Author: Contractors in Iraq Should Be Held Accountable
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Just ahead: You probably heard about endangered species. We want to tell you about efforts to save the world's most endangered languages. That's next.
But first, just about every week, we bring you Dispatches - glimpses of the world outside the U.S. Washington Post national editor Rajiv Chandrasekaren has reported from Baghdad, Cairo and Southeast Asia. His book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" - about life in the Green Zone during the American occupation - has just been issued in paperback, so we thought it was a good time to check in with him. He joins us from his office at the Washington Post.
Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKAREN (Assistant Managing Editor, Washington Post; Author, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City"): Pleasure to be on with you, Michel.
MARTIN: And, Rajiv, let's start with the latest news out of Iraq that the Iraqi government is trying to ban the American security contractor Blackwater USA from working in the country. And it wants to prosecute some of its employees after a firefight last week in which, apparently, some civilians were killed. Now, apparently, the Iraqi government doesn't have the legal authority to do this, but I'd like to know, is this going to be a major irritant between these two governments?
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: Well, the presence of armed private security contractors in Iraq has long been an irritant between Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials there. You know, they are literally tens of thousands of armed American and other Western civilians running around Iraq, helping to guard convoys, protecting diplomatic personnel, and performing other functions in Iraq - as much of the military actions have been privatized in recent years.
The Iraqi government feels that these contractors need to have much greater regulation. There need to be clearer rules about how they can operate. And they feel that a lot of these security contractors sometimes operate in too fast and loose of a way - shooting first and then asking questions later.
But what's important to note here is that these Blackwater contractors may well enjoy a degree of total immunity because of an order that was signed by Ambassador Paul Bremer, who was the American viceroy in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Right before Bremer left the country, he signed a raft of executive orders before sovereignty was returned to the Iraqi people. And one of his orders, essentially, continued in perpetuity, essentially, immunity for these private security contractors.
MARTIN: Do you have any idea why he signed that order?
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: Because the private security industry made it very clear that if they didn't have that sort of immunity, it would be very difficult for them to work. They didn't want to risk having security contractors hauled up in Iraqi courts. They felt that, if there was any system of justice, they should be perhaps subjected to an American one.
But what we subsequently learned is that there've been all sorts of cases of misbehavior, outright allegations of breaking laws of cases in which security contractors have been accused of killing Iraqis. In many of those cases, there's been no accountability. In some cases, security companies - including Blackwater - have simply ferried out those people in the middle of the night, literally, on airplanes back to the United States so they would be away from the Iraqi judicial system.
MARTIN: But are these security contractors accountable to anyone? I mean, American military personnel are accountable to the United States government, and individuals have been brought up on charges. In fact, there's a trial going on right now - a military trial going on right now involving a marine and the killing of civilians, and the question is whether these killings comport with the rules of war. So, I mean, active-duty military personnel are accountable to (unintelligible). Are these security contractors accountable to anybody?
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: The short answer is no. As you point out, active-duty military personnel are, you know, accountable to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and there have been court martials, there are investigations, there's a process for investigating and holding to account uniform members of the services. As I write about it in my book, there have been cases where security contractors have committed acts that would be court-martialable offenses, but because they're contractors, there's literally no accountability.
I write about a case in which a contractor, who would later go on to work for Blackwater, was using bullets made from composite blended metals. And these types of bullets are banned by the Hague Conventions of Land Warfare. It's not the sort of bullets that the U.S. military sanctions or uses in places like Iraq. And this private security guard was boasting of shooting an Iraqi man on the buttocks and killing him with just one shot.
When the U.S. military command learned about this, they sent a letter to the security company saying you shouldn't be using these bullets. But there was no formal investigation. Nobody tried to kick him out of the country. Pretty much, the only sanction that might exist for one of these security companies is if the Pentagon decided it wanted to strip the company of its contract, but that really hasn't been done very much.
MARTIN: You know what's interesting to me about this is, is that we keep hearing about the troops are exhausted, that the Army is all in, and that part of the reason that the surge can't continue is that the Army is all in. Is this why we're hearing so much more about these security contracts? Are they filling a void that the active-duty military cannot fill, or do they have some special job that only they fulfill?
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: Well, in some cases - I would say a small percentage of the cases - they are performing a specialized job that members of the active-duty military just perhaps are not trained or equipped for, or perhaps only Special Forces-type soldiers might do. But, in many cases, these private security contractors are doing jobs that, in the past, active-duty, uniformed military personnel would have done. But because the military is stretched thin by the number of troops that have already been deployed to Iraq - and I think principally because the administration doesn't want to have a bigger active-duty footprint there - there's a reliance on contractors.
I mean, if you went back to the old days, it - when all of those people were largely active duty, your troop footprint might increase by 50 percent, and that would be very politically controversial back here.
MARTIN: Speaking of politically controversial, I wanted to talk about the hearings on Capitol Hill last week that, as you know, General David Petraeus, a top military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified on the Hill. Do you think that their testimony settled anything?
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: I don't think so. I think that it simply reinforced a lot of preexisting viewpoints. You had Republicans and the White House, who believe that the troop surge is showing results, that if you just keep on going down this path, you'll be able to achieve some form of longer term stability. And with additional pressure, you'll be able to get Iraq's political leadership to engage in meaningful, political reconciliation. And then you have the Democrats on the other side, who believe that all of this isn't really going to amount to a fundamental change. And when the troops are drawn down, militias and other bad actors will fill that security void.
I don't think General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker told us anything that we fundamentally didn't know. They came to make a case for continuing their policy - the strategy that the president had outlined back in January. And I think they succeeded, to some degree, in being able to continue that because the Democrats simply don't have enough votes to force a meaningful change in policy.
MARTIN: And finally, Rajiv, you were the Post's Baghdad bureau chief for the first 19 months of the occupation in Iraq, and your book talks about, you know, those early days. And are there decisions that were made then that you think directly lead to the circumstances we see now on the ground?
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: I do. You know, when you go back and you try to understand why Iraq is the - such a mess, why it's so troubled today, you know, I'm drawn back to a number of the key decisions that were made inside the Green Zone by the American civilians who were sent to govern and reconstruct Iraq in those crucial first months and first few years.
I'm not trying to blame the low-level civil war we see there on the Americans, who came there to govern and reconstruct, but their actions, in many cases, were not necessarily constructive. And instead of being focused on the most pressing challenges of the day - reducing violence, increasing basic public services like electricity, providing jobs to the Iraqi people - they were more consumed with micromanagement and minutia.
As I detail in my book, we sent people over there to rewrite Iraq's traffic code. We rewrote their intellectual property laws. Meanwhile, you know, Iraqis in Baghdad were getting less than five hours electricity a day. You know, we had a window of opportunity in that first year, yet we squandered it because of the people that were sent and because of the policies that they pursued inside that bubble that was the Green Zone that was so disconnected from the reality of post-war Iraq.
MARTIN: So that window now closed, in your view?
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: I think that window is largely closed. I mean, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus are incredibly talented people. I mean, Crocker speaks fluent Arabic. He's got a great team of people working with him at the embassy. These are the people who should have been there in 2003 and 2004. And right now, my worry is that it's too little too late.
MARTIN: I have one last question for you, Rajiv: Just what about all that oil? What is going to happen to all that oil?
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: That's the $64 billion or $64 trillion question in all of this. You know, the sad factor to report is that Iraq is probably pumping and exporting less oil today than it was under Saddam Hussein's leadership and under the U.N. sanctions.
I'm not trying to make any apologies for Saddam here, but the oil infrastructure is terribly degraded. You know, the hope of getting multinational companies in to actually invest in the oil sector has been delayed because of political infighting, because Iraq's leaders can't agree on an oil law, because of a lack of security, and because of concerns over corruption and other such things.
Ultimately, there's a hope that some of this oil revenue can help with development, can help modernize Iraq. But, again, you also have to look at the history of other countries that have come upon such oil revenue with a degree of civil strife, and the real danger is that oil revenue will go to help various sides in the battle better arm themselves and contribute to greater instability, as opposed to helping to pacify and develop Iraq.
MARTIN: Rajiv Chandrasekaren is national editor of the Washington Post. His book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," has just been issued in paperback. He joined us from his office at the Washington Post.
Rajiv, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CHANDRASEKAREN: A real pleasure to talk to you today.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.