AMY GOODMAN: At least three Iraqi witnesses appeared before a federal grand jury last week investigating the killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians in September by Blackwater forces in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. On Wednesday, one of the survivors, an Iraqi lawyer who was shot a number of times in the back, is expected to testify before a Geneva UN human rights panel.
It’s been quite a year for Blackwater. The private military firm went from being a relatively unknown contractor working in Iraq to a household name and the subject of multiple investigations, lawsuits and congressional inquiries. In the meantime, the company continues to reap millions of dollars in profits and was recently awarded a new contract from the State Department.
In March of last year, Democracy Now! correspondent and Nation Fellow, Jeremy Scahill, published his groundbreaking book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. The book quickly landed on the New York Times bestseller list and helped frame the debate that was to come. Now it’s out in paperback, thoroughly revised and updated. Jeremy Scahill joins us now in the firehouse studio.
One thing that has changed with your book, Jeremy, is you begin with an extremely detailed look at Nisour Square.
JEREMY SCAHILL: That’s right. And what I should say at the onset here is that what’s become very, very clear over the past year is that without Blackwater, the occupation of Iraq would be untenable. I mean, this is a company now that has become so central to the US occupation that it can be responsible for one of the single greatest killing sprees of Iraqi civilians and face basically no consequences for that action and in fact continue to win hundreds of millions of dollars in US State Department contracts. Blackwater in Iraq was awarded over $100 million in contracts just in the two weeks following the Nisour Square shooting. It’s had over a billion dollars in contracts from the United States State Department. And the men who were alleged to have been responsible for those killings at Nisour Square, to this day, are walking around as free individuals.
And so, I open the new book—the new version of the book—in reality, there’s about a hundred pages of totally new material in the book, and then I went through and updated the key facts throughout the book. But at the beginning, I open with a very detailed explanation of what exactly happened at Nisour Square, a shooting that began a little bit after noon on the morning of September 16, 2007, when a young Iraqi medical student, a twenty-year-old Iraqi medical student, was driving with his mother, Mahasin. She was a doctor. They had just dropped off his father, Dr. Jawad, who you’ve had here on Democracy Now! You’ve played some of his testimony that he gave to his lawyers who are suing Blackwater. They pull into this intersection in the Mansour district of Baghdad into Nisour Square, and at the same time that they’re arriving at this place, four heavily armored vehicles are driving allegedly down the wrong side of the road. They see this white opal sedan being driven by this young Iraqi medical student and his mother and end up shooting this young man right through the head.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip. The legal team suing Blackwater conducted this series of extensive interviews with witnesses and victims of the Nisour Square shooting. We broadcast those interviews for the first time on television in December. One of the most compelling testimonies came from Ali Khalaf Salman. He was working as a traffic guard in Nisour Square on the morning of September 16th. In painstaking detail, he described how the Blackwater shooting unfolded, including the opening shots that killed a mother and her son. He’s translated from Arabic.
ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] But when he turned his face towards traffic, he heard this woman crying, “My son! My son!” And then he ran into that direction, and he saw her son, who was a medical student. He was all covered in blood. He said he went—when he heard the woman crying, he went towards that direction, and he tried to help the medical student who was covered in blood, help him out of the car. But the mother inside was holding tight to her son. And he raised his hand to stop—
SUSAN BURKE: Stop the shooting.
ALI KHALAF SALMAN: [translated] Stop the shooting. He was telling them, “Don’t shoot, please.” He said, while he raised his hand and asking them not to shoot, this time the man in the fourth car shot the mother dead. A machine gun. He said, the car was number four in line. And then, when the person in car number four, a security man, started shooting, he shot the mother dead. And the cars in front of this car, the civilian cars, actually, they spread around to the sides. I think they were scared.
And he said the doctor’s car was an automatic car. Because he died behind the wheel, the car started moving by itself, because it was an automatic car, towards the square. And at this moment, they started shooting the car with big machine guns, and the car exploded.
AMY GOODMAN: This was the traffic guard, September 16th, 2007, in Nisour Square. Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, according to the witnesses, including this individual, the shooting of this young Iraqi medical student and his mother really began a shooting—a series of shootings in the square that would ultimately leave seventeen Iraqi civilians dead. And what he’s talking about there is that when the initial shots were fired, what happened was that this mother is sitting in the car and sees her son’s head essentially explode after being shot, and she grabs onto him. And it was an automatic car, and so what may have happened is that the car continued to sort of veer toward the Blackwater men, although aerial photos that were later obtained by the Washington Post revealed that that car hadn’t even really come anywhere close to the Blackwater operatives. That’s the allegation that the Washington Post made based on these aerial photos that they obtained.
But then, Blackwater operatives allegedly shot and fired at this woman as she was holding her son, and these cops were there, and they realized that she wasn’t getting out of the car. She was gripping her son’s body, shouting, “My son! My son! Help me!” And it became clear to the Iraqi police officers that more shots were going to come, and so they actually fled themselves, realizing that shooting was going to happen again. And so, the witnesses say that they continued shooting at this car, and it ultimately exploded, burning them inside.
One of the other victims who was killed was a nine-year-old boy named Ali, who was shot in his head, his brains splattering on his father. And his dad described—and I talk about this in the book—how he could still feel his son’s heart beating, and so he rushed to the hospital to try to save his son’s life. And he ultimately returned to the scene the next day to try to pick up pieces of his son’s skull to bury at the holy city—Iraqi holy city of Najaf.
That individual, whose nine-year-old son died in his arms, was one of the Iraqis who was in Washington last week giving testimony to a federal grand jury that is investigating not only Blackwater’s conduct, but the conduct of other private military companies in Iraq. Of course, it’s a grand jury, so we don’t know anything really of what’s happening behind the scene. We do know that Blackwater operatives have been called to testify. Now we’ve heard from Iraqi witnesses.
But let’s be clear here, we’re talking about what is alleged to be the single greatest massacre of Iraqi civilians by a private force in Iraq. The individuals alleged to have been responsible for that have faced no consequences right now. When the Iraqi government said, “We want to prosecute them as criminals for what they’ve done in our country,” the Bush administration had to remind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he in fact is not the prime minister of Iraq, that George Bush is the prime minister of Iraq and that the United States has imposed on Iraq a law, going back to the Bremer era, Order 17, that says that no private contractors in Iraq can be prosecuted by any Iraqi legal system. And Bremer issued this order at the time he was allegedly handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi government. No armed private security contractors have ever been prosecuted for any crimes in Iraq, not to mention killing of Iraqi civilians. So while this grand jury is meeting, I think that the odds of actual justice being achieved here for the victims of the Nisour Square massacre is highly unlikely. Maybe one or two people will go down as a symbolic gesture. Blackwater, as a company, is not facing any consequences for this.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does the—how do the guards that—how do the Blackwater operatives that were questioned by the State Department and given immunity fit into this story?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, what happened after the Nisour Square killings was extraordinary. You have the puppet Iraqi government saying, “These guys need to leave the country immediately, and we’re going to prosecute them.” And in fact, Blackwater’s work shut down for three days. As one Iraqi friend of mine said, they turned the Green Zone into the green zoo, because we saw how embedded Blackwater is in the occupation. No US officials could leave the Green Zone when Blackwater’s work was shut down. And so, you understand that, in the words of one US official, Blackwater has a client that will go to the ends of the earth to protect it, to shield it, because the US needs, the Bush administration needs, Blackwater. And so, the response of the Bush administration at every turn was to try to cover up for the individuals who did this shooting, try to protect Blackwater and shield the company from public scrutiny or any consequences for its actions.
So you’re talking about the immunity here. This was one of several actions that the Bush administration took that will make any successful prosecution highly unlikely. What happened is that if you or I were alleged to have killed seventeen people, if we’re lucky in this country, we would be read our Miranda rights, and we would be told that we have the right to remain silent, and anything we say can and will be used against us in a court of law. When the individuals alleged to have killed these seventeen civilians were questioned by the State Department, they signed papers that gave them what’s called limited-use immunity. In other words, nothing you say—and this is what they were told—nothing you say to us can and will be used against you in a court of law. So, in other words, they said, if you give us your statement, in turn, we’ll give you a protection from anything you say here being used against you later.
Just to put it in a historical context, that was how Oliver North got off—Oliver North, of course, of Iran-Contra fame. He was given limited-use immunity to testify in front of the United States Congress, and then when the attempt was made to prosecute him, his lawyers effectively argued that the government would not have been able to prosecute him if they didn’t use his protected testimony in front of the Congress. The FBI is actually furious about this, because now that they go over there to investigate, the Blackwater guys aren’t talking to them. They say, “Well, we already were given immunity by the State Department.”
The other thing I have to add, Amy, is that when the first—they call it the “first blush” report on this incident came out, it purported to be the State Department’s view of what happened at Nisour Square. It said that they were ambushed, that there was enemy fire, that the Blackwater men were defending American lives in a war zone. And it was written on State Department letterhead, official stationery of the United States State Department. Well, it turns out it was actually written by a Blackwater contractor named Darren Hanner and put forward as the State Department’s official report on it. I mean, this is all what happened right away.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.
JEREMY SCAHILL: A Blackwater contractor named Darren Hanner wrote the official report of what happened at Nisour Square, and it was written on State Department stationery and then was leaked to the media as a sort of pushback against what the Iraqis were saying, because it’s not, well, Blackwater’s version of events and the Iraqis’ version of events. This was saying this is the US government’s version of events, and it defended Blackwater all the way down, you know, to the tiny detail about this was an ambush by enemies and insurgents. And in reality, it was written by a Blackwater contractor himself. Those are just—the limited-use immunity and this statement from the State Department written by a Blackwater contractor, that’s two of scores of incidents that happened after this that lead many to believe that the Bush administration is seriously attempting to cover this up, at a minimum.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeremy Scahill. His book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, the updated paperback edition, is out today. He’ll be speaking at New York Town Hall tomorrow. But we’re going to come back to this conversation in a minute.