The New York Times story is getting the buzz:
The helicopter was hovering over a Baghdad checkpoint into the Green Zone, one typically crowded with cars, Iraqi civilians and United States military personnel.
Suddenly, on that May day in 2005, the copter dropped CS gas, a riot-control substance the American military in Iraq can use only under the strictest conditions and with the approval of top military commanders. An armored vehicle on the ground also released the gas, temporarily blinding drivers, passers-by and at least 10 American soldiers operating the checkpoint.
“This was decidedly uncool and very, very dangerous,” Capt. Kincy Clark of the Army, the senior officer at the scene, wrote later that day. “It’s not a good thing to cause soldiers who are standing guard against car bombs, snipers and suicide bombers to cover their faces, choke, cough and otherwise degrade our awareness.”
Both the helicopter and the vehicle involved in the incident at the Assassins’ Gate checkpoint were not from the United States military, but were part of a convoy operated by Blackwater Worldwide, the private security contractor that is under scrutiny for its role in a series of violent episodes in Iraq, including a September shooting in downtown Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.
Scott L. Silliman, the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at the Duke University School of Law, points out that this once again gets into Blackwater’s legal gray areas, what I like to refer to as legal mud. As I’ve previously written, that legal mud may even get Blackwater off the hook for last year’s massacre of seventeen Iraqi civilians. As the Washington Post reported, in November:
FBI investigators have reportedly concluded that the killing of 14 of the 17 civilians was unjustified under State Department rules on the use of force. But the case is muddied by the question of what laws, if any, apply to security contractors operating under military, State Department and civilian contracts.
If massacring civilians is one of those areas of legal mud, don’t expect any legal clarity for gassing American soldiers. The question, then, was whether laws applying to private contractors working for the Defense Department also apply to contractors working for the State Department. And although the military has brought charges against numerous official service personnel, they have brought none against private security contractors. Because whether or not mass murder is legal depends on who is doing the mass murdering, and for whom they work.
That Post article continued:
The Iraqi government has said it knows of at least 20 shooting incidents involving security contractors, with more than half a dozen linked to Blackwater.
The problem, again, being that legal mud. And here’s the best part:
For instance, contractors were immunized from Iraqi laws under a June 2004 order signed by the U.S. occupation authority. That ruling remains in effect.
Because the U.S. occupation authority believed what everyone working for the Bush Administration believes: some people are above the law. And that belief apparently remains. That ruling remains in effect?
You would expect someone would want to do something about that ruling. Maybe Congress? Well, Blackwater is working hard to make sure the mud stays muddy. According to the Associated Press:
Private-security contractor Blackwater Worldwide, which protects U.S. government officials in Iraq and faces scrutiny over its role in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians, has ramped up its lobbying representation on Capitol Hill.
Law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice was tapped by the company to lobby the government on contracting and other issues, according to the form posted online Tuesday by the Senate’s public records office.
Womble Carlyle is the third lobbying firm to be hired by Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater since October.
The company has attracted considerable congressional scrutiny and criticism from the Iraqi government and human rights groups for its involvement in several dozen shooting incidents. Federal prosecutors are investigating the Sept. 16 shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians involving several Blackwater security guards. The company has maintained that its guards have always acted appropriately.
And that legal mud allows them to make that claim. Because as long as they are immunized against being held accountable for such minor transgressions as the mass murder of Iraqi civilians or the gassing of Iraqi civilians and American troops, they can legitimately claim that they have acted within the legal definition of what is appropriate. And that beefed up lobbying power will undoubtedly be working very hard to keep that definition of “appropriate” as expansive as possible. As in there is literally nothing that falls outside its parameters.
As the AP explains:
Blackwater chairman Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, is a Holland, Mich., native whose family fortune was made in the auto parts industry. His sister, Betsy DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan GOP, is married to Dick DeVos, a Republican and Amway Corp. heir who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2006.
As the Republican presidential candidates now move into Michigan, it would seem a good time for someone to ask them about those partisan connections, that legal mud, and the lives and well-being of American troops and Iraqi civilians. We all know the campaign correspondents will be right on it. Right?