The morning of October 2nd was shaping up to be a key moment in understanding the little known world of private security contractors.
Congressman Henry Waxman's Committee on Oversight and Government reform was scheduled to be in session again -the main witness was Erik Prince, former Navy Seal and billionaire founder of Blackwater USA, while not the largest, certainly the most visible private security company working in Iraq.
Erik Prince had been called on by Rep. Waxman before but this was the first time that he had agreed to testify. His company Blackwater first hit the public eye in 2004 when 4 of its employees were brutally killed in Fallujah. The company provides private security under a number of different contracts worldwide -- but the recent attention it has received primarily focuses on the September 16th incident -- where a Blackwater Private Security detail (a convoy of armored SUVs protecting a VIP) was involved in a shootout that left at least 11 Iraqis dead.
It has become apparent that there needs to be more understanding of the current level of outsourcing in warfare at the highest levels of US government. As recently as September 21st when I testified in front of the US Senate Democratic Policy committee about Blackwater and other private security companies it was clear despite the fact that the US government was dealing with a phenomenon of its own making (by entering the conflict in Iraq with vastly insufficient numbers of troops to simultaneously rebuild a country and conduct counter-insurgency operations they effectively created a boom in the private security sector) it was painfully unaware as to the extent of the phenomenon.
This past Tuesday morning was supposed to herald a change.
At long last, we all assumed, there would be a direct discussion between the lawmakers and the founder of a highly visible private military company -- and some key things would be understood.
Sadly that was not to be.
Rep. Waxman (D) started out promisingly by imploring that "facts -- not ideology -- need to guide us here" yet the hearing quickly degenerated into a political game of brinksmanship. Both sides of the house seemed more interested in scoring points and getting outrageous statements on the record than they were in getting to the truth of the matter.
Whether it was Rep. Kucinich's (D) statement that "Blackwater has killed countless innocent Iraqis" or the equally absurd invoking of Moveon.org's discrediting attack on patriotism by Rep. Issa (R) the hearing was full of polemic inaccuracies and simplifications.
Both sides of the house were woefully underprepared to have this kind of discussion. I have to assume that it wasn't the original intention of Rep. Waxman to conduct 4 hours of political theater -- if it was then I am sadly disappointed to have wasted my time listening to the entire proceeding. If it wasn't then I have to wonder how it is possible for the lawmakers of this country -- especially the esteemed members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to squander an opportunity to better discuss the vital issue of privatization of war in more pressing detail.
Let's consider one example -- related to events like those of September 16th.
Irrespective of what Blackwater did or didn't do wrong on September 16th the political damage was done. As I stated in my opening statement of the Senate hearing -- these security contractors -- essentially civilians in a warzone -- have a demonstratable impact on US Foreign policy. When the actions of a civilian can cause a Secretary of State of one country (Condoleezza Rice) to personally phone the prime minister of another country (Nouri al-Maliki) to mediate an "incident" then that civilian is in an important position that needs to be fully understood.
So where was the question about this -- about the fact that BW employees are viewed collectively as representing Americans and therefore an aspect of Foreign Policy by proxy?
Nowhere to be found.
Erik Prince as a former decorated Navy Seal has plenty of experience in Counter Insurgency warfare doctrine. It's undisputed that Erik Prince and BW USA can keep their principal alive (as they liked to repeatedly point out) but at what cost to the mission? Did we have a question for him about the impact of aggressive security contracts that can negatively effect the counter insurgency overall mission?
Not really. Instead we got repeated rambling questions about the exact cost of manpower in the private security business and the nature of bid or no bid contracts which Erik was easily able to deal with because these questions only required him to demonstrate his understanding of the business. Not the ethical and universal considerations that should be taken into consideration globally beyond Blackwater when discussing the extensive usage of private actors in warfare.
In many instances even when Republican congressmen would nominally try to "defend" Erik Prince (as one would expect they might) they would fumble the defense with their rhetoric.
The irony of this is it left Erik Prince seeming like the most level-headed person in the entire room.
I'm not saying this to imply in any way that Erik Prince is not an intelligent man -- simply to illustrate the degree to which the congressmen allowed him to dominate the proceedings.
Did anyone add anything new and progressive to the debate from either side? Hard to tell. The urgency in my Sept. 21 opening statement was that everyone (members of Senate and the general public) really need to get a well rounded education on the subject in order to ask the right questions. This is not a simplistic debate about whether or not PMC's exist - which would allow for a clean empirical argument. We are dealing with an issue that starts with the premise that PMC's exist and are used on a regular basis in Iraq and elsewhere around the world.
The subject requires one to understand the origins, methods of use, oversight, payment and requires debaters to move beyond the simple questions to properly address the dynamic question of global management of an industry that forms a vital part of warfare but is so little understood.
One of the key reasons for the discussion was supposed to be finding out more about the events on Sept 16th. As stated at the beginning of the hearing the state department requested that the incident not be discussed in public until the investigations are completed.
So there will be more hearings -- and of Blackwater is likely to continue to dominate the news.
But it strikes me that this should not be about one company -- it is about the accountability of all of the companies and our policies on making sure that we understand what they are doing and how they are doing it. And if there is a lack of clarity in the legal frameworks under which PMCs can operate -- then surely those questions should be asked of the lawmakers and policy makers of this country -- since they determine those very laws.
Oh wait -- these are the same people who don't appear to understand the very industry and laws they are discussing.
Erik Prince will likely be called to testify again -- only next time I hope that the respective congressmen take the time to learn how modern warfare has changed and what this privatized military industry actually does. The people of this country look to their lawmakers and committees like this one to bring to light issues that concern them -- that is why they are voted into power.
One would hope that in the future we will all learn something more important than how to throw mud from one side of the house to the other.
Nick Bicanic, director/producer of Shadow Company -- an award winning documentary about Private Military Companies -- recently testified about the usage of private security companies in Iraq in front of the Senate Democratic Policy committee. Shadow Company (available now on DVD) is the only documentary that features interviews and footage of Blackwater USA employees training and operating in Iraq.