04/09/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Thunderstruck!: The Blackwater Videos

Although the print version of the April 2012 issue of Harper's magazine has been out for a few weeks this week the digital version started making the rounds and one of its articles is attracting lots of notice, as well it should.

The article is "The Warrior Class: A golden age for the freelance soldier" (Note: it is behind a pay wall so only subscribers have full access).

It is by Charles Glass, a journalist, author, and publisher who has frequently reported from the Middle East.

The article follows the career of Tim Spicer, who goes way back in the private military and security contracting world. In fact, given that in 1996 he was the founder of Sandline International, one of the earlier PSCs, you might say he is a veteran of PSC world, Version 1.

In 2001 Spicer set up a partner firm specializing in anti-piracy consulting, called Trident Maritime. But it was in 2002, when Spicer established Aegis Defence Services, which around the beginning of the Iraq war was consulting for the Disney Cruise Line, that he emerged as one of the E.F. Hutton's of the PMSC realm, i.e., when Aegis speaks, people listen.

But the significance of Glass's article is not the story of Spicer's journey from retired British Army officer to über successful risk consultancy heavyweight. Instead there are two other reasons.

First, it is a fascinating and detailed account of how one can parlay business and political connections to rise from an inauspicious beginning to become one of the most formidable companies in the PMSC sector. As Glass writes:

A year after 9/11, Spicer founded Aegis with three friends in London. Less than two years later, in May 2004, the U.S. government awarded the firm a contract for $293 million to provide security services in Iraq. And that was only the beginning of America's commitment to Aegis. By April 2011, reported the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), "Aegis had received over $1 billion for its services."

The details of that first contract, which we'll come back to, are:

By early 2004, when Spicer visited, Iraq had become among the most anarchic countries on earth. Militias, insurgents, and suicide bombers roamed at will. This precarious state of affairs had forced millions of people to flee. Bremer's demobilization of the Iraqi army and police added to the lawlessness.

And PMCs, far from contributing to stability, made matters worse. Contractors were running amok, taking part in torture at Abu Ghraib, attacking civilians, shooting at one another, and occasionally firing on American forces. No one coordinated their operations, communications, or logistics.

With this lethal chaos as a backdrop, Spicer came up with a solution for the Defense Department: let a private-security company police private security. If a firm like Aegis could clamp down on the industry mayhem, it might remove some of the opprobrium created by Blackwater (four of whose employees had been attacked, killed, burned, and hanged from a bridge in Fallujah that March).

The second, and much more controversial, point comes toward the end of the article. Here Glass recounts meeting a security contractor who had worked for Blackwater -- since renamed Xe Services and most recently, Academi, in Iraq -- who reveals what he had seen in Iraq.

According to Glass, "He condemned his colleagues' actions, but admitted that he had been afraid to report them. Whistleblowers in PSCs had, to date, been fired rather than rewarded for heeding the dictates of their conscience."

Glass was unsure if he could believe the contractor but then he was offered some video footage that Blackwater operatives had taken in the field.

Each video clip opened with an onscreen date and location. The first, identified as "Baghdad, Iraq, May-September 2005," showed Blackwater convoys racing through town. Suddenly, the door of a Blackwater SUV opened and a rifle fired at passing traffic.

"They opened the door," my companion said. "You should never break the seal." A still photo showed some graffiti scrawled on a metal beam: this is for the americans of blackwater that were murdered here in 2004 semper fidelis 3/5 ps fuck you.

The next tape had been taken by a camera in the turret of an armored vehicle. An AK-47 fired from the turret at cars that had stopped to let the convoy pass. Whoever was firing the AK did so enthusiastically and often, sending rounds into parked cars and an overhead bridge. Another sequence showed a contractor vehicle rear-ending a car, shattering its back windshield.

The footage continued. A Humvee smashed into a car to move it out of the way. Guards swore at passersby. More armored vehicles smashed into civilian cars. Blackwater helicopters shot at targets below in a Baghdad street. When the action sequences stopped, still photos of booze parties began.

Doubtlessly some might this behavior deplorable, but hardly criminal. Indeed, Glass wrote, "One might argue that Aegis had been paid $293 million to stop the clashes between contractors, not to protect civilians. There was also the fact that although much of the behavior in the videos was boorish and menacing -- not the sort of thing to win Iraqi hearts and minds -- there was no proof that anybody had been harmed."

But then there was this.

But what about the tape dated April 1, 2006, which was shot from the front seat of the fourth car in an armored convoy? Driving along a wide boulevard in Baghdad, the lead vehicle swerved close to the curb of a traffic island. A woman in a black full-length burka began to cross the street. The vehicle struck the woman and knocked her unconscious body into the gutter. The cars slowed for a moment, but did not stop, nor did they even determine whether the victim was dead or alive.

A voice in the car taking the video said, "Oh, my God!" Yet no one was heard on the radio requesting help for her. Most sickeningly, the sequence had been set to an AC/DC song, whose pounding, metallic chorus declared:

"You've been... thunderstruck!"

Interestingly, Blackwater used to be a member of the then named International Peace Operations Association, now ISOA, one of the more prominent PMSC trade associations. In fact Blackwater was a member of IPOA until October 2007. Its departure occurred before an IPOA investigation after the killing of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors at Nisoor Square, Baghdad in September 2007.

ISOA has long touted its unenforceable Code of Conduct as a tool for promoting the "high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the peace and stability operations industry."

Among its provisions are sections such as this:

Signatories shall respect the dignity of all human beings and adhere to all applicable international humanitarian and human rights laws.

Signatories shall take appropriate measures to minimize loss of life and destruction of property and cultural elements, and harm to the environment.

Evidently Blackwater wasn't taking it very seriously. Blackwater is no longer a member of ISOA, but one can't help but wonder what would have happened if ISOA had known of the video's existence. Would it have investigated? If so, how? Do something on its own or ask Blackwater to look into it? And, if Blackwater had said, we checked and it was just a tragic accident which could not have been avoided would IPOA just have accepted that?

Sadly, we'll never know.

You can find the videos here.