Michael Ratner on holding private military contractors accountable
U.S. contractors under fire in Iraq
PAUL JAY, SENIOR NEWS EDITOR: On Monday, the Iraqi military detained private contractors working for the U.S. after a non-lethal shooting of an eighteen year old Iraqi girl on the streets of Baghdad. The contractors worked for Almco, a Dubai-based company, and were among the forty-three people detained in the incident. The footage we’re showing you shows the forty-three arrested individuals in the back of a truck as angry Iraqi citizens yell at them from the side of the street. The Iraqi military’s response highlights the growing anger towards American contractors in the wake of the September Blackwater shootings that killed seventeen Iraqi civilians. The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a lawsuit against Blackwater, intending, quote, that “ they created and fostered a culture of lawlessness amongst its employees, encouraging them to act in the company’s financial interest at the expense of innocent human life”. To talk about this case, we’re joined by Michael Ratner from the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Michael, can you hold these military private contractors accountable? Is there a legal mechanism to do this?
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT, THE CENTER FOR CONTSITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Well, this has been the huge issue out there, Paul. Is there a way you can get them criminally? Or civilly? Within Iraq they’ve been given immunity by something called Order 17. All private contractors have that immunity. The Iraq government can ask the United States to lift the immunity. What’s amazing to me, despite all their protestations about the private contractors, the Iraq government has not asked the United States to lift that immunity. Conceivably the United States would never do that. But what’s interesting to me is that the government of Iraq has not asked that. There may be some other criminal laws out there, and in fact now the United States government is finally, because of the furor over the killings on September 16 of seventeen Iraqis at the Nisoor Square incident—.
JAY: These are the Blackwater killings.
RATNER: The Blackwater killings. There’s finally, apparently, a grand jury that’s looking into those killings within Washington, D.C. A grand jury is the means our government uses to decide whether there is going to be a criminal prosecution. That grand jury hearing comes out of a FBI report, some of which has been leaked, that says that of the seventeen people killed, at least fourteen were completely unjustified. It completely tears apart Blackwater’s excuse that they were fired upon—it says nobody was fired upon. And even the first three people killed, the report says—giving the Blackwater people a huge benefit of the doubt—said, well, there was a car rolling through, and maybe, maybe, maybe they thought something was going to happen.
JAY: Who have you filed the lawsuit on behalf of, and what are you trying to achieve with it?
RATNER: Well, the case has been filed on behalf of victims of the shooting on September 16 against Blackwater and all its various affiliates, including the President of Blackwater, Erik Prince. We didn’t file against individuals at this point. And one of the interesting things about the whole investigation that’s going on, what you may be getting here is another sort of U.S.-theory, bad-apples theory: instead of really going after Blackwater itself and looking at these organizations as out of control and as essentially mercenary forces with no controls, they’re going to probably try and pin it on a few individuals. Our lawsuit and what we hope to achieve is really a damage case on behalf of these victims against Blackwater itself. So we’re very hopeful. One other issue that I think is crucial here is the role of the United States State Department. Blackwater, as a private contractor, worked for the United States State Department, and they played a very, very negative role here. First they had almost no supervision of Blackwater. After the incident on September 16 in Iraq, they went and interviewed a number of Blackwater employees. And without having any authority, they gave them immunity so that they can’t be prosecuted now. Very, very serious. And then recently it was disclosed that the inspector general of the State Department, the person who makes sure the State Department keeps itself in order and doesn’t do things that are illegal, is actually the brother of a person serving as an advisor on the Blackwater board. That person on the Blackwater board has recently resigned. So there’s a lot of hanky panky here. The biggest problem of course is that essentially once you start contracting out security services, military services, interrogation services, you’re essentially creating a mercenary force that is not going to be under any kind of control, democratic control, hierarchical control, etcetera, and you’re talking about a world that almost looks medieval.
JAY: If I was a department store, and I hired a private security firm, and they tried to catch a shoplifter and ran out and started machine gunning people on the sidewalks, wouldn’t I have some responsibility as the owner of the department store? So what I’m getting at here is, isn’t there on the civil side some responsibility from the U.S. government?
RATNER: There’s two analogies that you can draw from that. Imagine if the department store is Iraq, and Iraq had given immunity to and the United States had given immunity to anything that those security guards did. So that’s one. And the second to your question is the United States of course could technically be sued for these kinds of things for not having enough oversight, responsibility, etcetera. But the United States for what it does overseas is generally considered to be completely immune in our courts, particularly in a battlefield situation. So you’re really left with suing the private contractors civilly in the U.S. I mean, essentially, the U.S. has tried to really give Blackwater an immunity blanket from almost everything, but in the end it looks like this incident is so bad that we may be able to get them civilly, and the U.S. may even try on an individual level to get them individually because there’s such a furor about the case.
JAY: There are a couple of hundred thousand private contractors in Iraq. The Blackwater case has gotten the most publicity. But how pervasive is this problem of out-of-control private security contractors?
RATNER: Well, I think it’s incredibly pervasive. As you opened the segment with the showing of another shooting just a few days ago demonstrates to me that they just don’t learn. I mean, maybe they can’t learn, and maybe their whole purpose there in fact is in some way to keep that Iraqi population in terror, in terror of doing almost anything, and that these incidents actually have a role that I’m not convinced that our government opposes that much. I mean, I think they’re there in part, these big, heavy guys with big, heavy weaponry, to essentially intimidate a population.
JAY: There is a Democratic Party-led Congress now. Is Congress going to do anything about this?
RATNER: Well, Congress had hearings about this. They’re claiming to pass some kind of laws that’ll make contractors more liable to criminal prosecution. It’s unclear to me whether they’re going to get enough votes; it’s unclear to me whether the president will pass such a piece of legislation. You have to understand private contractors are now part and parcel of the way the United States fights wars. The United States fights a lot of wars. They want these private contractors. They don’t want to have a draft in the United States. And it’s their way, essentially, of a relatively undemocratic way of being able to keep wars going in Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever else without actually having most of the U.S. population drafted or much of its young people drafted.
JAY: How much capacity does Blackwater have to operate within the United States in terms of people?
RATNER: What they also do, these private security forces, is they also train domestic police departments, which isn’t great, because what you really have in our police departments are police departments that should be under the control of the Constitution and the laws, and here we have them trained by private security firms that really aren’t trained in the Constitution and the laws. I do think there is a capacity of private security, sadly to say, to take over a lot of the police functions if there were a national emergency declared by the president of a certain kind that might even be a political kind, that could put these people on the streets. And these people are deadly.