For Blackwater, a year in uncomfortable spotlight
Hampton Roads.com (2007-12-29) Bill Sizemore
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By Bill Sizemore
On Christmas Eve 2006, in an alcohol-fueled confrontation inside
Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, a Blackwater security
contractor shot and killed a personal bodyguard to Iraqi Vice President
A year later, he has not been charged with a crime.
That shooting foreshadowed what has been a bloody year for Blackwater,
literally and figuratively. The Moyock, N.C.-based private military
company has taken a public thrashing from Baghdad to Washington to
California for the actions of its armed security men in Iraq.
As Blackwater heads into 2008, a number of investigations, inquiries
and lawsuits are still swirling around the company. Several were
sparked by a Sept. 16 shooting in a Baghdad traffic square in which
Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians. The FBI and a federal
grand jury are still looking into the incident.
In the weeks following that incident , a congressional committee
released data showing that the company’s contractors have been involved
in nearly 200 shooting incidents in Iraq since Jan. 1, 2005.
At the heart of the scrutiny is the question of accountability. Nearly
five years after the U.S.-led invasion, tens of thousands of armed
civilian contractors have cycled through the Iraq war zone.
Not one has been charged with a violent crime against an Iraqi.
One of the earliest public airings of the accountability issue arose
out of the December 2006 shooting in the Green Zone, which was first
reported by The Virginian-Pilot in January.
The shooter, identified in later media reports as Andrew Moonen, was
one of about 1,000 armed security contractors working in Iraq for
Blackwater under a multimillion-dollar contract with the State
Department to protect American diplomatic personnel. Within 36 hours
after the shooting, he was fired and flown home.
In diplomatic correspondence obtained by The Pilot under the Freedom of
Information Act, Vice President Abdul-Mahdi assured the U.S. ambassador
that he was trying to keep the incident out of the public eye.
Nevertheless, Abdul-Mahdi said, he hoped the shooter would be brought
to justice because Iraqis would not understand how a foreigner could
kill an Iraqi and be spirited back home a free man.
According to State Department documents obtained by Congress, the
department and Blackwater agreed on a $15,000 payment to be made to the
family of the slain Iraqi bodyguard.
CNN reported that Moonen went to work for another military contractor
in Kuwait in February.
Stewart Riley, a Seattle lawyer who represents Moonen, said government
lawyers have told him there is an “ongoing investigation” of the case
but have given him no indication of whether his client will be charged.
Meanwhile, in the year since the Christmas Eve shooting, Blackwater has
weathered a steady drumbeat of bad news:
- Five Blackwater contractors were killed Jan. 23 when their
helicopters came under attack while protecting an American convoy.
- In a harbinger of heightened scrutiny of the private military
industry by the new Democratic-controlled Congress, a House panel heard
emotional testimony Feb. 7 from family members of the four Blackwater
contractors who were killed, their bodies mutilated and hung from a
bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. The families are suing
Blackwater for wrongful death.
- After encountering public and political opposition in the
Philippines, Blackwater said in April that its plans to open an Asian
branch on the site of the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay had been
- The Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad prompted angry Iraqi officials to
demand that Blackwater be ousted from the country and put the company’s
lucrative diplomatic security contract in jeopardy.
- In October, a week after Blackwater CEO Erik Prince assured Congress
that Blackwater welcomes increased accountability, the company abruptly
pulled out of its Washington-based trade group, which had just
authorized an independent review of its conduct.
- A three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled against Blackwater in
October, allowing a wrongful-death lawsuit against the company’s
aviation affiliate to proceed in Florida. The plaintiffs are relatives
of three U.S. servicemen who were killed, along with three civilian
crew members, when a Blackwater aircraft crashed into a mountainside in
Afghanistan in 2004. The company is appealing the decision.
- Seven protesters were arrested Oct. 20 at Blackwater’s Moyock
headquarters after staging a re-enactment of the Sept. 16 shootings. In
December trials, all but one of which were closed to the press and
public, they were convicted of trespassing. The verdicts are under
- Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and
Government Reform Committee, accused Blackwater in October of evading
millions of dollars in taxes by improperly classifying its security
operatives as independent contractors, not employees. The company
denied the allegation.
- State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard, accused by Waxman
of impeding an investigation into alleged arms smuggling by Blackwater,
resigned in December after it was revealed that his brother, Alvin
“Buzzy” Krongard, had taken a position on Blackwater’s advisory board.
Alvin Krongard also gave up the Blackwater post.
- Residents of tiny Potrero, Calif., 45 miles east of San Diego, voted
overwhelmingly Dec. 11 to recall five members of an advisory planning
board who had approved Blackwater’s proposal to build a West Coast base
on an 824-acre chicken and cattle ranch. The company vowed to push
ahead with the controversial plan despite the vote.
- In December, one of Blackwater’s K-9 handlers fatally shot a dog in
The New York Times’ Baghdad compound. A company spokeswoman said The
Times’ dog had attacked one of Blackwater’s bomb-sniffing dogs.
Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276, firstname.lastname@example.org
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