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Jeremy Scahill Headshot

Blackwater Down (Again)

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Blackwater USA, the secretive mercenary firm based in the wilderness of North Carolina is back in the news again, providing a bloody reminder of just how privatized the war has become. On Tuesday, hours before President Bush's State of the Union address, one of the company's helicopters was brought down in one of Baghdad's most violent areas. In the end, five "contractors" were dead. Reports say the men's bodies show signs of execution style deaths. At the time, they were providing diplomatic security under Blackwater's $300 million State Department contract, which dates back to the company's initial no-bid contract to guard administrator L. Paul Bremer III in Iraq in 2003. Current U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who is protected by Blackwater, said he had traveled with the men killed Tuesday and had gone to the morgue to view the bodies, asserting the circumstances of their deaths were unclear because of "the fog of war."

Bush made no mention of the downing of the helicopter during his State of the Union speech. But he did address the very issue that has made the war's privatization a linchpin of his Iraq policy -- the need for more troops. The president called on Congress to authorize an increase of about 92,000 active-duty troops over the next five years. He then slipped in a mention of a major initiative that would represent a significant development in the U.S. disaster response/reconstruction/war machine: a Civilian Reserve Corps.

"Such a corps would function much like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them," Bush declared. This is precisely what the administration has already done, largely behind the backs of the American people and with little congressional input, with its revolution in military affairs. Bush and his political allies are using taxpayer dollars to run an outsourcing laboratory. Iraq is its Frankenstein monster.

Already, private contractors constitute the second-largest "force" in Iraq. At last count, there were about 100,000 contractors in Iraq, of which 48,000 work as private soldiers, according to a Government Accountability Office report. These soldiers have operated with almost no oversight or effective legal constraints and are an undeclared expansion of the scope of the occupation.

The president's proposed Civilian Reserve Corps was not his idea alone. A privatized version of it was floated two years ago by Erik Prince, the secretive, mega-millionaire, conservative owner of Blackwater USA and a man who for years has served as the Pied Piper of a campaign to repackage mercenaries as legitimate forces. Prince proposed what he called a "contractor brigade." Blackwater began in 1996 with a private military training camp "to fulfill the anticipated demand for government outsourcing." Today, its contacts run from deep inside the military and intelligence agencies to the upper echelons of the White House. It has secured a status as the elite Praetorian Guard for the global war on terror, with the largest private military base in the world, a fleet of 20 aircraft and 20,000 soldiers at the ready.

To read my full article, "Our Mercenaries in Iraq," in today's Los Angeles Times.