Thursday, the House Committee on Government Reform held the first Congressional hearings in three and half years to try to learn where some of the billions and billions of dollars paid to private contractors in Iraq have gone. Note that these were the first such hearings in three and a half years, hurriedly convened two days before the House recesses so that everyone can race home to campaign.
At the hearing, the Bush Administration's own special Inspector General told of hundreds of millions gone awry. This will all be the stuff of serious review if the Democrats win in November and can subpoena the responsible parties.
But what's most startling about the hearings is the admission by the Army that Blackwater Security, a firm owned by right wing, reclusive billionaire Erik Prince, did not have the authority to guard convoys or carry guns in Iraq. This news comes on the heels of a Fourth District court rejection of Blackwater's appeal that it not have to face its accusers in a case that really began the major antipathy toward the US in Iraq.
The background of this case is detailed in Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. Here's the summary. Four Blackwater employees were killed in a violent riot in Falluja in 2004 when their small convoy got lost. Ever in search of another buck, the billionaire Erik Prince cut three guards from the unit before it left on its now apparently illegal mission, depriving the men left on the mission of proper protection. They apparently also were not even given a map in what is surely one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. The result is an incident that historians will note as a pivot point in the decline of an imperial invasion. The convoy was attacked; the trucks were burned as were the bodies of four of Mr. Prince's employees. Who can forget the stomach-turning images of charred shells of former human beings hanging from a bridge?
The US military had to come to the rescue, which of course literally inflamed the city. Just for a few more dollars for his Blackwater, Mr. Prince was willing to send his men to their death and also to turn a heated situation into a full-fledged war between Iraqis and the US military.
The families of some of the dead men sued. Blackwater has appealed right up to the full circuit court, trying to claim that it cannot be held liable for acts that occurred while it is in the employ of the US Government. In short, Mr. Prince tried to claim that he can do whatever the hell he wants with human life and national treasure, but he can't be held responsible. I can understand why he'd think that. For the last four years, the Bush Administration has let contractors run the war and much of the country without a bit of oversight.
The issue of war profiteering as highlighted in Iraq for Sale has catapulted to the front page of the newspapers everywhere and to the front of political discussions around the nation. As members of Congress return to their districts to campaign for the next five weeks, they will face constituents and candidates who challenge them on one question: where was Congress when Blackwater was killing its own people, starting wars in Falluja and consorting with Halliburton to take billions in taxpayer money?
It's a question I'd sure like to have answered. Blackwater and Erik Prince will eventually pay, but will the legislators who let them gorge at the Bush buffet pay in November?