Oversight of Blackwater a 'Grey Zone,' Author Says

Robert Young Pelton, author of Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, talks with Robert Siegel about how Blackwater USA operates in Iraq and who oversees the private security company.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on Blackwater and private security firms. We're joined by Robert Young Pelton, the author of "Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror." You know quite a bit about Blackwater in particular.

Mr. ROBERT YOUNG PELTON (Author, "Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror"): Well, I spent three years on the ground with security contractors. I interviewed Erik Prince, which was quite unusual at that time. And I spent a month actually working with Blackwater running the airport road, which at that time was their most dangerous run.

SIEGEL: I'm trying to understand who oversees licenses or is responsible for the things that Blackwater does. This is a private company…

Mr. PELTON: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: …that must own a great many military quality weapons.

Mr. PELTON: Correct. Well, Blackwater has a training facility in North Carolina. They have 7,500 acres and they have a lot of weapons there that are used for training. They're licensed to own those and to sort of let people use them and take them back.

In Iraq, they work under the auspice of their client, so they primarily work for the State Department. The State Department has very strict rules on who can bring weapons in and use them, and they are overseen by the State Department. But in the evolution of the business of what they do, which is keeping State Department people alive, is gone some sort of the Wild West to sort of the more organized - still chaotic, but more organized function.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious whether there's somebody who's issued a license somewhere along the line who might revisit the authority of the exporter to even own them.

Mr. PELTON: I think the State Department calls the shots on that, because they are the ones that said the force required to keep their people alive. For example, there's a lot of discussion about should people have the semi-automatic M4, which is an assault rifle that fires single shots, versus a fully automatic one, or couldn't you go up to a heavy one. Well, Blackwater is limited to things like heavy machine guns. They use grenade launchers. They cannot use fragmentation grenades. They cannot use the typical rocket launchers. So there's this weird little limits on how much force you can use.

SIEGEL: If the State Department were to say, we oversee the export of weapons by Blackwater to Iraq under the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulation Act, they could say this is in violation. This is - we're going to stop it right now, if we want to.

Mr. PELTON: They could, except Blackwater works for the State Department…

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PELTON: …and there you have some unholy alliance, where the regulating force is also the client.

SIEGEL: So they would have to say, we're no longer keeping you as a contract here. They could stop it only by ending the contract on them.

Mr. PELTON: Yeah, they'll just fire them. They have three - they DynCorp and Triple Canopy that are also allowed to provide this what they called WPPS - Worldwide Protection Services.

SIEGEL: There will be much discussion, I'm sure, as to whether - in the shooting incidents, whether their people were trigger-happy when they fired. Did Blackwater have any reputation, any different from any other security contractor in Iraq when you were there?

Mr. PELTON: Blackwater has always prided themselves on their aggressive stance, their ability to show force, and whether it's using armored vehicles or using heavy weapons. Secondly, they're allowed to use force under certain rules. They're very clear that if you see a threat, a perceived threat, and it could be a white car coming towards you that doesn't stop and you fire at it, it keeps coming, you're allowed to take up the driver. Now, you just killed an innocent civilian, but it could have also been a car bomber.

SIEGEL: But I'm a civilian also in that case.

Mr. PELTON: Exactly.

SIEGEL: You killed an innocent civilian. I'm a civilian in that scenario.

Mr. PELTON: Right. And this is this gray area that we've created. When I say we - our government has created this contractor gray area so that they can do this type of things and get blamed for it, and then sort of thrown away in another company replaces them.

SIEGEL: We learned yesterday that over the past three years or so, I think, 122 employees of Blackwater in Iraq have been fired. That would be out of any given time somewhere around 800-plus people who were there. How does that compare with the likelihood of somebody in uniform who does something wrong being sent out of Iraq?

Mr. PELTON: Well, it's jaw dropping. Because on December 24th, when a Blackwater armorer got drunk and shot to death the vice president's bodyguard, the best solution that Blackwater can come up with is that, well, we fired him.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PELTON: And can you imagine someone in the military should…

SIEGEL: Court martial. They're not going to have (unintelligible) much for a Blackwater employee.

Mr. PELTON: Well, they wash their hands because he's a contractor.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PELTON: It is this weird sense of disposability that scares me. Because had a soldier shot the same person, he would have been in the brig, and it would be very publicized, he'd be court marshaled and put in jail. That's the accountability that we need as taxpayers and citizens to ensure that people did the right thing over there. It's been almost seven, eight months and no charges have been filed. So, obviously, somebody is sort of using that gray zone again to get away with murder.

SIEGEL: Well, Robert Young Pelton, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. PELTON: It's my great pleasure.

SIEGEL: Robert Young Pelton is the author of "Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror."

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