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.
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)