Democracy Now! | Blackwater in the Crosshairs: The Families of Four Private Security Contractors Killed in Fallujah File a Ground-Breaking Lawsuit
Blackwater in the Crosshairs: The Families of Four Private Security Contractors Killed in Fallujah File a Ground-Breaking Lawsuit
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The families of four private security contractors killed in Fallujah in March 2004 have filed a ground-breaking lawsuit charging Blackwater USA with fraud and wrongful death. Blackwater has fought to have the case dismissed by claiming that all liability lies not with the company but the U.S. government.
In an expose in the new issue of the Nation magazine, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill tells the story of the struggle of the four families of the slain Blackwater contractors to hold those responsible for their deaths accountable.
We speak with Jeremy Scahill as well as Katy Helvenston, the mother of Scott Helvenston who was killed in Fallujah, and the attorney in the case, Marc Miles. [includes rush transcript]
This month marks the two-year anniversary of the first US siege of Fallujah, in which at least 600 Iraqis were killed. The U.S. attack was sparked by the gruesome killing of four private contractors inside Fallujah.
The men were working for Blackwater USA, one of the biggest security firms operating in Iraq.
Altogether an estimated 20,000 non-Iraqi civilian contractors are now working for the United States inside Iraq. About 6,000 of these are security contractors.
According to Department of Labor statistics, at least 425 U.S. civilians have died in Iraq including at least 22 Blackwater contractors.
These men and women are never included in the death tolls provided by the Pentagon or reported on in the media.
While the Iraq war has helped the company Blackwater USA see its profits soar, the company is facing a major battle here at home - this time in court.
The families of the four men killed at Fallujah have filed a lawsuit charging the company with wrongful death. Blackwater has fought to have the case dismissed by claiming that all liability lies not with the company but the U.S. government.
In an expose in the new issue of the Nation magazine, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill tells the story of the struggle of the four families of the slain Blackwater contractors to hold those responsible for their deaths accountable. The article is called "Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater"
One of the people profiled in the story is Katy Helvenston, the mother of 38-year-old Scott Helvenston, who was killed on that day in Fallujah. In a moment she will join us along with her attorney Marc Miles who is representing the families, Marc Miles.
But first we begin by going back to March 31 2004 -- the day Scott Helvenston and three other Blackwater contractors drove into Fallujah. This is an excerpt from Frontline's program "Private Warriors," a documentary on the role of private military contractors working in Iraq.
Private Warriors, excerpt of PBS Frontline documentary.
For more on this ground-breaking lawsuit, we are joined by the three guests:
Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist and former Democracy Now producer. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. His latest article "Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater" appears in the new issue of The Nation.
Katy Helvenston, mother of Scott Helvenston.
Marc Miles, attorney for the families of the four Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah.
This transcript is available free of charge. However, donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.
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JUAN GONZALEZ: This is an excerpt from Frontline’s program Private Warriors, a documentary on the role of private military contractors working in Iraq.
MARTIN SMITH: But the men were uneasy. One team member, former Army Ranger Wes Batalona, complained to a friend that the team had never worked together before.
HAROLD VIDINHA, Security Contractor: Wes was very upset because you're breaking your team, and you're putting people -- different people together. That's what's very upsetting. And then you are sending them in undermanned.
MARTIN SMITH: Contractually, Blackwater was to supply two SUVs with three guards per vehicle. Instead, the men set out at 8:30 in the morning with just two men per car, each short a rear gunner. They were escorting three empty trucks on their way to pick up some kitchen equipment at a base west of Fallujah. They were vulnerable -- and obvious. The commander responsible for Fallujah was Marine Colonel John Toolan.
COL. JOHN A. TOOLAN, U.S. Marines: Contractors were easily identified on the roads because they were all in brand-new SUVs -- 2004 SUV, tinted windows. So they were easy to pick out. And the insurgents knew that it was a fairly easy mark.
MARTIN SMITH: Around 9:30 a.m., they approached the center of town. Insurgents would ambush them from behind. All four guards were shot and killed. The insurgents made their own video of the aftermath.
HAROLD VIDINHA: The first thing that came up was a camera bouncing toward this SUV, and it went right into the car. There he was. I mean, that's -- I knew it was him from his looks, everything. I mean, clear as day. You know, at least I know he wasn't burned alive. He was dead.
MARTIN SMITH: By the time the press arrived, a mob had set the cars on fire.
COL. JOHN A. TOOLAN: Unfortunately, it was going out on CNN. And we knew that this was a key component of the insurgent strategy: Get the pictures out, make it look like they're winning. It was clear.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Frontline’s program Private Warriors, documentary on the role of private military contractors working in Iraq. We're joined in our New York studio by Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute. We're also joined by Katy Helvenston, the mother of Scott Helvenston, who was killed that day, March 31, 2004 in Fallujah. Also with us, attorney Marc Miles, who joins us from studio in Irvine, California. And we welcome you all to Democracy Now!
Jeremy, let’s begin with you. Lay out this story.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, as we got a few of the facts of the case from the clip that we just played from Frontline, but I also want to say that the four men -- I just want to say their names: Scott Helvenston, of course, is Katy’s son; then there was Mike Teague; Jerko Zovko, who was known as Jerry; and then Wes Batalona, who was talked about there. All four of these men were veterans of the U.S. military, of Special Forces. Scott Helvenston, Katy's son, was the youngest Navy Seal ever. He went through the rigorous Navy Seal program at age 17. The other guys were Army Rangers, and they were all very, very experienced combat soldiers. And like thousands and thousands of people in this war, their financial situation was one of the motivations that brought them to Iraq, where they could -- some of these guys would make $600 a paycheck in the United States, and they could make $600 a day by going to work for Blackwater or DynCorp or other companies. Katy, of course, can talk about how Scott ended up going there.
But one thing to stress here, and this is what the lawsuit alleges, it’s not just wrongful death, it’s also fraud. The lawsuit alleges that these men were defrauded, because Blackwater failed to provide them with the basic minimal guarantees of their contract, among them that they would be in armored vehicles, that they would have heavy weapons, something like a SAW Mach 46 machine gun that could fire up to 850 rounds per minute, and it’s very key. The State Department regulations call for six people to be on a security detail in Iraq, because of the security situation, while these men were sent out with only four.
And to understand what all of these shortcomings that day resulted in, you have to go back to March 31, 2004, and actually Marc Miles, the lawyer, can talk about some things that happened before that, as well. But when these four men ended up in Fallujah that day, they were in Pajero jeeps that were not armored at all. They didn’t have a rear gunner. And so, literally, the people that killed them were able to walk up and open fire on them. Had they had a rear gunner, had they had armored vehicles, a very strong case could be made that they never would have been killed.
Now, back in the United States, these killings were taken as a threat or a challenge to America's resolve in the White House and immediately became a sort of turning point in the war. It was the event that sparked the U.S. siege of Fallujah, in which hundreds and hundreds of Iraqis were killed, many of them who had nothing to do with this whatsoever -- women, children, others.
But while the families were grieving, Blackwater viewed it as a profit opportunity. The day after the killings, Erik Prince hired the Alexander Strategy Group -- it’s a now-disgraced lobbying firm, but it once was very powerful; it was Tom DeLay’s private lobbying firm, basically -- hired the Alexander Strategy Group to manage the newfound fame of Blackwater. And by the end of the year, the company’s president, Gary Jackson, was bragging of what he called a “staggering” 600% growth, and so Blackwater's prospects were very, very strong while the families were grieving.
And so, we have seen Blackwater really sort of embody the war profiteering in this war on terror. These four guys were sent out without armor, without the adequate guns, without adequate personnel, and Blackwater takes it as a moment to say, ‘Hey, we're famous now. Let's take this opportunity.’ Now, just recently, last month, Cofer Black, who is a former C.I.A. and State Department official that Blackwater hired up, was in the country of Jordan announcing that Blackwater was interested in essentially farming out its services to the highest bidder to engage in overt combat missions. Blackwater is scooping up lucrative Homeland Security contracts. They made a killing off of New Orleans. They charged the government $400,000 for 14 guys for 28 days in September of 2005 -- 14 guys, $400,000 for 22 days in September.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Jeremy, in your article, you talk about some of the contracts that you were able to get copies of, where actually Blackwater was subcontracting to others, but in their contract they deleted certain provisions of the protections of these men, and the men actually complained about it, the superiors complained about it. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. And this is something that I actually think Marc Miles would be very good on, but just in short, in studying this case, you sort of look at the pyramid scheme that exists in these war zones, where Blackwater is paying these guys $600. At the top, the federal government could be getting billed as much as like $2,000 -- $1,500 to $2,000 for these men.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Per day.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Per day. But they were getting paid -- like Scott Helvenston was getting paid $600 a day. Blackwater, in turn, was billing a Kuwaiti company more than $800 for Scott Helvenston’s services, and then that Kuwaiti company, in turn, billed a Cypriot company called E.S.S., which was the company that provides catering services to military operations, basically the U.S. military bases. And then the reports are that E.S.S. had a contract with Halliburton -- with K.B.R., the subsidiary of Halliburton. K.B.R. has denied any relationship to this and won't talk about it anymore. But it just shows sort of the breakdown. It goes through multiple hands, at least three or four layers per contract.
And so, in that whole pyramid scheme, what you saw was Blackwater had a subcontract with this Kuwaiti company, and the Kuwaiti company had the contract with E.S.S., so the contract with E.S.S., the company that provides the catering services, said explicitly because there is a very serious security situation in Fallujah -- it actually names Fallujah as one of the cities -- these men need to be traveling in armored vehicles. And it goes through all the other ones. There should be three men per team. Well, Blackwater then, when they cut their subcontract with this Kuwaiti company for this deal, kept intact the entire part of the contract that went over the security provisions, except for one word: armored. They deleted the word “armored.” And Marc Miles says that in doing that, Blackwater was able to save $1.5 million.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk to Marc Miles and also with Katy Helvenston. And when we come back from break, Katy, I want to ask you if Scott felt ready to go out on that day, March 31, 2004. We're talking about a groundbreaking lawsuit that has been filed against Blackwater. And I do want to say we invited Blackwater on the program today. They wrote back to us and said, “Out of respect for the families and the integrity of the judicial proceedings, I cannot join you. Regards, Chris Taylor of Blackwater.”