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Subject: [NYTr] Did Blackwater Mercenaries Help Screw Up Fallujah?
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Blackwater: When Things Go Wrong

By Bill Sizemore and Joanne Kimberlin, The Virginian-Pilot, 26 July 2006

[This is part of a huge 6-part series being published by the Virginian-Pilot, all about the USA's mercenaries.]

It was the lynching seen around the world.

On March 31, 2004, an American convoy was ambushed by insurgents in Fallujah, a hotbed of Iraqi rage over the U.S. presence. The four men escorting the convoy in two Mitsubishi SUVs were killed in a fusillade of small-arms fire. A furious mob set the vehicles ablaze, dragged the bodies out and partly dismembered them. Two were strung up from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

The entire episode was captured on film and aired worldwide.

The four dead Americans were not soldiers. They were civilians working for North Carolina-based Blackwater USA. The nation learned with a horrifying jolt that there was something new going on here: Modern warfare was being privatized.

The Fallujah ambush had profound consequences on two fronts:

Blackwater also is the target of a lawsuit involving three servicemen killed in a plane crash in Afghanistan in November 2004. Citing the pending litigation, Blackwater declined to discuss either incident.

Out of respect for the judicial process and out of respect for the families, we just wont comment, said company vice president Chris Taylor.

But in court papers, the company has laid out its defense in sweeping terms.

Blackwater is arguing that although it is a private company, it has become an essential and indistinguishable cog in the military machine and, like the military, should be immune from liability for casualties in a war zone.

At stake, Blackwater says, is nothing less than the authority of the president, as commander in chief of the armed forces, to wage war as he sees fit.

The plaintiffs say its all about corporate greed, unaccountability and a private army run amok.

Things do go wrong in a violent business like Blackwaters.

A memorial garden on the Moyock compound attests to that. A ring of 25 large stones encircles a pond. Each one bears the chiseled name of a fallen contractor.

The companys casualties are among more than 500 civilian contractors who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of the fighting roughly one-sixth of U.S. fatalities and more than twice as many as have been suffered by all of Americas coalition partners combined.

When a military service member is killed on the battlefield, a public announcement is made within 48 hours. The service member is entitled to burial in Arlington National Cemetery with a 21-gun salute and a bugler playing taps. An American flag is draped over the casket and presented to the next of kin.

When a private contractor dies, there is no fanfare. There is not even an official list of contractor casualties. The identities of the dead trickle out as their families come forward.

In a sense, it is the 21st century incarnation of the Unknown Soldier.

Taylor said the companys policy of not identifying casualties is based on privacy concerns for their families.

They have the choice of how they will honor the service and commitment of their loved ones, he said.

Compared to soldiers, Taylor said, even wounded contractors dont enjoy a respectful status. How do you tell a guy whos just lost his arm and eye escorting someone that just because hes no longer wearing a uniform, hes any less noble?

With his tousled blond hair, Hollywood face and muscular build, Scott Helvenston was a walking advertisement for the Navy SEALs.

The Florida native joined the Navy on his 17th birthday and became the youngest-ever recruit to finish the rigorous training for the elite commando corps.

While stationed at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base and living in the North End of Virginia Beach, he met a local girl, Patricia Irby. They were married in the base chapel in 1988, settled in San Diego and had two children.

Helvenston spent 12 years in the Navy, about half that time as a SEAL instructor. He was also a world champion pentathlete, fitness trainer and movie stuntman who coached Demi Moore for her role in the film G.I. Jane.

In March 2004, recently divorced and looking to make some short-term cash while waiting to start a new job, Helvenston signed on with Blackwater for a two-month tour in Iraq.

His mother says she begged him not to go.

I said, ‘Its all about oil, Scotty. You dont want to go risk your life for oil, said Katy Helvenston-Wettengel of Leesburg, Fla. But he wanted to help, and he needed to make some money.

She said he was told he would be doing security work for Paul Bremer III, head of the interim Iraq government. But after a week in Kuwait, Helvenston-Wettengel said, the mission suddenly changed.

Around 10 p.m. March 28, Helvenston was ordered to leave at 5 a.m. the next day with three Blackwater contractors he had never met, according to the lawsuit filed by the four mens families. Their assignment: escort a convoy of flatbed trucks to pick up kitchen equipment from a military base on the edge of Fallujah.

When Helvenston resisted the order, citing the short notice and lack of preparation, the lawsuit alleges, his boss, Justin McQuown, reacted violently.

McQuown burst into Helvenstons bedroom screamed at and berated him calling Helvenston a ‘coward and other demeaning and derogatory names, the plaintiffs say in court papers. McQuown then threatened to fire Helvenston if he did not leave early the next morning with the new team.

Helvenstons teammates, all ex-Army Rangers, were Wesley Batalona of Honokaa, Hawaii; Mike Teague of Clarksville, Tenn.; and Jerry Zovko of Cleveland.

According to the lawsuit, Blackwater broke its contractual obligations to the contractors by sending them into hostile territory in unarmored vehicles without automatic weapons or a rear gunner.

The lawsuit says: Blackwater cut corners in the interest of higher profits.

Blackwater wont talk about Fallujah now, but eight days after the ambush, Patrick Toohey, a senior company executive, told The New York Times that the company had already made changes in its tactics, techniques and procedures.

Today, Taylor will say only: We dont cut corners. We try to prepare our people the best we can for the environment in which theyre going to find themselves.

The lawsuit says otherwise, alleging that a Blackwater employee refused to give the team maps of the area, telling them it was too late for maps.

They were sent on a suicide mission, Helvenstons mother said.

Helvenston-Wettengel says she was sitting at her home computer that day, doing research for her job as a real estate broker, with the TV on in the background, when the images of the burning SUVs and the rampaging mob began airing.

I thought, ‘How horrible for those families. A couple of hours later they said they were security contractors, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, Scottys a security contractor. But hes in Baghdad, hes OK, hes not in Fallujah. Hes protecting Paul Bremer.

Finally around 4 oclock they said ‘Blackwater.

I called Blackwater and said, ‘My names Katy. Im Scott Helvenstons mom. Is he OK? and they said, ‘We dont know. I was on and off the phone with Blackwater until 3 a.m. By midnight I knew he was gone.

They said, ‘He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The U.S. Marines, who had military responsibility for the Sunni Arab heartland in and around Fallujah, knew it was a tinderbox and had been trying hard not to set it aflame. Patient, persistent presence was their motto.

The attack on the Blackwater convoy changed everything.

The convoy had entered the city by bypassing a Marine checkpoint without the Marines knowledge. The Marines learned of the ambush the same way the rest of the world did: from the grisly pictures on TV.

President Bush, enraged by the attack, ordered a major assault on the city. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a Pentagon spokesman, said of the coming U.S. response: It will be deliberate, it will be precise and it will be overwhelming. We will pacify that city.

A key objective of the assault, U.S. leaders said, was to capture the killers of the Blackwater contractors and bring them to justice.

The Blackwater incident was a tragic error that provoked a violent chain of events, according to Bing West, a former Marine and Reagan-era assistant defense secretary who wrote No True Glory, a book about the battle for Fallujah.

Ultimately, Fallujah was a decision by our top leadership against the advice of the Marines, West said in an interview. They were not going to change their entire strategy because of a tactical error. They were overruled.

What followed days later, in early April, was the first street-by-street fighting by U.S. military forces since the Vietnam War. As Al-Jazeera broadcast pictures of dead, bleeding and maimed Iraqis in Fallujah hospitals, the city became a rallying point for anti-U.S. anger.

Worried that the assault was jeopardizing the political stability of the country, U.S. leaders suspended the offensive a week later. The fighting settled into a series of skirmishes, flare-ups and periods of calm.

Four days after Bush was re-elected in November, the Marines launched a second, more deadly assault on the city with massive bombing and bloody house-to-house combat. The major fighting was over within a week.

It looked like a savage tornado had roared through the downtown district, smashing everything in its path, West wrote.

Over the course of the two sieges, U.S. forces carried out nearly 700 airstrikes in which 18,000 of the citys 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. About 150 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis were killed. The city was locked down behind barbed wire, a curfew declared and access limited by military checkpoints.

A year later, only about half of Fallujahs population of 300,000 had returned.

The insurgency was quelled in Fallujah but intensified elsewhere across Iraq. Before the second assault on Fallujah in November 2004, U.S. military leaders estimated active enemy forces at 20,000. By January 2005, Iraqs national intelligence chief placed the number at 200,000.

In some ways, the second Fallujah campaign was the end of any hope for success for the United States in Iraq, said Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan.

The perpetrators of the Blackwater ambush were never found.

On Nov. 14, 2004, the Marines rolled away a coil of razor wire and held a ceremonial reopening of the Fallujah bridge, calling the spans clearing for traffic a symbolic victory. In black paint on the green trestle, a Marine had printed: This is for the Americans of Blackwater murdered here in 2004. Semper Fidelis.

Less than two weeks later, over Thanksgiving weekend, Blackwater was in the headlines again.

In broad daylight and clear weather, a twin-engine turboprop airplane operated by the companys aviation affiliate, Presidential Airways, slammed into a mountainside in the rugged highlands of Afghanistan, killing all six aboard: three company crewmen and three U.S. soldiers.

An Army investigation found that the crewmen had no flight plan, lacked experience flying in Afghanistan, were poorly trained, had inadequate communications gear and violated federal regulations requiring the use of oxygen masks at high altitudes.

The families of the dead soldiers are suing Presidential Airways for negligence. The case is set for trial in February.

In both cases, Blackwater claims immunity under the Feres doctrine, a legal precedent that prevents someone injured as a result of military service from suing the federal government.

Contracts signed by the Fallujah victims include a section releasing Blackwater from liability for any loss or injury suffered on the job. The plaintiffs say the contracts are invalid because Blackwater failed to fulfill its obligations.

In court papers, the company cites the Pentagons Total Force concept, which designates private contractors as an integral component of the military mission along with active-duty and reserve troops and civilian employees.

Blackwater says the governments unprecedented reliance on private contractors on the battlefield has made them so indistinguishable from uniformed personnel that the company should enjoy the same immunity from liability as the government.

You cant separate the contractors from the troops anymore, Joseph Schmitz, general counsel of Blackwaters parent company, said after a March federal appeals court hearing in Richmond.

In court papers, Blackwater says its contractors perform a classic military function and asserts that the courts may not impose liability for casualties sustained in the battlefield in the performance of these duties.

Blackwater casts its defense in constitutional terms, arguing that the separation of powers and presidential authority are at stake.

The judiciary may not impose standards on the manner in which the President oversees and commands the private component of the Total Force in foreign military operations, the company says in one brief.

To that, the plaintiffs in the Fallujah case reply that Blackwater is trying to have it both ways acting as a private entity on one hand and aligning itself with the government on the other.

In their filing, they argue: Blackwater cannot have its cake and eat it too. As a private security company, reaping private profits, they should be held accountable for their wrongful conduct, just like every other private corporation in America.

Undergirding Blackwaters profits, the plaintiffs say, is the workers compensation insurance that covered the Fallujah victims and has provided death benefits to their families under the federal Defense Base Act insurance that is ultimately paid for by taxpayers.

The premiums are paid up front by Blackwater, then passed along to the government in the contracts. And if the insured person is injured or killed in a war zone, the government reimburses the insurance carrier for benefits paid.

Blackwater officials point out that the Defense Base Act has been in existence for 65 years and is routinely used by overseas government contractors.

In the end, the case is about more than money, said Marc Miles, a Santa Ana, Calif., lawyer representing the Fallujah victims families: Its about sending a message.

Regardless of how the court fight turns out, Blackwater is moving on, looking for new opportunities once the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down.

Last summer, thanks to a nasty storm, it found a new niche right here at home.