Editor’s note: In 2007, the private intelligence gathering firm Aegis, founded by a former British officer whose military service included quelling a rebellion in Papua New Guinea, found its $293 million security contract awarded in 2004 was up for renewal. The new contract would be worth $475 million and would include 1,000 security officers to protect the Army Corps of Engineers conducting infrastructure projects — the largest for private security in Iraq. The following excerpt is about that congressional debate.
The following is an excerpt from INVISIBLE SOLDIERS by Ann Hagedorn. Copyright © 2014 by Ann Hagedorn. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
In the spring of 2007, as the deadline for the contract renewal was drawing near, seven U.S. senators, all Democrats, had signed on as Aegis critics: Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Charles Schumer, Chris Dodd, Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, and Barack Obama. ..(..).. [T]he watchdogs of Congress and the Pentagon were beginning to claim that the probes, audits, studies, and reports were accomplishing little toward addressing the impact of the growing numbers of “mercenaries” working for America. No one was taking a stand, stressed Jeremy Scahill, a journalist who at the time was writing a book about Blackwater. Both Republicans and Democrats, with a few exceptions, were “selling out,” he wrote. Even shutting down the wars would not stop the PMSCs, he observed. “Until Congress reins in these massive corporate forces and the whopping federal funding that goes into their coffers, partially withdrawing U.S. troops may only set the stage for the increased use of private military companies (and their rent-a-guns) which stand to profit from any kind of privatized future ‘surge’ in Iraq. . . . It’s making them unstoppable, if they are not already.”
That September ..(..).. the security of the citizens of the occupied nation [in Iraq]—not the occupiers—was under a blinding spotlight for on the 16th, Blackwater contractors opened fire with automatic weapons and grenade launchers on a busy street west of central Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, and wounding at least 20. Many were shot while inside their cars as they frantically tried to drive away from the violence.
The incident happened at around noon on Nisour Square, a traffic circle outside the fortified area of Baghdad known as the International Zone or the Green Zone. A convoy of four heavily armored trucks filled with 19 Blackwater contractors and using the code name “Raven 23” was responding to the detonation of a bomb in the vicinity of another Blackwater personal security detail located about a mile from Nisour Square. That detail was in charge of transporting
U.S. diplomats to a meeting that day in western Baghdad with officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Raven 23’s job typically was to provide backup fire support for other Blackwater personal security details. When they reached Nisour Square, they were traveling on the east side of the circle, against the flow of traffic. There they positioned themselves in a line on the southern half of the circle with the purpose of blocking traffic from entering the circle from the south or the west, to protect the U.S. diplomats from any danger possibly following the bombing.
Within seconds of the convoy forming the blockade, the contractors in the third of the four vehicles opened fire on a white Kia sedan that was approaching the circle from the south. In the passenger seat was a forty-six-year-old female physician. The driver was her twenty-year-old son, a medical student. The initial shots killed the son while wounding his mother. Then an Iraqi policeman rushed to the car, apparently in an effort to assist the wounded woman who, according to some witnesses later, was frantically waving her arms. But in that second, another contractor, also from the third vehicle in the convoy, fired multiple rounds from his M4 assault rifle into the windshield on the passenger’s side. Deciding that the policeman’s uniform could be an insurgent’s disguise, at least one member of the convoy launched an M203 grenade, which exploded under the passenger seat, causing the Kia to erupt into flames.
Within ten minutes, Nisour Square had become a scene of death and despair as grim as any in Iraq since the invasion. As the Raven 23 convoy drove away, moving against the flow of traffic to the north of the circle, turret gunners in the convoy continued to fire their machine guns at civilian vehicles. As one of the gunners, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, would later testify, these were vehicles that “posed no threat to the convoy.”
Ridgeway was the contractor who had fired rounds into the windshield on the mother’s side of the Kia. He also shot at least three rounds from his M4 into the roof of a white Chevrolet Celebrity sedan, sending bullet fragments into the driver’s legs. Later, Ridgeway would testify that he intended to kill the driver of the Chevy sedan. Under oath, he would also say that there had been no attempt on the part of the convoy to provide reasonable warnings to the driver of the Kia to come to a complete stop prior to the use of Raven 23’s deadly force. There were no hand or verbal warnings, no firing of flares and no pointing of weapons at the vehicle without firing.
As a condition of all State Department contractors, Ridgeway and his Raven 23 colleagues had signed what was called the useof-force policy, or the State Department Mission Firearms Policy for Iraq. It specified that deadly force was permitted only when all other means for protecting the individuals the contractor was hired to guard had failed or “would be likely to fail.” This meant, the policy acknowledged, that the contractor on the scene “may often be forced to make split-second decisions.” In this particular case, the critical decision was made by the “shift leader” of the convoy, who ordered the Raven 23 contractors to set up the blockade at Nisour Square.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the industry braced for a storm of criticism. The International Peace Operations Association in Washington shifted into high gear, as did the companies savvy enough to be working with public relations firms. ..(..).. Still, no public relations wand could wave away the damage of such an incident to an industry trying to persuade the world that it was about peace and security, not uncontrollable violence. The murders at Nisour Square exposed what could best be described as privatized mayhem.
From INVISIBLE SOLDIERS by Ann Hagedorn. Copyright © 2014 by Ann Hagedorn. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Ann Hagedorn has been a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and has taught writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her previous books are Wild Ride, Ransom, Beyond the River, and Savage Peace.
Lead photo credit: Security contractors are seen in a helicopter in Baghdad, Iraq, after a roadside bomb struck a private security convoy Monday, June 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)