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Reese Erlich says these are the most significant and serious series of activities carried out by contractors and the Bush administration was not interested in prosecuting them

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. A Federal court in Washington, D.C. has sentenced a former Blackwater security guard to life in prison. Three others were sentenced to 30 years for their role in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraq civilians in Baghdad, including three children. Nicholas Slatten received a life sentence for first degree murder, while Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, and Paul Slough were sentenced for charges including manslaughter. The ex-guards were convicted in October, after a long, legal fight over the deadly attack at a crowded Nisour traffic circle in downtown Baghdad. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth announced the sentences after a day-long hearing at which defense lawyers had argued for leniency, and prosecutors asked that those sentences be minimums mandatory under the law be even harsher. Now joining me to discuss all of this is Reese Erlich. He is bestselling book author and freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Global Post, Vice News, and NPR. His latest book is Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War, and What the World Can Expect. Thank you so much for joining us, Reese. REESE ERLICH, FREELANCE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks for having me. PERIES: Reese, tell us about the significance of this case and why these prosecutions are important. ERLICH: Well, this is the most significant, most serious series of atrocities carried out by both the U.S. military and military contractors in Iraq. And frankly under the Bush administration, there was no intention to actually prosecute these guys. One of the charges expired. They allowed the statute of limitations to run. The Obama administration, Justice Department had to re-file a murder charge as a result. It was botched, and I think intentionally so, under the Bush administration because they didn’t want the details coming out of what the U.S. had done. And this is really the first time that there’s been a conviction and heavy sentencing for this kind of activity. PERIES: One of the items being disputed right now is whether this case actually should be prosecuted, because the matter of oversight, transparency and accountability is still not clear in terms of the responsibility of the United States, in terms of these Blackwater-type contractors that are on the ground. ERLICH: There’s some dispute as to whether they can be tried in American courts. Of course, they can’t be tried in Iraqi court, which means effectively there’s nothing–they can do anything they want, carry out murder, mayhem, and never be held responsible for it. A question that I always wondered about and I’ve often been asked is, why would the Administration want to hire contractors when they cost so much more money and are so much more trouble to deal with than the U.S. military? I mean, they paid three, four, five times the salaries to these contractors that they do to the ordinary troops. Well, one of the reasons is because they’re not responsible to anybody. If they carry out U.S. policy by massacring people, the argument then comes up, well, they’re not doing it on U.S. soil, so they can’t be prosecuted here. Whereas the U.S. military who engage in similar activities, at least in theory, they could be held responsible to a military court. So I think what we’re seeing here is a conscious effort by certainly the last Administration, and to some extent the current Administration, to make sure that these kinds of activities can be carried out without people being held responsible. PERIES: What does this also tell us about–these convictions were really the guards that were responsible. But the Blackwater leadership and head of the corporation is really getting off scot-free here. ERLICH: Yeah. Not only the head, Erik Prince, the head of Blackwater, but the U.S. military officials who with a wink and a nod condoned such activities. It’s not unique. Remember Abu Ghraib, the infamous torture photos that came out some years back. Seymour Hersh and CBS and others revealed them. Well, the only people who were ever held responsible for that were extremely low-level guards in the prison. The people, including the CIA who designed the torture programs, the cabinet members in the Bush administration who approved the torture methods, were never held responsible, let alone put on trial. PERIES: Is this an issue that came up in the recent report on torture? ERLICH: Yes. This and similar incidences were cited–you’re talking about the U.S. Senate report? PERIES: That’s right. ERLICH: Yeah. Yeah, that–remember, that made quite a lot of news for about a week, and then faded from the news cycle, unfortunately. But it’s always interesting when high-level reports, whether from in this case the U.S. Senate, or occasionally investigative reports are issued. You know, the United States are the good guys. Therefore we don’t torture. Therefore we don’t do, or when these things happen it’s an anomaly. It’s the odd apple, that’s the rogue soldier, that sort of thing. But in fact when you look at it, and the U.S. Senate report confirms that, this is systematic. These kind of attacks on civilians were carried out throughout Iraq, and indeed are carrying out today with the U.S. bombing in Iraq and Syria. PERIES: [Incompr.] It goes on. Do we know the level of engagement by contractors in the current fight against ISIS? ERLICH: Well, to my knowledge–and remember, this is still clouded in secrecy. The aerial war is being carried out by the Air Force and other U.S. military forces. I’m sure there’s Special Ops people and CIA on the ground coordinating with whatever Peshmerga, Kurdish Peshmerga or others, that they can find. To my knowledge, the contractors are in Baghdad to some extent, still carrying out their guard duties for State Department officials, and so on. But I simply don’t know if they’re engaged in on-the-ground fighting, as I suspect some other U.S. military forces are. PERIES: Reese Erlich, thank you so much for joining us today. ERLICH: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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