10/02/2007 09:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blacklist Blackwater

Yesterday's Congressional report, issued by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, contended that employees of Blackwater USA have fired their deadly weapons in 195 incidents in Iraq since 2005.

The report found that in 163 of those 195 cases, the Blackwater contractors fired first, and more often than not they fired from moving vehicles without ever stopping to check for the dead or wounded. The report also contends that the U.S. State Department has tried to buy off the relatives of those Iraqi civilians killed by Blackwater personnel.

In other words, your tax dollars are being used to provide hush money to protect a for-profit mercenary corporation from embarrassment and also, presumably, from criminal charges and liability exposure.

Today Congress has been taking testimony from Erik Prince, chief Blackwater executive, who cautions against a "rush to judgment" (to use that infamous Johnny Cochran phrase). Meanwhile, the FBI -- which requested the congressional hearing -- is sending its own delegation to Iraq to investigate the latest Blackwater shootout. The Iraqi Interior Ministry still wants these particular Wild West "cowboys" banished from Iraq altogether, and it wants to draft a law stripping foreign security firms from the total immunity from criminal prosecution that they currently enjoy.

Notice the gentle euphemisms that MSM outlets have deployed to describe the Blackwater rampages: The New York Times refers to Blackwater security forces as "trigger happy." The Associated Press calls them "out of control." CBS News headlines the story as indicating possible Blackwater "abuses." The Washington Post worries that they've committed "excesses."

Compare those mitigating phrases with the harsh language used by others. An Iraqi police officer who witnessed the September 16 carnage claims that the Blackwater guards had "become the terrorists." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki branded the melee as "a crime." A spokesperson for another private U.S. contractor in Iraq described a 2006 Blackwater killing of the Iraqi vice president's security aide as "murder."

Blackwater, according to the Congressional report, has received more than 1 billion in U.S. dollars for its services in Iraq and elsewhere since 2001, including $832 million from the State Department to provide armed protection for U.S. diplomats and State Department officials throughout Iraq. In fact, when the Iraq Interior Ministry suspended Blackwater operations a few weeks ago, the U.S. State Department diplomatic missions reportedly were virtually shut down, so reliant are they on Blackwater escorts.

Erik Prince boasts that Blackwater is better equipped to fly certain kinds of airborne missions in Iraq than is the U.S. Air Force. They have better equipment. They are better paid than our U.S. military grunts ("roughly six times more than the cost of an equivalent U.S. soldier," according to yesterday's report). And here's the real key: Their rules of engagement are more permissive. Why? Because L. Paul Bremer's Order 17, issued on June 27, 2004, declared that U.S. private contractors in Iraq are completely immune from Iraqi legal processes and regulations. Small wonder that U.S. diplomats and State Department officials have chosen Blackwater gun-toting mercenaries for their exclusive VIP security protection over our comparatively low-paid, under-armored, and law-abiding U.S. troops.

We now have 182,000 military and non-military private contractors working for the U.S. in Iraq, whereas our total surged troops number around 160,000. Henry Waxman reports that 40 cents out of every U.S. federal dollar spent in Iraq have gone into the pockets of private contractors. These contractors are explicitly immune from Iraqi laws and, as Ken Starr and other lawyers for Blackwater have argued, these for-profit soldiers are also "constitutionally immune" from U.S. domestic laws and jurisdiction.

They can shoot at will. Indeed, they can be "trigger happy" if they want to. They can shoot first and ask questions later (if ever). They can "spray and pray."

In short: they have been given explicit license -- a jail-free card -- to murder. They can take innocent lives, with complete legal immunity.

My fellow citizens: What's wrong with this picture?

My own view is that the Blackwater "incident" or "situation" should be seen as yet another calamitous scandal growing out of this hellish war -- a black eye on our national body politic -- on the order of Abu Ghraib, extraordinary renditions, and waterboarding torture techniques. It's not just that we've outsourced many of the usual military operations in order to avoid public scrutiny. That's bad enough, but it's not all. And the real reason we are turning to private soldiers for security detail isn't simply -- as Erik Prince contends -- that they "free up" our uniformed military to wage war against the enemy.

As I see it, here's the real issue: Why exactly did Blackwater, and other private security firms operating in Iraq, receive, from the get-go of this occupation, blanket immunity from prosecution within Iraq? Why did L. Paul Bremer issue that sweeping order just before leaving his post? Who above him ordered it or approved it? Surely, someone in the U.S. State Department, or the Department of Defense, or the White House, made a calculated decision to immunize private security forces against future criminal charges in the event of circumstances that could be construed as murderous. (The Washington Post reports that Lawrence Peter wrote the first draft of Order 17, and he is now director of a company overseeing about 50 private security firms in Iraq.)

What's horrific is that Bush administration officials apparently thought about this contingency very carefully in advance, and took preemptive legal measures just in case. In other words, they gave a premeditated license to murder. They didn't just rationalize such actions after the fact but, rather, foresaw the possibility of the need for criminal immunity. They anticipated that private security contractors might "act in callous disregard for innocent life" in Iraq. And -- horror of horrors -- they pre-approved in unambiguous language such potential criminality.

Many things about this war have turned my stomach. But this Blackwater situation -- even if the investigation into the September 16 incident in particular eventually reveals that the measures taken were purely defensive -- goes beyond "the hell of war." Sure, under conditions of war, you do virtually whatever it takes; you try to win at any and almost all costs. The theory of "just war," however, says that you try to limit collateral damage that might spill over into civilian populations, as much as possible, and you certainly don't target civilians. I know all of that. And I know that in the heat of battle, bad stuff happens. But someone or some group high up in the U.S. government ostensibly decided that in Iraq it will be morally and legally permissible to go beyond brutal warfare, beyond illegal confinement, beyond torture, beyond collateral damage.

They decided that murder would be given a free pass.

Yes, Blackwater over these past three years has fired 122 individuals who "misused" their weapons or engaged in lewd and illicit conduct on the job in Iraq. But firing someone from a job isn't an adequate moral, legal, or civic remedy for the crime of murder.

The ongoing no-bid, no-look contracts with Blackwater and other hired gun contracting firms in Iraq -- and the circumstances leading up to that original Order 17 -- need immediate investigation and full scrutiny. The Senate voted 92 to 3 yesterday to establish an independent commission to investigate contractor operations in Iraq, and yet the Bush administration has already found advance reason to threaten a veto of the bill.

Warfare is one thing. Murder is quite another. Getting away scot-free with murder is still another. A government planning for and providing total immunity for such murder, however, is about as evil as one can imagine, the lowest of the low. Such a despicable policy cheapens all human life, yours and mine alike.