The NY Times played the Blackwater story 9/20 at the bottom of page one under a deceitful headline: “Armed Guards In Iraq Occupy A Legal Limbo.” It should have read “Mercenaries In Iraq Operate Outside the Law.” A “legal limbo” implies ambiguity as to which courts the “armed guards” would be prosecuted in when they commit crimes -Provincial? Iraqi? US military? US civilian? When no jurisdiction can try them, the “armed guards” are operating outside the law.
The Times’s editors abjure the word “mercenary,” although the Stylebook says to use one word instead of two, when possible, and Webster’s 2nd says “Mercenary in the sense of hired applies (without necessary opprobrium) only to soldiers.” With the right word unavailable, reporters John Broder and James Risen had to call the Blackwater operatives “armed guards,” “armed contractors,” “armed private soldiers, ” “private military contractors,” “security contractors,” and “private military personnel.”
The stream of euphemisms led to editorial confusion. Congress, according to Broder and Risen, has “instructed the Defense Department to draw up rules to bring the tens of thousands of contractors in Iraq under the American laws that apply to the military, but the Pentagon so far has not acted.” The number of U.S. contractors in Iraq exceeds 160,000, we learn towards the end of the story; was “tens-of-thousands” meant to refer to a certain subset or to downplay the size of the occupying force?
The number is downplayed further in a sentence that belies the headline: “The thousands of heavily armed private soldiers in Iraq operate with virtual immunity from Iraqi and American law.” Limbo is between heaven and hell. The “heavily armed private soldiers” have been in 7th heaven in terms of their legal exposure.
The Pentagon’s ongoing failure to implement a Congressional “instruction” to put the armed contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a major unreported story. Why aren’t the JAG officers involved facing contempt of Congress charges? In the 1950s when Dashiell Hammett took the 5th Amendment instead of naming trustees of the Civil Rights Congress Bail Fund, he went off to prison for contempt. Common sense says it’s a much more serious matter when active duty military officers defy the Congress. Risen and Broder don’t pursue the Pentagon-sabotage angle. Maybe they will now that they have a “hook” -the Maliki government trying to expel Blackwater- and we’ll be grateful instead of angry that the Times looked away from the obvious major scandal all these years.
The Blackwater story is of major importance and belonged at the top of page 1 in place of “NBC Will Offer Downlods of Its Shows.” Broder and Risen describe the US deployment in Iraq as “the most extensive use of private contractors on the battlefield since Renaissance princes hired private armies to fight their battles… The State Department employs about 2,500 private military personnel, chiefly to guard American diplomats and sensitive facilities there. The three prime security contractors for the State Department are Blackwater, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy. Many of their workers are former military Special Forces troops such as Navy Seals and members of the Army’s elite Delta Force.
” The State Department has in recent weeks awarded Blackwater another major contract, for helicopter-related services, a strong signal of the close relationship between the department and Blackwater. ‘If all Blackwater personnel had to leave the country, there would be no one to provide security for the diplomatic mission in Baghdad, except the U.S. Army,’ said an executive at another security firm.”
Is the U.S. Army chopped liver?
The State Department is stalling for time on behalf of Blackwater, calling for an impossible-to-complete investigation of the shoot-out that precipitated Blackwater’s expulsion by Maliki. Said State Dept. spokesman Tom Casey: “Until we have results of the investigation and know what facts we’re dealing with and know whether, in fact, any activities that might have violated laws occurred, you can’t really deal with the question of who would have specific jurisdiction or how you would resolve issues of competing jurisdiction that might be out there.”
The Times headline conveyed the State Department spin perfectly. What else isn’t new?
CASSANDRA JONES was taught in high school that King George’s mercenaries could not prevail in the American Revolution because they didn’t know the local terrain or lingo, were burdened down with gear, and their hearts weren’t really in it.