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Winter Soldier: Jeremy Scahill discusses why no presidential candidate plans on fully leaving Iraq

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MATTHEW PALEVSKY, TRNN JOURNALIST: I’m at Winter Soldiers, standing outside the conference hall where people are currently testifying, and I’m standing with Jeremy Scahill, the author of Blackwater, a book about the Blackwater contractors and the contractors currently in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, Jeremy, can you tell us about how this has played out in the elections going on right now?

JEREMY SCAHILL, JOURNALIST: I mean, for most of the election campaign, private contractors, whether they be armed security contractors like Blackwater or the larger army of 180,000 contractors hasn’t been an issue at all. None of the candidates have really been asked about it in the debates. Occasionally they’ve been asked about it by voters, but it really hasn’t become a premiere issue. About two weeks ago I did a story about Barack Obama’s position on contractors called “Obama’s Mercenary Position” for The Nation magazine. And basically what I did was I interviewed senior foreign policy advisors to Barack Obama and said to them, “What are you guys going to do about the contractors?” And what I found out is that Barack Obama’s people are saying that they will not rule out the use of private security contractors like Blackwater in Iraq, and that Barack Obama will not sign on to legislation seeking to ban them or to force them out of Iraq. And the reason is actually kind of complicated. Barack Obama has been, actually, a leader on the issue of contractor reform in the Senate: he introduced legislation to try to regulate and oversee them months before the Nisour Square massacre happened in Baghdad in September of 2007. But his people realized that because they have an Iraq plan that requires keeping 40,000 to 80,000 US troops in Iraq and a massive diplomatic force, they’re going to need these forces. So they don’t want to be nailed on this later. So they were quite honest about their intent to use it. Hillary Clinton has been eight years on the Armed Services Committee. She’s never done anything to try to crack down on contractors, never made any statements, except condemning Blackwater after Nisour Square, which everyone and their grandmother did. The day after my story comes out, which hit Obama pretty hard, Hillary Clinton released a statement saying that she’s going to cosponsor legislation that Bernie Sanders had introduced last November that would seek to ban Blackwater and force them all out of Iraq within six months. So she now becomes the most significant political figure in the US to call for a ban on Blackwater, and she did it after Barack Obama’s people came out and said, “Yeah, we’re probably going to be forced to use them.”

PALEVSKY: And has this swayed Obama at all, her coming out against contractors?

SCAHILL: Look, I mean, Barack Obama has a perfect sort of response to her on this: where have you been? For the past five years of occupation, where have you been on this issue, when you were a key member of a key Senate committee that deals with these issues of war and war contracting? Where were you after Nisour Square when 17 Iraqis were killed by Blackwater? And where have you been on this issue? Obama actually introduced the legislation in the Senate on this eight months before Nisour Square. So I don’t think it’s actually going to become a major campaign issue. I think Hillary Clinton did this in the lead-up to Ohio and Texas as just sort of a way to curry some favor with the antiwar movement, because this has actually been a major issue in the antiwar movement. I can’t imagine that her staff thought this through too deeply, because she has stuck her neck way further out than anyone else in the Senate besides Bernie Sanders on this issue. It’s quite astonishing. Hey, I’m looking forward to seeing how much of a legislative priority it’s going to be for her to ban Blackwater.

PALEVSKY: But one of the major problems with military contractors is that they’re hard to hold accountable, that they’re basically under no law, US law or Iraqi law. Have either of them or has John McCain taken up that issue of not using them or not using them, but using them while holding them accountable?

SCAHILL: Barack Obama’s legislation, which he introduced in February 2007—and I should say I’m actually very critical of Barack Obama on this issue, but just to talk in very mainstream political terminology about this, Barack Obama introduced legislation in February 2007 that basically seeks to do the following: make it so that all contractors, whether they work for the Pentagon or the State Department, as Blackwater works for the State Department, will be held accountable under US civilian law. In other words, if they commit a murder or another crime in Iraq, they can be arrested and brought back to the United States and put on trial for that murder in Iraq. That has a likelihood of passing, probably. It’s Obama in the Senate, David Price in the House. It passed the House; it’s now being discussed in the Senate. It could well pass. The problem with that is that it’s ridiculous—it cannot be enforced. How on earth are you going to oversee an army of over 180,000 private contractors? The military, with all its bureaucracy, can’t even oversee 150,000 soldiers effectively. So it’s sort of like it’s a game that we’re playing. Do they try to have something that looks good on the books? Absolutely. Is it like a fairytale? Absolutely. It’s not enforcible.

PALEVSKY: And many people support Barack Obama saying he’s stronger antiwar than Hillary Clinton. But if he’s saying that he’s going to pull out the troops and replace them with military contractors, does anything change?

SCAHILL: He’s not saying he’s going to pull out the troops or replace them with military contractors. What Obama is saying is that he’s going to keep in place the Green Zone, the US embassy, and the Baghdad airport, three of the largest sites for the use of private contractors, and he’s actually calling for an increase in funding of the State Department division that employs them. But what’s disturbing about Obama’s Iraq plan, as well as Hillary Clinton’s, is that both of them have plans that would keep 40,000 to 80,000 troops in Iraq. It’s based on the Iraq Study Group, the Baker-Hamilton report, and the 2007 defense supplemental that was portrayed as the Democrats’ withdrawal plan. That’s not a plan to end the occupation; it’s a plan to continue it through the use of residual forces. I actually believe, and former senior military officials’ who’ve reviewed Barack Obama’s plan have said this too, that he’s misleading voters with his rhetoric of ending the war. He’s not going to end the war, end the occupation; he’s going to withdraw some combat brigades and then maintain a force that is going to be repackaged as a counterterrorism strike force and a protection force for US diplomats. The reality is you have 500 US soldiers in Iraq; you’re going to have a major resistance against them.

PALEVSKY: So do any of the candidates we currently see running for president offer real change when it comes to the contractors that are hired in Iraq and Afghanistan?

SCAHILL: Well, I mean, I think third-party candidates, you know, who stand absolutely no chance of winning have been clear on this. But of the viable candidates, John McCain, Hillary, Clinton, and Barack Obama, there’s a difference in the sense that John McCain is basically campaigning on four more years of Bush-type policies. He wants soldiers in Iraq to be there basically until they’re basically as old as he is right now. But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I think in a way it’s even more insidious, because people actually with good faith believe that by supporting their campaigns they’re supporting an end to the war in Iraq, and it’s a ruse, it’s just not true. And so I think there’s something that’s even more insidious about it. I mean, at least John McCain is clear where he stands. These guys sort of send one message, and behind the scenes put together these plans that are war by other means.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Jeremy Scahill is the author of the bestselling Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is an award-winning investigative journalist and correspondent for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!.