On the fourth floor of the N.C. State University Student Center, Jeremy Scahill stepped to the podium to address the Peace Lunch Forum sponsored by Presbyterian Campus Ministry. For the next 45 minutes, the 32-year-old author of The New York Times best-seller Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army delivered his rapid-fire remarks—without notes.
Of the hundreds of corporate contractors in Iraq, "Blackwater is the elite because they have the most mission-critical task, which is to protect the occupation officials," he remarked. "Blackwater operates in a climate where immunity and impunity go hand in hand."
Blackwater sits on 7,000 acres amid North Carolina's Great Dismal Swamp. With millions of dollars in federal contracts, Blackwater is among a growing group of private contractors who receive 70 percent of the U.S. Intelligence budget.
The company, which became a household word in 2004 after four of its mercenaries were killed and their burned bodies strung from a bridge in Fallujah, is indirectly responsible for solidifying the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation, Scahill said.
Following those killings, President George W. Bush ordered a full-scale bombardment of Fallujah. In a week, 37,000 air strikes killed more than 600 Iraqis. The entire "collective punishment" was broadcast to the world "because of the bravery of those un-embedded journalists" of Al-Jazeera television, Scahill said. "The Iraqi resistance was absolutely inflamed and made in many ways by this event. This is a story that has not been filtered into this country yet because the U.S. media won't touch it, and it has everything to do with why there are 3,800 dead U.S. soldiers that have come back to Dover in body bags. But we don't talk about the historical context of this."
After taking a few questions, Scahill makes a jittery move for the exit. "I started smoking again," he says. "But I run every day." Later, in between seemingly endless calls and e-mails on his Blackberry, Scahill admits he hasn't run even once since Sept. 16. It was that day when Blackwater made international headlines again after its soldiers of fortune blew away 11 Iraqi civilians on a Baghdad street, and since then, Scahill's life has been a whirlwind. From CNN, to the U.S. Senate, to Comedy Central, timing has been everything for the journalist-turned-celebrity who seems to know more about Blackwater than anyone else except his nemesis, Blackwater's right-wing Catholic founder Erik Prince. A 38-year-old conservative and former Navy SEAL, Prince has an "ideological commitment to the foreign policy of the Bush administration," Scahill said.
Scahill had rolled into the Triangle in a beat-up old minivan, a ride he hitched from Tidewater with longtime Catholic Worker Steve Baggarly. (His publicist did put him up in a Durham hotel and fly him back to New York the next morning. A best-seller isn't making him rich, Scahill reports.)
Stuck in traffic on I-40 in Cary, en route to another speaking engagement at N.C. Central University, Scahill was on the phone with a congressional staffer who had a question about Blackwater's campaign contributions. The "very far right" Prince gives plenty to candidates, Scahill said. (The information is available at www.newsmeat.com and opensecrets.org.)
Scahill was raised in an activist family with ties to Dorothy Day and the New York City Catholic Worker. At a 1995 Washington, D.C., peace rally, he met the late peace activist Philip Berrigan, who invited him to visit Jonah House, the resistance community Berrigan and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, founded in inner-city Baltimore. Scahill went to Jonah House for the weekend, but stayed a year. "Look at the incredible education you get from spending a year painting houses on a ladder next to Phil Berrigan. It had a profound impact on me."
Once an activist, Scahill now devotes his life to journalism and is a regular contributor to The Nation. "I think that being alive in the times that we live in means to be a resister," he said. "For me, media is a nonviolent weapon in that struggle."
Mike Scahill, who lived at the New York Catholic Worker in the late 1960s and early 1970s, said he and his wife, Lisa, raised their three children to respect each other and be worldly.Mike Scahill said his oldest son showed promise as public speaker when, in the sixth grade, Jeremy volunteered to call bingo at Milwaukee's St. Rose Catholic Parish. "He just had this tremendous gift for impromptu, spontaneous speaking. It was truly a remarkable gift."
A University of Wisconsin dropout, Scahill traveled to Fallujah before the war as an independent journalist. "He just kind of up and went out East and the rest is history," Mike Scahill said. "He just got restless here."
That experience in Fallujah led him to later look more deeply at Bush's reasons for attacking the city after the deaths of the Blackwater guards. "How on earth were the lives of four corporate personnel worth the death of an entire city?" Scahill said.
Later, Scahill encountered armed Blackwater soldiers patrolling the streets of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and he began his research that became the book.
"He's literally invested years of his life investigating this," Mike Scahill said.
Last month's shootings in Baghdad prompted Iraq to temporarily oust Blackwater from the country, a short-lived threat Scahill said proves Iraqis don't call the shots on the U.S. occupation. After the smoke cleared, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Iraqi officials that "Blackwater will remain put."
Scahill says Blackwater doesn't even have an active operating license in Iraq; it expired in 2005. "So essentially Blackwater's been operating without any kind of oversight from the Iraqi government," he said.
Blackwater's first Iraq contract was early in the war, when the company was charged with providing security for then-U.S. envoy Paul Bremer. Partially as a thank you gift for a job well done, Bremer issued Order 17 before he left Iraq in June 2004, Scahill said. The order gave all private contractors immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law—while Bremer was allegedly handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi government, Scahill said.
"It was a strange definition of sovereignty to say, 'You're a sovereign country now, except your courts are worthless when it comes to prosecuting criminal activities, acts of murder or other abuses and misconduct.'"
By waging a war with corporate soldiers, the United States is changing the face of warfare. Alongside 170,000 active duty U.S. troops "there are an incredible 180,000 private contractors on the U.S. government payroll," Scahill said. "This is a staggering development in the history of warfare in this country, because now you don't have a coalition of willing nations that are occupying Iraq. You have a coalition of billing corporations. So the U.S. military is actually the junior partner in the so-called coalition that now occupies Iraq; junior partner to a corporate army."
Not all contractors are armed, Scahill said. Some are truck drivers and cooks, others do the laundry for the U.S. military, but "tens of thousands of them are armed mercenaries like those that work for Blackwater USA."
While Blackwater touts itself as an "All-American operation," Scahill said the company recruits foreign nationals, including those from nations opposing the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Despite Chile's stance against the Iraq war, Blackwater hired a former soldier who served under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to recruit Chilean commandos now working in Iraq.
"So what the Bush administration was able to do was to subvert the sovereignty of Chile, subvert the democratically elected government that is recognized by the Bush administration, and hire soldiers from Chile through Blackwater to go and occupy Iraq," Scahill said.
"We're seeing a total blurring of the line between the corporate army and the nation state, and it really poses a significant threat to global order," he said. "We need to own what's being done in our name, and the United States needs to get out of Iraq."