in various newspapers didn’t garner much of a response.
“Blackwater started to be in the news and the students were asking, ‘How much contact did you have with them?’” Gans said. “I said, ‘Of course I did, every day.’ Someone suggested I write it up. I thought it would be throwing one more anecdote out there about Blackwater, but it turns out I was the only one to speak up.”
In Gans’ article, she wrote “it’s about time” the Iraqi government demanded the expulsion of the firm from their country.
She said in the piece that she once took a Blackwater driver to task for ramming a car carrying a family off the road.
The driver, she said, replied with complete indifference that he was ordered to treat everyone as a potential threat.
“Well, if they weren’t terrorists before, they certainly are now,” she told the driver, according to her column.
Gans said Wednesday that she was compelled to write the piece because she wanted to bring to light what she saw as a glaring inconstancy in U.S. policy in Iraq: If Americans are in Iraq to spread democracy and promote a positive relationship with the U.S., how does it help their cause when contractors — often the only contact the average citizen has with the U.S. — treat Iraqi citizens with aggression? she asks.
Emphasizing that she’s not anti-military — her father, Paul, 62, was in the U.S. Air Force and her brother, Justin, 35, is a former Navy SEAL — Gans said she feels the contractors are a necessary component in Iraq, but urges a different tactic.
She said she felt safer being transported by other firms that used a “low-key” approach, such as driving in nondescript vehicles that blended in with the populace, instead of ramming other drivers out of the way in the big, black SUVs Blackwater used.
As for what she did during her time in Iraq, Gans said she couldn’t say.
“I can’t really be specific,” Gans said. “I can say vague things like ‘U.S. official’ or that I was a government specialist in the Middle East or that I worked in the embassy in Baghdad.”
Photos that she provided, though, hint at her profession.
In one, she’s standing next to President Bush. In another, she’s wearing a bullet-proof vest over her blouse, a military helicopter in the background. In a third, she’s standing between two Iraqi dignitaries in traditional tribal dress.
Gans, who speaks both French and Arabic, has come a long way since her days at Shasta High, where she was an honors student and choir member. She’s traveled to both Africa and to Palestine’s West Bank.
When she’s not teaching, she oversees her own Middle Eastern think tank called the Euphrates Institute, which she hopes can find ways to foster practical, positive relations between the Islamic and Western worlds.
That’s not to say she’s forgotten about her hometown.
In the summers, she said, she visits Whiskeytown Lake and plays violin with her mother, Cherie, a prominent, local classical musician.
Her father, Paul Gans, said he’s proud of his outspoken daughter, and he doesn’t expect her to stop her commentary on U.S. policy any time soon. He hints that she might make a good candidate for a future Secretary of State.
Roger Longnecker, her former political science teacher at Shasta High, agreed, saying that his bright, articulate former student could very well climb to such high ranks.
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” he said.
Reporter Ryan Sabalow can be reached at 225-8344 or at firstname.lastname@example.org