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January 30th, 2009
03:32 PM ET

Blackwater Down

News Update: The U.S. State Department will not renew the contract of security contractor Blackwater Worldwide when it expires in May, a senior State Department official said Friday. The decision was made after the Iraqi government refused to renew the firm's operating license because of a September 2007 shooting incident in which the Iraqi government says security guards employed by Blackwater fired upon and killed 17 Iraqis.

Heavily armed Blackwater guards scan downtown Baghdad, Iraq, from a helicopter in 2003.
Heavily armed Blackwater guards scan downtown Baghdad, Iraq, from a helicopter in 2003.

Suzanne Simons
Author and CNN Executive Producer

Erik Prince couldn't have known it at the time, but September 16, 2007 was the beginning of the end for his company in Iraq. That's the day that heavily-armed Blackwater contractors set out in a convoy to clear a path for approaching vehicles after a nearby car bombing had rattled nerves. The Blackwater team – call sign Raven 23 – closed off a traffic circle in a Baghdad neighborhood and within moments, opened fire in a hail of bullets that would leave at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead, among them a 9-year-old boy. Five of the guards on that team are now under indictment in the U.S. charged with manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. Another guard has pled guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors. The five charged say they were only returning insurgent fire.

Prosecutors didn't go after the company itself, in fact, they went to great pains to be clear that the company wasn't facing any charges. But the Iraqi government immediately called for Blackwater to be ousted, a call quelled for a while by a State Department that insisted it couldn't do its job in Iraq without the company. Imagine that for just a moment: the State Department of the United States of America can't function in Iraq without the assistance of one specific, privately held company. But now, with the Iraqi government – in exercising its right not to renew the company's license – has made its first bold stand of independence on this issue, Blackwater is officially no longer welcome.

In a way, it makes life easier for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would have been faced with the question of whether to renew the company's contract by May. It would have been an incredibly difficult decision to make politically, as democrats have led the charge against the company, insisting that Blackwater had become a liability in Iraq and urging the then-republican administration to oust them. The new chair of the Senator John Kerry asked then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year why the State Department couldn't just replace Blackwater with one of the other two companies (Triple Canopy or DynCorp) that share the Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract?

The answer: it would hold things up too much. The Acting Assistant Secretary for Legal Affairs at State said that "U.S. Embassy Baghdad's daily operational tempo and its requirements for protective services would make it extremely difficult to transition work to Triple Canopy and/or DynCorp without an interruption in Embassy operations." He also said that if a transfer were to occur, it would likely mean contractors working for Blackwater would need to transition over to Triple Canopy and/or DynCorp. Since the contractors work as independent operators, it seems to make sense (though a Blackwater source suggests an act like that could lead to litigation).

As Senator, Clinton co-sponsored legislation banning the use of private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying in February of 2008, "from this war's very beginning, this administration has permitted thousands of heavily-armed military contractors to march through Iraq without any law or court to rein them in or hold them accountable. These private security contractors have been reckless and have compromised out mission in Iraq. The time to show these contractors the door is long past due."

Many democrats will welcome the Iraqi government's decision. Senator Kerry has openly called for the company to be dropped. Clinton's fellow democrat and head of the House committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Henry Waxman has been among the company's most vocal critics. He called Prince before the committee in October of 2007, just weeks after the shooting, claiming that the company had been accountable to no one, but saying that it would be accountable now.

The State Department's Undersecretary of State for Management, Ambassador Patrick F. Kennedy told me just last week that its just too early to start thinking about whether Blackwater's contract would be renewed in three months time. But the wild card was the Iraqi government itself. As of Wednesday, the company said it had not been made officially aware of any decision not to renew its license. Does Blackwater have a contingency plan, seeing as that contract was a massive revenue earner? "We are always exploring our options" says spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell.

Editor's Note: Suzanne Simons is author of "Master of war: Blackwater's Erik Prince and the Global Business of War." (Collins/Harpercollins June, 2009)

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Kate

    American troops sent to Iraq have clear rules of engagement and are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It is an imperfect system and mistakes are still made, yet there is a system of accountability in place, and I think we can all take some comfort in that. Private security firms such as Blackwater are permitted to fire first and ask questions later because they are subject to no law other than the bottom line from corporate headquarters. There is very little that scares me in this world, but Blackwater terrifies me. I feel certain that if the Apocalypse ever comes, they'll be the ones holding the guns. I commend the new administration for their decision to not renew Blackwater's contract. Iraq will be more stable without them.

    January 31, 2009 at 11:04 pm |
  2. KAREN

    Blackwater should be held accountable,Bush & Chaney should also be held accountable,Rumsfield & Rice and all who had a hand in what they did.

    January 31, 2009 at 5:12 pm |
  3. Ginny S.

    What an extraordinary effort by Ms. Simons to document not only the rise and fall of Blackwater in Iraq, but the extraordinary military might this corporation (and presumably others like it that were created for and are still employed by the US in Iraq) has amassed while under contract to our government . I anxiously await the release of her book and hopefully, its explanation of how Bush and Cheney's efforts to decrease the size of our military by contracting out "non-warfighter" duties such as security to private companies like Blackwater' and Aegis caused substantial harm to our warfighting and nation building efforts. Congratulations to Ms. Simons on her new book and many thanks for exposing the tragic consequences of hiring private guns instead of using our trained military men and women for the critical role of security in a wartime environment.

    January 31, 2009 at 1:36 pm |
  4. J.V.Hodgson

    Black water, black days.
    Sorry, I do not need a years long investigation. They killed 14 civilians and not one black water casualty even, or even mention of a bullet hit Kevlar jacket. or wounded blackwater security team member.
    Get them outta there, they are a damaging influence and helping nothing. Why do we have to wait until May for gods sake. Wherever they are increases the target risk!? does it not?
    Regards,
    Hodgson.

    January 31, 2009 at 2:55 am |
  5. Thomas

    What a wast of Tax payer money .

    Another no accountability corporation that gave us the word , " VETED " !

    January 31, 2009 at 12:51 am |
  6. Timothy Gibson

    One of the biggest financial supporters of the Yes on 8 campaign in California which used an illegal vote based on untruths and fear from the religious right is Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, who has pumped $450,000 into the campaign. Broekhuizen is the mother of Blackwater founder and owner Erik Prince and Bush Pioneer Betsy DeVos. She’s also quite the patron of the religious right.

    Blackwater, the contractors hired by the Bush Administration to privatize our military, with money now being recycled into politics by huge donations to campaigns like the Yes on 8 campaign.

    To be clear, that’s YOUR taxpayer money, laundered a couple of times in what one could call hired guns, mob rule, in operations in a foreign nation. This is just another shining example of the illegal activity of the Bush administration and why Carl Rove among others must be compelled to report knowlege and activities regardless of the way Bush left office with his power to attempt to hide truth and jump beyond the law of our constitution and the laws by which a war is waged.

    Thugs are what the Blackwater team are and they should be held accountable and punished for this behavior. Since when does the US government depend upon hired guns to protect anyone or kill innocent people at will.

    January 30, 2009 at 8:13 pm |
  7. Annie Kate

    I'm sure Blackwater will find plenty of work around the globe. They just need to be sure to make it clear that they do not represent the US or its interests and position. I'll be glad when Blackwater is not in Iraq for us. Just removing them ought to smooth out tensions between Iraq and the US – it would be nice if Iraq stayed an ally once we leave.

    January 30, 2009 at 6:06 pm |
  8. grace

    Thank goodness the US troops can finally do their jobs and our tax dollars are being allocated for necessary use.

    January 30, 2009 at 5:19 pm |
  9. Wm Driscoll

    Palin's Eruption

    I think it will be a good measure if she will be capable to lead our country through other natural disasters, based on how she handles the eruption of the volcano in her own state.

    January 30, 2009 at 1:38 pm |
  10. Bev, Town of Tonawanda, NY

    I'm sure they were helpful when they first got there but then, more power – more atrocities. I wonder – is Haliburton out? Or did they move over to Afganistan?

    January 30, 2009 at 12:56 pm |
  11. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    War is a complex situation-–and there are instances which occur that are extremely regretable. Contract security--–well that is just another name that our government has for "mercenaries." And if you are going to hold the company liable for its actions--–then you need to hold the US Government for retaining them-plausability denability, on the Government side--well that's is no excuse. Old saying--in for a penny-–in for a pound. The US government can't wash their hands of this--they are one of the responsible parties-not only in this conflict-–but all past ones too.

    January 30, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  12. Cori

    This is exactly why we needed a new president; accountability. These people should be help accountable for these horrific acts, and I'm glad to see this country be accountable for its people. Its good to see we are holding ourselves responsible for such acts of carelessness.

    January 30, 2009 at 11:51 am |
  13. Paul R. Calgary AB.

    Put Blackwater in charge of guarding the Wall St. CEO's.

    January 30, 2009 at 11:45 am |