Blackwater USA: Is the U.S. Privatizing War?

The private security firm Blackwater USA made headlines when its contractors killed 17 civilians in Baghdad. That event, its background, and consequences are the subjects of two student readings, discussion questions, and suggestions for student inquiries and citizenship.

The U.S. government's privatization of tasks formerly performed by the military does not usually draw much media attention even though, according to more than one commentator, "American foreign policy, to a great extent, has been privatized" (Allison Stanger in a New York Times op-ed, 10/5/07). However, the private security firm Blackwater USA did make headlines when its contractors killed 17 civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square in September.

That event, its background, and consequences are the subjects of two student readings below. The readings are followed by discussion questions and suggestions for student inquiries and citizenship.

Student Reading 1:

Death on Nisour Square

The following is from a report in the New York Times (10/3/07), based on "interviews with 12 Iraqi witnesses, several Iraqi investigators and an American official familiar with an American investigation."

"BAGHDAD, Oct. 2—It started out as a family errand: Ahmed Haithem Ahmed was driving his mother, Mohassin, to pick up his father from the hospital where he worked as a pathologist. As they approached Nisour Square at midday on Sept. 16, they did not know that a bomb had gone off nearby or that a convoy of four armored vehicles carrying Blackwater guards armed with automatic rifles was approaching.

"Moments later a bullet tore through Ahmed's head, he slumped, and the car rolled forward. Then Blackwater guards responded with a barrage of gunfire and explosive weapons, leaving 17 dead and 24 wounded. As the gunfire continued, at least one of the Blackwater guards began screaming, 'No! No! No! and gesturing to his colleagues to stop shooting.

"A traffic policeman, Sarhan Thiab, saw that a young man in a car had been hit. 'We tried to help him,' Mr. Thiab said. 'I saw the left side of his head was destroyed and his mother was crying out.' Another traffic policeman rushed to the driver's side to get her son out of the car, but the car was still rolling forward because her son had lost control.

"Then Blackwater guards opened fire with a barrage of bullets. Ahmed's mother, Mohassin Kadhim, appears to have been shot to death as she cradled her son in her arms. Moments later the car caught fire after the Blackwater guards fired a type of grenade into the vehicle."

Blackwater USA is the leading private American security contractor operating in Iraq. Others include Triple Canopy and Dyncorp. About 850 of Blackwater's independent contractors—officially, most are not employees—work primarily in and around Baghdad, protecting officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and Congressional delegations as well as other senior civilians, and even, at times, top military officials like General David Petraeus.

Blackwater said that its convoy had been responding to an attack of automatic weapons fire. But a senior American military officer said, "It was an abuse of force. There was no imminent threat. We believe innocent people were killed." ( New York Times , 10/11/07) Iraqi witnesses said they had neither seen nor heard gunfire that could have provoked the Blackwater guards.

In June 2004, Paul Bremer, the original head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, issued Order 17. It gave immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts to private contractors working for the U.S. in Iraq. Blackwater's original contract was to guard Bremer. It wasn't long before Blackwater agents were frequently engaged in street combat, a duty confined in the past only to American soldiers.

There are many dozens of private contractors in Iraq, employing about 180,000 Americans, Iraqis, and civilians from other countries and providing a wide range of services from guards and intelligence agents to road builders and truck drivers. This means there are more private contractors in Iraq than American troops: about 160,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Iraq.

For a day's work by one of its contractors, Blackwater charges the U.S. $1,222. ( New York Times, 10/307) Private contract work in Iraq is dangerous. As of December 2006, according to a House committee report, at least 770 contractors had been killed and 7,700 wounded.

The complexity of some of the arrangements with contractors became clear a few weeks after the killings in Nisour Square. In Baghdad, two Armenian Christian women in an Oldsmobile died in a blaze of gunfire when their car approached a security convoy. Their killers worked for the Unity Resources Group, a firm based in the United Arab Emirates that is managed by Australians, registered in Singapore, and hired as a subcontractor by an American company headquartered in North Carolina.

"Across the globe, in everything from diplomacy to development to intelligence, contractors are a major American presence, and only a small fraction of them carry weapons," wrote Allison Stanger in her New York Times commentary (10/5/07). "American foreign policy, to a great extent, has been privatized. In 2005, federally financed contractors were working in every United Nations-recognized country except Bhutan, Nauru and San Marino.  While contract spending has more than doubled since 2001, serious federal efforts to outsource began under President Bill Clinton."

Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, argues that the military's privatization "subverts the citizenry in the United States. You no longer have a draft. You don't have to depend on your own citizens to fight your wars. You can simply hire the poor of the world to work for American and British companies occupying another country." (The Moyers Journal, PBS. See for a transcript of Moyers' interview of Scahill.)

Innocent civilians are killed in Iraq every day, not only by private security guards, but by Iraqi insurgents, sectarian fighters and U.S. military forces. Reports of civilian deaths are so commonplace that they usually are ignored or buried in the inside pages of newspapers. Two examples:

"Baghdad, October 11—An attack by American forces killed 19 insurgents and 15 civilians, including 9 children northwest of the capital....The military said its targets were senior leaders of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.  ( New York Times, 10/12/07, p. 10)

"Baghdad, October 15—"In southern Iraq, Shiite insurgents attacked bases used by Polish, American and Iraqi forces....A spokesman for the Iraqi police and army said five Iraqi civilians were killed and 27 wounded.  In Baghdad, a car bomb in the Mansour neighborhood killed three people." ( New York Times, 10/16/07, p. 12)

Student Assignment

Write one good question about this reading. It need not be a question you can answer. But it should be one that, if answered well, would lead to greater understanding about a significant aspect of the reading.

(The teacher may want to read "Thinking Is Questioning" or "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for suggestions about teaching students how to ask and to analyze questions.)

When students have completed their questions on the reading above, write a sampling of them on the chalkboard and have students examine them in terms of such questions as the following:

Is the question clear? If not, how might it be clarified? Do any words in the question need defining? Why and how? Does the question contain any assumptions? If so, are they reasonable? If not, how might the question be reworded?

Have students select several of these questions to answer. What kind of answer does each question require? A yes or no? Facts? From what sources? Opinions? Predictions? Whose? Why?

If a question cannot be answered without further investigation, assign one or more students to do that work.

Additional questions for discussion

1. Why do you suppose that the Bush administration hires private security contractors for services in Iraq rather than using American troops? If you don't know, how might you find out?

2. Do you have enough information to make a judgment about who should be held responsible for the episode in Nisour Square? Why or why not?

3. Why does Jeremy Scahill regard the use of private contractors as dangerous? Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. How do you suppose that President Bush would answer Scahill's criticism? If you want to know what the president has said about the use of private contractors, how would you find out?


Student Reading 2:

Criminal behavior? Or Americans protecting Americans?

A "report by the Democratic majority staff of a House committee adds weight to complaints from Iraqi officials, American military officers and Blackwater's competitors that company guards have taken an aggressive, trigger-happy approach to their work and have repeatedly acted with reckless disregard for Iraqi life." ( New York Times, 10/2/07)

U.S. officials said that Blackwater guards, most of them Americans, have been involved in dozens of episodes in which they used force, more than twice as many as two other security firms under contract to the State Department. The September 16 episode in Nisour Square is now the seventh under investigation. All have involved the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
The New York Times reported that in one incident last December, a drunk Blackwater contractor, Andrew Moonen, shot and killed the Iraqi bodyguard of the Iraqi vice president inside the Green Zone. Blackwater fired the man and arranged with the State Department to fly him back to the United States. Angry Iraqi officials said the shooting was murder. The State Department and Blackwater agreed that the latter would pay $15,000 in compensation to the bodyguard's family.

Soon after Moonen was fired and sent back to the U.S., he was hired by a Defense Department contractor and sent to Kuwait to work on military matters related to the Iraq war.

After the shootings in Nisour Square, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called Blackwater's conduct "criminal," demanding that the firm be expelled from Iraq. Later, he agreed to withhold judgment until a joint U.S.-Iraqi investigation is completed.
The founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, comes from a wealthy family with close ties to Republicans and the Bush administration. According to federal campaign finance reports, he has personally contributed $236,000 to Republican candidates in recent years. Defense contractors, including Blackwater, have contributed nearly $1 million in political contributions since 2003 to members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is investigating Blackwater. (, 10/3/07)

In testimony before the committee, Prince would not concede that his company had killed innocent civilians. "No, sir," he said. "I disagree with that. There could be ricochets. There are traffic accidents, yes. This is war." He added, "They call us mercenaries. But we're Americans working for America protecting America." Days later he said, "Is it possible they [Blackwater security guards] made a mistake? Yes." (The Charlie Rose Show, PBS, 10/15/07)

Author Naomi Klein sees Blackwater's killings differently: "This wasn't an accident, it was inevitable: give a bunch of pumped-up guys guns, and send them to a place where they're above the law, and they'll act like cowboys." (Interview with John Cusack,, 10/9/07)

Asked about the Moonen episode at a congressional hearing, Prince said the company had immediately fired and fined him and required that he pay for his flight home. "If he lived in America, he would have been arrested, and he would be facing criminal charges, but it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

A report by the Democratic majority staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform "places a significant share of the blame for Blackwater's record in Iraq on the State Department, which has paid Blackwater more than $832 million for security services in Iraq and elsewhere ....Blackwater has dismissed 122 of its contractors over the past three years for misuse of weapons, drug or alcohol abuse, lewd conduct or violent behavior, according to the report." ( New York Times, 10/207) Blackwater's work is not confined to Iraq. Its security contractors have also worked in Colombia and elsewhere in South America as well as in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The U.S. has not prosecuted any contractor for violence against Iraqi civilians. There are some obstacles to prosecuting contractors in an American court for crimes they committed in Iraq. For instance, it is not clear which U.S. laws can be applied to a crime in Iraq. Still, if the Bush Justice Department pressed charges, it would be possible.

The State Department said after the Nisour Square events that it would now begin sending its own personnel to monitor all Blackwater security convoys and would install video cameras on its armored vehicles to provide a record of all operations.

According to the New York Times (10/6/07), "Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who has been critical of what she calls the administration's inappropriate use of thousands of unaccountable private security contractors in Iraq, mocked the decisions. 'This just shows how much they want to keep Blackwater on the payroll. They're going to have to send dozens and dozens of agents to baby-sit these Blackwater units.' She has introduced legislation to end the use of all security contractors in Iraq, replacing them with full-time government employees."

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, views private security contractors from a larger perspective. "This is the most privatized war in modern history," she said. Klein contends that "when the working philosophy of the country's leaders is that private is always better, the public sector is left to erode and atrophy.

"This is true of the entire occupation. Give a bunch of contractors billions of dollars with no accountability, while simultaneously eviscerating the Iraqi state (de-Baathification, laying off the army, flinging open the economy with no regulation) and they'll gorge. The entire disaster in Iraq was utterly predictable.  The plan wasn't to destroy Iraq; it was to create a market frontier, nothing is more profitable, any frontier is a gold rush."

Student Assignment
Write two good questions about the reading. After students have completed their questions, divide them into groups of four to six. Ask students to read their questions to the group, then analyze them as they have the questions for the first reading. Next, ask members of each group to select its best question. Have each group read their question and have the class analyze it. Then have each question answered as noted above.

Additional questions for discussion

1. Do you now have enough information to make a judgment about responsibility for the episode in Nisour Square? Why or why not?

2. What is your reaction to the Moonen episode?

3. Is the information about Erik Prince's politics and contributions relevant to the Bush administration's hiring of Blackwater for security services? Why or why not?

4. How would you assess Prince's statement before a congressional committee? Representative Schakowsky's?

5. Should the U.S. replace security contractors in Iraq with "full-time government employees"? Why or why not?

6. Naomi Klein said that the Bush administration eviscerated the Iraqi state through "de-Baathification, laying off the army, flinging open the economy with no regulation." In each case, what does she mean? If you don't know, how might you find out?

7. What do you think Klein means when she says that "any frontier is a gold rush"?

8. What evidence, if any, is there to support Klein's statement about "the working philosophy" of U.S. leaders? If you don't know, how might you find out?

For inquiry

Consider having students investigate privatization of U.S. activities around the globe. This is a significant development that will be neither a simple nor impossible for students to research.
Possible areas of inquiry:

What are the origins of Blackwater? What contracts has it won from the U.S. government? Why has the government employed Blackwater for security services formerly performed by American troops? For how much? How have these contracts been fulfilled? What, if any, problems have there been with Blackwater?

What are some of the specific activities—both military and non-military—of federally financed private contractors in virtually every country in the world? Again, why has the U.S. employed them rather than using American troops or officials?

Study one or more of the government-hired firms. How well has the firm performed? Has it been accused of or indicted for corrupt practices? What? Why?

For citizenship

Following students' investigation, ask them to prepare reports of their findings. They might use these reports as the basis for letters and e-mails to their representative, their senators, and the president.

For other possible activities on a privatization investigation, see "Teaching Social Responsibility" on this website.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: