Guest blogged by Ernest A. Canning
The Nation magazine headline was sensational: Blackwater Founder Implicated in Murder. The article, written by Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist and author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, exploded on screen during a must see Aug. 4, 2009 segment of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann (video posted below). It was summarized by Amy Goodman on Aug. 5 when Scahill appeared on Democracy Now!:
The two men claim Blackwater’s owner, Erik Prince,* may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. One also alleges that Prince, quote, “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies, “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”
The significance was underscored in Scahill's Aug. 4 remarks on MSNBC's Countdown:
While the allegations are extremely disturbing, they are apparently not disturbing enough to warrant coverage in almost all of the nation's leading newspapers. That, even though, as reported in Scahill's book, amongst the first to arrive in the aftermath of Katrina --- before the U.S. government and most aid organizations --- were a contingent of 150 Blackwater mercenaries, "some with M-4 automatic weapons, capable of firing nine hundred rounds per minute"....
I checked the web sites for the Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post. Aside from a link on the Los Angeles Times' site to a Daily Kos piece, none of these corporate daily papers has provided so much as one word, critical or otherwise, of Scahill's bombshell.
Surprisingly, the mainstream corporate press silence was broken by none other than Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal. Go figure!
Of course, there are legitimate publication concerns. Although one Blackwater mercenary pleaded guilty and five more face charges relating to the infamous 2007 Nisoor Square massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians, to date the Department of Justice has neither filed formal criminal charges against Blackwater's founder, Erik Prince, nor confirmed (or denied) that Prince is the subject of a grand jury investigation.
The allegations come not from the government but by way of two sworn statements filed in a U.S. District Court civil action by attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (the "CCR") --- an action brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act on behalf of the families of two Iraqis, Ali Hussamaldeen Albazzaz and Kadhum Kayiz Aziz, who, the CCR states, "were killed when Blackwater personnel opened fire on a crowd of Iraqi civilians in and around Al Watahba Square in Baghdad on September 9, 2007."
The CCR further notes: "The lawsuit alleges that heavily armed Blackwater mercenaries, known in company parlance as 'shooters,' fired without justification and killed five civilians, including Mr. Albazzaz and Mr. Aziz. Mr. Albazzaz, the father of a newborn baby girl, was standing outside his rug store at the time he was killed; Mr. Aziz was guarding a government building. Numerous other civilians were injured in the incident."
As is reflected by a memorandum [PDF]** filed by the CCR's attorney's, Blackwater filed a motion, seeking a "sweeping order" that would preclude the parties and their counsel “from speaking to the news media or making any other extrajudicial public statement concerning this litigation....” On Aug. 7 Olbermann reported that the court denied this "gag order" motion.
The sworn statements came from John Doe 1 [PDF], a former Marine who served as a Blackwater security guard in Iraq; the other from John Doe 2 [PDF], whom Scahill's sources identify as a former member of Blackwater management. Both men say they signed anonymously because they fear for their lives.
The question arises: Would the nation's leading papers have reported this story if the identical allegations were contained in an indictment? Should allegations made by private citizens in sworn affidavits carry less weight than those made by federal prosecutors or a grand jury?
I believe the answer to the first question is a resounding "yes," especially since the allegations contain a salacious element that usually drives the corporate media to 24/7 coverage --- sex scandals! Specifically, as recounted by Olbermann during an Aug. 6 segment of Countdown, allegations that Prince operated a wife-swapping sex ring here in the US, and that, in Iraq, Blackwater had “young girls provide oral sex to Enterprise members in the 'Blackwater Man Camp' in exchange for one American dollar." John Doe 2 alleges that Prince visited the Man Camp but “failed to stop the use of prostitutes, including child prostitutes, by his men…” (John Doe 2 also alleged Prince and his associates engaged in money laundering and tax evasion; that Prince's chief financial officer resigned, telling Prince he was unwilling to go to jail for him.)
There has been a long pattern of over-reliance upon "official sources" by the mainstream corporate media, often with disastrous results, as we saw in the run-up to the imperial conquest of Iraq. As Justice Hugo Black noted in New York Times vs. United States (the 1971 "Pentagon Papers" case):
In Moyers on America, Bill Moyers, one of this nation's finest journalists, offers his lament for Jim Lehrer’s belief that “unless an official says something is so, it isn’t news.":
As it turned out, it was the anti-war movement, marginalized and ignored time and again by the corporate media, which proved to be right all along. It is that same anti-war movement which continues to be marginalized and ignored as our national treasury is depleted and the blood of our youth continues to spill onto the oil-rich sands of Iraq and into the more desolate regions of Afghanistan.
In the words of I.F. Stone, "Governments lie." The lies are not limited to matters of war and peace. Lies can sometimes be found in the language of a formal grand jury indictment. If you believe otherwise, you have not followed the sad saga of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.
With all due respect, Lehrer's concept that "unless an official says something is so, it isn't news" reflects a corporate media-engendered idiocy. The fact that the allegations arose in former Blackwater employee statements rather than a formal indictment does not negate the fact that the Scahill bombshell is "news." The media, corporate or alternative, is supposed to report the news!
That said, responsible journalism, irrespective of official or unofficial source, requires careful examination and presentation.
While both the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC should be praised for covering this story, MSNBC's presentation fell a bit short.
During the Aug. 5 segment, Olbermann pointed out that Countdown had reviewed the sworn statements. He provided an on-screen excerpt from John Doe 2's statement:
Olbermann verbally repeated those same words during the Aug. 6 segment of Countdown.
Olbermann neglected to mention that John Doe 2 prefaced this with "based on information provided to me by former colleagues, it appears Mr. Prince and his employees murdered...."
This was the most explosive allegation in either declaration. While both Scahill and Olbermann used words like "may" have and "alleged," neither noted that this key accusation was based on hearsay. (The Wall Street Journal obliquely reported that the "murder" allegation came from "other sources.")
This error in the presentation of this sensational allegation, however, in no way negates the two statements as items that are worthy of coverage.
John Doe 2 does offer personal knowledge, which, if true, makes his fear palpable:
Some key allegations may or may not be a powerful indictment depending upon whether they are based on personal factual knowledge or merely expressions of opinions. For example, John Doe 2's alleges:
John Doe 1 provided an eye witness account concerning issues that have arisen in other investigations. As Scahill described it on Countdown, "One of the allegations is that Prince was using his private planes to bring weapons into Iraq without the US military being aware of it. They were wrapping them in some kind of plastic wrap and they were stored in dog food bags ... John Doe #1 said that, right when he got there ... one of the first things he saw in the Blackwater armory was people removing weapons out of dog food bags."
Olbermann noted the next night that two former Blackwater employees, Kenneth Cashwell & William Grumiaux, pleaded guilty to arms smuggling.
It wasn't just weapons. John Doe 2 said that Blackwater smuggled in “ammunition designed to explode after penetrating within the human body." Scahill told Olbermann that "years ago, a Blackwater operative, Ben Thomas…shot an Iraqi in the buttocks and it killed him, and Ben Thomas described it as exploding the entire left side of his body…The military had not been authorized to use these weapons."
Conclusion: The failure of the bulk of the corporate press to responsibly cover this explosive story is manifestly irresponsible. The ramifications of permitting a President to create a private, unaccountable army of mercenaries --- one which was permitted to have a heavily armed presence inside a U.S. city, a presence that took precedence over saving the lives of Katrina victims --- are truly frightening.
As Scahill astutely observed during his Aug. 5 appearance on Countdown:
We've seen how wealthy corporations are willing to fund, organize and transport wing-nut mobs whose task it is to shut down one of the oldest forms of American democracy --- the town hall meeting. One does not have to have exceptional foresight to imagine a future, would-be dictator, with access to a heavily armed mercenary army made up of right-wing, religious zealots. Consider the history of Central America during the 1980s where unaccountable death squads, often led by zealots trained inside the U.S. at the School of Americas, murdered union leaders, teachers, priests --- anyone standing in the way of the corporate oligarchies, and you begin to comprehend the real ramifications of Blackwater = Murder, Inc.?
**In their opposition to the proposed gag order, the CCR's attorneys noted that in the aftermath of the Nisoor Square massacre, Blackwater hired a PR firm that "specializes in repairing and protecting the public face of companies in a non-public and surreptitious manner" and "touts its skill at creating the illusion of a grass roots movement supportive of its clientele;" that Prince made multiple televised appearances to that end, yet was seeking to silence the First Amendment rights of Blackwater's victims. Apparently, Prince and Blackwater believed they could escape infamy by way of re-branding. Blackwater formally changed its name to Xe.
Olbermann came up with a name change that seems more apropos. During his Aug. 7 broadcast, he posted a visual of the Blackwater logo, but the name he used was "Bloodwater."
UPDATE 08/11/09: Add the Boston Globe, Minnesota's Star Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle to the list of corporate daily newspapers that failed to report the Blackwater = Murder, Inc.? story, although the San Francisco Chronicle did run an AP story about a British "security contractor," who will face charges in Iraqi courts for killing two co-workers inside the Green Zone. The AP report noted that the Iraqi legal proceedings were the result of a lifting of "contractor immunity" --- a change in legal status that was, in large measure, occasioned by Iraqi outrage over the Nisoor Square Massacre.
When will the AP realize that "security contractor" is an inept descriptor for a heavily armed mercenary?
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Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California State Bar since 1977 and has practiced in the fields of civil litigation and workers' compensation at both the trial and appellate levels. He graduated cum laude from Southwestern University School of Law where he served as a student director of the clinical studies department and authored the Law Review Article, Executive Privilege: Myths & Realities. He received an MA in political science at Cal State University Northridge and a BA in political science from UCLA. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968).