I first met the private security company Blackwater at the breakfast table on April 1, 2004. The News & Observer, the newspaper where I work in Raleigh, North Carolina, displayed a photo of a burning truck and an exultant mob on the front page; inside, there was an even grislier photo of a crowd, including children, cheering at the sight of two burnt corpses hanging from a bridge. I quietly pulled aside the front section, making sure my kids, 6 and 9 at the time, stuck with the sports and comics.
In the days after the Fallujah massacre of four American citizens who worked for Blackwater, U.S. officials promised strong action. After the Marines were ordered into Fallujah and battle raged there, an editor assigned Jay Price, our military reporter, and me to the story. I had never heard of this North Carolina company. Price had toured Blackwater’s sprawling training facility shortly after 9/11. We knew the ending: four men massacred and defiled on the streets of Fallujah. But who were these four men who were working for Blackwater in Iraq? What forces — personal, economic, political — propelled them to this ambush? What should people know about the company that sent them on this mission?
We set to work trying to rewind the video of the lives of these men, and the history of this company, and see what it would tell us about warfare in the 21st century. But in reporting on private military contractors, our first obstacle surfaced in the adjective — "private." These security companies are secretive by nature. Some are publicly traded, like Dyncorps, and must answer to shareholders. Blackwater is privately held, founded by Navy SEALs, whose culture and work demand secrecy. Blackwater staffers declined to speak. Gabbing with reporters is not part of the job description.
As our reporting on Blackwater has continued through the years since Fallujah, the most secretive of all has been Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and heir to a billion-dollar auto parts fortune. Prior to the Fallujah ambush, which put the company on the map, his appearances in the media could be counted on one hand — if you had a few fingers missing. Prince grew up in a family not inclined to embrace the "mainstream media": his parents gave tens of millions of dollars to the religious right, supporting such advocacy organizations as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family. For four years, our newspaper has repeatedly requested interviews with Prince and met with no success. The Coalition Provisional Authority and the Department of State were of little more help. We submitted FOIA requests for reports and memos and contracts involving Blackwater, and we’ve received little in return. Ditto for the Department of Defense.
Despite our lack of access to such information, we have struggled to answer the questions of responsibility and accountability when private security companies are involved in a situation, such as this, that triggers action by the U.S. military. After all, the Fallujah ambush sparked the bloodiest month of the war to date; eventually there would be a second battle for Fallujah in November 2004. Who was responsible for this? Would anyone be held accountable?
It soon became clear the Blackwater mission through Fallujah was flawed. At that time Marines and the Army would go into Fallujah only in heavily armed convoys. The city, perhaps the most hostile to Americans in Iraq, was on the boil. Why did lightly armed private contractors get ambushed in a traffic jam unawares?
In weaving this story together, we had some extraordinary luck for a medium-sized paper, circulation 170,000. We had a young stringer in Iraq, Charles Crain, who was in Fallujah that day talking with local police. He witnessed the mob beating the men’s bodies hanging from the bridge, and he kept his head low. Crain later got his hands on a video of the ambush made by the attackers. Families of the four men were the most helpful, sharing stories, photos and e-mails from Iraq.
With what we learned in Iraq combining with what we’d reported in North Carolina, we were able to publish a seven-part series in which we profiled the contractors and Blackwater and unraveled events as best we could. As our initial series ran, we started to receive calls from people who would become our reliable and invaluable sources. A big breakthrough occurred when we obtained copies of contracts between Blackwater and its guards and Blackwater and the companies it worked for.
The contracts explained a lot. Why was it so hard to get Blackwater workers to speak with us? The contract forbade it and, if someone did talk, Blackwater could demand $250,000 in damages, payable in five business days.
The contract also revealed the flaws of the mission. The contract mentioned Fallujah by name in discussing the dangers of Iraq. Each Blackwater vehicle must have three men so that 360-degree field of fire could be watched. There were only two in Fallujah. There must be reconnaissance, a heavy weapon, and armored vehicles — the Fallujah mission had none of those, and the men killed in Fallujah had none of those.
We later obtained reports from another Blackwater team that skirted Fallujah that same day and returned safely. Blackwater threatened legal action if we published the reports, which were extremely pointed about where blame should be placed. These reports conveyed the men’s anger: They had vigorously protested about being sent out short-staffed, without maps, and into a part of the country they didn’t know.
"Why did we all want to kill [the Baghdad office manager]?" one member wrote the day after the massacre. "He had sent us on this fucking mission and over our protest. We weren’t sighted in, we had no maps, we had not enough sleep, he was taking 2 of our guys cutting off [our] field of fire. As we went over these things, we knew the other team had the same complaints. They too had their people cut."
Had the Marines sent a lightly armed, short-staffed squad into Fallujah, without maps or reconnaissance or planning, there would have been a court martial.
The contracts also revealed a little-reported part of the war. The reliance on private contractors and a web of subcontractors can come with a staggering price. Four layers of private companies existed between the taxpayer and the guards killed in Fallujah. Blackwater paid the guards killed in Fallujah $600 a day. Blackwater was contracted to Regency Hotel, a Kuwaiti company. Blackwater billed Regency $815 a day. Blackwater also billed Regency separately for all its overhead and costs in Iraq: insurance, room and board, travel, weapons, ammunition, vehicles, office space and equipment, administrative support, taxes and duties.
Regency then added its own profit and costs and billed it all to a European food company, ESS. The food company added its costs and profit and sent its bill to Kellogg Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton, which added overhead and profit and presented the final bill to the Pentagon.
What was the final tab to taxpayers? Was it double, triple or quadruple the $600 paid to the slain guard? We knew it was far higher, but the exact added cost was impossible to figure. We also found that Army auditors could not answer that question. The Defense Contract Audit Agency could examine the books of Kellogg Brown & Root, but they have no authority to audit the legion of subcontractors working indirectly for the United States.
After our story ran in October 2004, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman requested billing information and invoices from the Pentagon. He didn’t begin to get a response for almost two years. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Waxman chairs has been aggressively investigating Blackwater and other private military contractors. Blackwater has produced tens of thousands of pages of documents to the committee under subpoena, and Waxman has released several investigative reports corroborating our work. Ironically, Congressional staffers say that Blackwater has been much more forthcoming than the State Department.
Joseph Neff is a reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina.