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Blackwater in Iraq: the sorry tale continues

Any accounting of what led to Iraq’s current implosion should include a thorough examination of the private contractors for which the US government spent a staggering $138 billion.

Although many of these contractors undoubtedly performed necessary tasks with reasonable efficiency, the US government’s reliance (probably over-reliance) on contractors resulted in large-scale waste, corruption and worse.

The US hired more private companies in Iraq than in any previous war, and at times there were more contractors than military personnel on the ground.

“These numbers are staggering,” said Claire McCaskill, the Democratic senator who has led the charge to tighten contracting controls.

“In the last decade, we’ve seen billions in taxpayer money spent on services and projects that did little — sometimes nothing — to further our military mission,” she said.

Perhaps the most notorious private contractor in Iraq was the Blackwater, which the Bush administration hired to provide security in Iraq and Afghanistan and which received $1.5 billion in government contracts between 2001 and 2009.

In 2007 during a confrontation in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, Blackwater contractors shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians.

Now The New York Times reports that weeks before this incident, the State Department started to investigate Blackwater’s operations in Iraq.

But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports.

American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators as a dispute over the probe escalated in August 2007, the previously undisclosed documents show. The officials told the investigators that they had disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor and ordered them to leave the country, according to the reports.

That the US Embassy in Iraq– officially an arm of the State Department– could side with a life-threatening private contractor and expel State Department investigators is an egregious example of the dysfunction that plagued the American operation in Iraq after the initial success of the invasion and contributed to the current debacle.

Today, as conflict rages again in Iraq, four Blackwater guards involved in the Nisour Square shooting are on trial in Washington on charges stemming from the episode, the government’s second attempt to prosecute the case in an American court after previous charges against five guards were dismissed in 2009.

The shooting was a watershed moment in the American occupation of Iraq, and was a factor in Iraq’s refusal the next year to agree to a treaty allowing United States troops to stay in the country beyond 2011.

Based on reports from former employees, Blackwater’s creepy CEO Erik Prince seemed to think he was running his own private army.

Blackwater’s rapid growth and the State Department’s growing dependence on the contractor led to unbridled hubris, according to several former company officials. That was fostered, they said, by Mr. Prince, who not long before the Nisour Square shooting gathered employees in front of Blackwater headquarters in Moyock, N.C., and demanded that they swear an oath of allegiance.

Saying that the business was on the verge of being awarded lucrative new contracts, Mr. Prince told the workers that they had to take a pledge — the same one required of those entering the United States military — “to display our commitment to the war on terror,” several former employees recalled.

As he was speaking, the employees were handed copies of the oath, which had a Blackwater bear paw logo on top, and told to sign and return it to their supervisors after reciting the words. But some balked.

This was an oath for soldiers, not the employees of a private company, and many in the crowd were veterans who believed that it was inappropriately being linked to the company’s commercial prospects.

“It was kind of like pledging allegiance to Erik,” said a former Blackwater employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he had been required to sign a nondisclosure agreement with Blackwater. “That’s how a lot of us interpreted it.”