Public scrutiny for private armies
Virginian Pilot (2007-05-22)
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The transformation of Blackwater USA from a private security firm into the newest branch of the U.S. military has for years been a source of friction and suspicion in government and out.
That metamorphosis was covered at length by Pilot staff writers Bill Sizemore and Joanne Kimberlin, finalists for a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.
Observers worry that the North Carolina company has assumed some duties traditionally performed by soldiers and sailors without also assuming the basic accountability built into the military system.
The company's hardball push to hide a lawsuit over the deaths of four contractors in Iraq will do nothing to allay such fears, or to provide any comfort to people who demand accountability from the Americans fighting in Iraq.
In 2004, four Blackwater contractors were killed in an ambush in Fallujah. The men were shot and dismembered, and two of the bodies were hung from a bridge while a crowd of Iraqis cheered. A video of the scene was shown across the planet.
The families of the victims sued Blackwater, saying the company sent them to their deaths without adequate equipment or protection.
Blackwater tried in vain to evade responsibility by claiming that it was shielded by the same sovereign immunity protections that prevent soldiers from suing the military.
If it were part of the U.S. government, of course, Blackwater also wouldn't be in the war business to make a profit, would have to be far less secretive, and would have to function within the military's constraints.
The issue of responsibility isn't an idle one. The military has so increased its use of contractors under the current administration that 917 of them have been killed in Iraq, according to The New York Times.
The Blackwater families sued the company in the Carolina courts, but the company argued that the case belonged in the federal system. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, but a lower federal judge ruled that an employment contract prevented the families from suing.
That might have been the correct ruling, but it sure wasn't the right one. Instead of sovereign immunity, Blackwater won arguably the next best thing: The lawsuits have been shifted behind the closed doors of binding private arbitration.
The families will have limited opportunity to appeal, especially disturbing since the arbitration system itself is rife with the potential for conflicting allegiances. One of the arbitrators originally proposed, for example, was former FBI Director William Sessions, whose law firm represents Blackwater.
Americans, as a rule, favor the kind of government that spends the least while also protecting core values. This appears to do neither.
If the lack of oversight of America's burgeoning private military makes Americans uncomfortable, imagine how they'll feel about the growing private judiciary. Both have been expanding in the last few years, so perhaps it is only perversely right and proper - if also dangerous and disturbing - that America settles the issues attending its private army in its private judicial system.