A federal jury has returned guilty verdicts against four Blackwater operatives involved in the 2007 massacre at Baghdad's Nisoor Square. On Wednesday, the jury found one guard, Nicholas Slatten, guilty of first-degree murder, while three other guards were convicted of voluntary manslaughter: Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard. The jury is still deliberating on additional charges against the operatives, who faced a combined 33 counts. The operatives were tried for the deaths of 14 of the 17 Iraqi civilians who died when their Blackwater unit opened fire. We speak to Jeremy Scahill, author of the best-selling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His most recent article published by The Intercept is "Blackwater Founder Remains Free & Rich While His Former Employees Go Down on Murder Charges."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: A federal jury has returned guilty verdicts against four Blackwater operatives involved in the 2007 massacre at Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. On Wednesday, the jury found one guard, Nicholas Slatten, guilty of first-degree murder, while three other guards were convicted of voluntary manslaughter—Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard. The jury is still deliberating on additional charges against the operatives, who faced a combined 33 counts. The operatives were tried for the deaths of 14 of the 17 Iraqi civilians who died when their Blackwater unit opened fire. Nisoor Square is the highest-profile deadly incident involving Blackwater or any private war contractor.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, Jeremy Scahill is still with us, co-founder of TheIntercept.org, author of the best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His most recent article published by The Intercept is headlined "Blackwater Founder Remains Free and Rich While His Former Employees Go Down on Murder Charges." Take it from there, Jeremy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, the point here is that these four individuals—and then there was another Blackwater operative who pleaded to lesser charges earlier in the process and then actually testified against his former colleagues at Blackwater—this is an extremely important verdict, because we’re talking about a mercenary industry, a war industry, that has largely operated in a Wild West atmosphere, where there’s absolutely no accountability. So, while we only have a handful of people being held accountable for what were very widespread crimes committed by Blackwater and other private military companies, this is a very important moment for the victims of Nisoor Square. And they’ve fought for many years in both civil courts and criminal courts to try to get justice for their loved ones who were killed.
But let’s be clear here. Blackwater was a part of an unlawful global war that was borderless in nature, launched by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, with the support of Democrats in the U.S. Congress, and President Obama has continued to use mercenary forces. None of the people that unleashed these forces on the world, at the highest levels, are being held accountable. Dick Cheney’s not going to be held accountable. Donald Rumsfeld’s not going to be held accountable. Erik Prince, the billionaire owner of—founder of Blackwater, who has now started another mercenary firm targeting Africa, backed by Chinese capital, he’s not going to be held accountable for this. It’s just like at Abu Ghraib, where the low-level people who did the actual torture, they get held accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: And describe what they did, very quickly.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Blackwater or Abu Ghraib?
AMY GOODMAN: Describe what these four Blackwater guards did in Nisoor Square.
JEREMY SCAHILL: They were responding—they were a unit called Raven 23. They were the elite Praetorian Guard of the U.S. occupation. They were guarding Paul Bremer, who was the original sort of proconsul in Iraq, the "viceroy," as he liked to call himself. They were responding to an incident that had occurred on the opposite end of Baghdad from where their base was located. They roll out. They end up hitting a crowded intersection at Nisoor Square. What often would happen in Iraq is that mercenary contractors would start throwing frozen water bottles at cars, trying to force them off the street, and then eventually escalate up to shooting at vehicles. These guys basically tried to take over this traffic circle, the Blackwater guys, so that they could speed around and continue on to their destination.
A small white car with a young Iraqi medical student and his mother didn’t stop fast enough for the Blackwater convoy, and they decided to escalate it all the way up to assassinating those individuals. And I say "assassinating," because they shot to kill these people, and then they blew their car up. And then, that started this massive shooting spree that went on for—it was sustained for minutes. And at the end of it, 17 Iraqis were killed, including a nine-year-old boy named Ali Kinani, whose story we’ve told on the show before, and some 20 others were wounded in the attacks. And it was—you know, it became known as Baghdad’s "Bloody Sunday."
And Blackwater, you know, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, said that they had been fired upon. They had their allies in the media. A senior producer at CNN was quick to get on TV and say, "Oh, no, no, this wasn’t a massacre. You know, this was a firefight, and Blackwater was shot at." Clearly, this jury saw what the Iraqi eyewitnesses have always contended, and that is that this was an unprovoked massacre of Iraqi civilians, none of whom were posing a threat, except not stopping fast enough for the mercenaries helping to occupy their country.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask you about Blackwater founder Erik Prince. He was on Fox News last month—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Of course he was.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —responding to host Bill O’Reilly’s proposal to fight the Islamic State with mercenaries.
ERIK PRINCE: The U.S. military has mastered the most expensive way to wage war. They’ve proven that in Iraq and Afghanistan. They haven’t been that effective there. So, finding a cheap, sustainable way that you can keep presence into these areas, to keep pressure on Islamists, to keep—to support friends and be that long-term dwell is about the only way you’re going to do it. It’s as part of American history as apple pie.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater. Could you talk about what he said there about fighting ISIS and what implications you think this verdict is likely to have on the way in which these mercenary armies operate, if any?
JEREMY SCAHILL: First of all, Erik Prince is a radical right-wing Christian supremacist who, from the very beginning of the so-called war on terror, viewed the role of Blackwater in the world as being neo-crusaders. And he is a radical anti-Muslim. And he hates the religion of Islam. And he—his company, basically, was allowed to operate in an atmosphere where they would kill Muslims for sport inside of Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what evidence do you have to say he hates Islam?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, the fact that Blackwater operatives were told—that there was a culture at the company where they called people "ragheads," where they used any manner of "sand monkeys," other things, slurs to describe the people in Iraq and Afghanistan that they were—you know, whose countries they were occupying. But also, there have been numerous court cases, whistleblowers within Blackwater, who have said that their pilots in their helicopters would drive around, and they literally would go, quote-unquote, "hunting" for people and that it didn’t matter whether they had anything to do with 9/11, they were all the enemy. And there was a tone set in the company, and I know this from people that were there and that would hear Erik Prince’s speeches. He would talk about the so-called war on terror in these epic historical terms of a battle of civilization, of the Christian world versus the Islamic world.
Also, if you look at the Prince family and their history, they’ve been very, very dedicated to funding radical right-wing religious causes in the United States. One of Erik Prince’s closest friends for much of his life was Chuck Colson, who was of course Nixon’s hatchet man during the Watergate scandal, the author of Nixon’s enemies list, who then went to prison, came out as this sort of evangelical Christian who spent much of his life then trying to fight the scourge of Islam within America’s prisons. I mean, Erik Prince is surrounded by very radical right-wing Christians. And, you know, the fact that he says, "Oh, we want to go and fight ISIS right now," first of all, they want to make money off of it; secondly, it plays into Erik Prince’s worldview that Islam is the enemy.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of TheIntercept.org, author of the best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His most recent book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, is out in paperback. We’ll link to your piece, "Blackwater Founder Remains Free and Rich While His Former Employees Go Down on Murder Charges."
That does it for our show. I’ll be speaking in Vienna, Austria, Friday at an event hosted by ORF, Austria’s public broadcaster, then on Saturday I’ll be speaking at the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria. Check our website for details at democracynow.org.