Blackwater's 'Merchants of Death'


Susan Burke supported the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, during the 2008 US presidential campaign. But now that Obama is in office, she finds her views diverging widely from his.

Obama is opposed to investigating the excesses of the administration of his predecessor, former President George W. Bush. Burke, an attorney, favors an investigation. Obama has thus far avoided answering the question of whether the US Constitution was violated in Bush's so-called "war on terror." Burke wants an investigation to focus on precisely this question. Obama is looking forward, while Burke is looking back.

What Burke sees when she looks into the rearview mirror is indeed ugly. She sees 17 dead, including women and children, lying on Nisoor Square in Baghdad, killed on Sept. 16, 2007 by mercenaries working for Blackwater, a private American security firm. She sees Blackwater employee Andrew Moonen who, after a Christmas party in 2006, drove through Baghdad, heavily armed, and shot a man for no reason. She hears the shot, fired from a Blackwater helicopter, that killed an innocent man on Baghdad's Wathba Square on Sept. 9, 2007.

But most of all, Burke sees Erik Prince, Blackwater's founder and former owner. In her suit, she refers to him as a "modern-day merchant of death," and she alleges that the 40-year-old created a "culture of lawlessness and unaccountability" at Blackwater, where the "excessive and unnecessary use of deadly force" was commonplace. In her motion, Burke also accuses Blackwater of war crimes. The US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria, Virginia, will now decide whether to take on Burke's civil suit.

Committed In the Name of America

The political world will also have to make some decisions. The first question is whether the US government will make public on Monday the most comprehensive report to date on the treatment of terrorism suspects. That alone would trigger a political hurricane in Washington, says former CIA Director Porter Goss. It would also make it much more difficult for the government to rebuff calls for it to finally investigate all the alleged illegal activity carried out in the fight against terrorism.

It was not until the end of June that US Attorney General Eric Holder read the report, which was prepared by the CIA's inspector general in 2004. But then he spent a full two days in his office in Washington D.C. studying the document. When he had finished reading it, he apparently stood at the window for a long time, staring out at Constitution Avenue. Horrified over what had been done in the name of America, Holder looked into the possibility of appointing a special prosecutor. Sources in Washington say that he has now achieved his goal, which puts him more squarely in Burke's camp than Obama's.

Blackwater characterizes Burke's accusations as "scandalous and baseless," and claims that the cases she cites were isolated incidents. According to Blackwater attorneys, "no diplomat under the protection of this service died or even was injured during the entire duration of the contract."

Symbol of an Era

Prince, who earlier in his career claimed to have "the heart of a warrior," is intent on preventing the civil suit from going to trial. To that end, he has hired a team of lawyers working for the law firm of Mayer Brown, which also represents 89 companies on Fortune magazine's list of the top 500 US companies ranked by revenues.

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