IRAQ - On March 31, 2004, four highly trained and heavily armed Americans rolled into the Sunni hotbed city of Fallujah. Sporting Marine-like haircuts and wraparound sunglasses, they drove the armored vehicles typically referred to in Iraq as "bullet magnets" - and landed in the middle of a well-coordinated ambush. Insurgents riddled their convoy with bullets and torched their jeeps. A frenzied mob dragged their scorched and mutilated bodies through the streets and hung them from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Hours later, the corpses were cut down and torn to bits.
Pictures of the gruesome killings and mutilations of these "civilian contractors," as the press described them, sent shock waves around the world. Paradoxically, the incident actually helped catapult the men's employer, Blackwater USA , to its current status as the world's most powerful and best-outfitted private army. The outfit has contracts worldwide, including an unknown number of "black-ops" assignments on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies. It now provides personal security services to numerous top-ranking diplomats with the U.S. State Department in Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the globe.
Like most Americans, Jeremy Scahill only learned about Blackwater after the Fallujah affair, although he'd personally been in and out of Iraq many times between 1998 and 2003. The 32-year-old Polk Award-winning investigative reporter frequently writes for The Nation  and "Democracy Now!"  While reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he had several up-close encounters with Blackwater's security personnel on the streets of New Orleans.
Though Blackwater was ostensibly there to provide "humanitarian relief," Scahill contends that its forces functioned as a private army in the disaster zone, effectively doing an end-run around the traditional ban on using military forces for domestic law enforcement. Scahill's investigative reports eventually sparked a congressional inquiry into Blackwater, as well as an internal agency review by the Department of Homeland Security.
Now Scahill has released a blistering exposé of the company. Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, which debuted in March at number nine on The New York Times bestseller list, is his first book. It traces the company to its secretive founder: former Navy SEAL and ultra-conservative Christian Erik Prince, who has close personal and financial ties to the Bush administration.
Seven Days spoke to Scahill by phone in advance of his visit this week to Burlington for two public speaking events (see calendar for details).
Like Vermont documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, who wrote and directed Why We Fight , Scahill begins his cautionary tale by invoking the departing words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned of the rise of America's military-industrial complex. If Scahill is correct, no development in the past 40 years has posed as great a threat to American democracy and world peace as the ascendancy of private mercenary armies like Blackwater. He claims that such armies reap billions in corporate profits for fighting "shadow wars" with virtually no government oversight, control or accountability.
Consider their numbers. According to General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, approximately 126,000 "private contractors" are now operating in Iraq alone. Scahill routinely calls such firms "mercenary armies," a term the industry rejects. Reliable stats on how many of them work for private security firms are not available. However, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported last summer that 48,000 of these contractors are employed by private military firms. Of those, Scahill asserts, about 20,000 to 25,000 are armed combatants operating in the field. These soldiers of fortune now comprise a larger military force than Britain's entire deployment. This means that nearly one in four troops on the ground in Iraq answers not to a U.S. military commander but to a corporate CEO.
What these private armies are doing on the ground - whom they're killing, how many of them are being killed or wounded, what their operations cost taxpayers - is completely unknown, Scahill says, because no one oversees their activities. Until recently, they weren't bound by the tenets of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And not one military contractor in Iraq has ever been prosecuted for a crime.
Despite the Bush administration's enthusiastic support of Blackwater and similar private security firms, Scahill says he's spoken to Pentagon brass who warn that these companies actually pose a serious threat to the military. Apparently there have been incidents in which regular military units came into conflict with private firms; it's unclear who's in charge in such situations.
Other commanders pointed out to Scahill that private armies are depleting the ranks of America's most elite fighting units, because mercenary firms pay much more than their government counterparts. In fact, the current term for jumping from a traditional military job to a private-sector firm is "going Blackwater."
The rank-and-file military exhibits two sometimes divergent views on Blackwater, according to Scahill. On the one hand, some soldiers look up to these elite forces and try to find ways to switch to the private sector when their tours of duty end.
"On the other hand, you have these soldiers looking at these guys and saying, 'They have body armor; they have fully armored vehicles; they get paid in a month what I make in a year,'" Scahill says. "'What message is my country sending me?'"
Blackwater was so empowered by its operations during Hurricane Katrina that the company recently launched a new domestic wing. Last year, company officials met with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to arrange for providing disaster relief in California. According to Scahill, the company now has applications pending for operating licenses in every coastal state in the United States.
"I don't think people realize the extent of this privatization and how central this company has become to keeping these offensive wars going," Scahill says. "But I think this will end up on a lot of people's radars, whether they like it or not."
Jeremy Scahill speaks at the Unitarian Church Friday, April 13, 7 p.m. Donations. A fundraiser for the Peace & Justice Center will be held Friday, 9-11 a.m. $15-$20. Reservations and info, 863-2345, ext. 3.