It’s been amusing joining the crowd in daily running our pieholes about last week’s Blackwater controversy.
The Rabbit’s normal approach, however, is more of a weekly examination of some industry issue rather than breathless reporting of the latest pscelebrity gossip.
So we’ll leave the rants, diatribes, and cool product news to others and go back to examining issues. Still through the vehicle of our 10-million gigawatt lightning rod, Blackwater, of course.
Was That 14 or 15?
Let’s start with a test. Some of you have seen it, but others have not.
We’ve got a video for you to watch. You should only watch it once. In the video you will see a group of basketball players, some dressed in white and some in black. They will pass two basketballs around. Your goal is to count how many times a player in a white shirt throws the ball. Watch it once and note your number.
If you saw thirteen passes, click here.
If you saw fourteen passes, click here.
If you saw fifteen passes, click here.
The Guy in the Fuzzy Bunny Suit
As the natural cynics expected, the test has nothing to do with the number of basketball passes.
The real question is whether you saw an animal passing by in the background—a wombat, a sloth, platypus, lemur, whatever.
The vast majority of people who watch this video never see the woman in the gorilla suit walk right into the middle of the game, stop, wave her hands, and then walk on. If you didn’t see it, go ahead and watch it again.
This is just one of a number of tests that show that humans are remarkably poor at grasping and retaining complex, stressful, or dynamic situations. The best explanation of the gorilla suit test is here, but this form of "cognitive blindness" is but one among many perceptual- and memory-related reasons that—contrary to common belief—eyewitness testimony is quite unreliable.
The Gorilla Did It
Now before yet another Rabbit statement gets taken out of context, let’s look at why this human foible is important.
The Iraqi Ministry of the Interior is busily collecting statements from various Iraqis who were at or near the scene of the incident (one would hope not statements from insurgents). The U.S Department of State is no doubt methodically debriefing all of the State personnel and Blackwater contractors who were involved.
And according to press reports, during the investigation phase, neither team is having squat-all to do with the other.
Now really, what in the sam hell results do you expect them to achieve?
The MoI already released its report, basically claiming the mercenaries were maniacally shooting everything moving and drinking goat’s blood out of baby skulls, while the U.S. will eventually get around to providing an extensive brief on how the contractors strictly followed the Rules For the Use of Force—and stopped mid-firefight to find a lost kitten and help two old ladies cross the street.
The point being Iraqi witness and Blackwater participant statements from the scene will be a jumbled morass of conflicting assertions. (Peter Singer is, as usual, slightly more diplomatic than us in making the same point.)
In the same vein, you’ve got the MoI issuing their list of seven Blackwater incidents—some deadly serious (like the Christmas Eve off-duty shooting and the Nisour Square incident) and some that have to be a joke (breaking a windshield? being at the scene of an insurgent vs. military firefight?). Meanwhile, the State Department is sort of saying ‘seven incidents in the middle of a warzone—they’ve only done 1800 missions just this year.’
In other words, we have a cornucopia of ammunition for extremists on both sides of the issue to use. The DailyKos crowd can vehemently screech about how Beelzebub in body armor gleefully mowed down dozens, and the Ann Coulter set can rail about how the dirty camelhumping savages got what they deserved and ought have another helping.
Don’t believe? Here is a mild example: "Baggarly is vehemently against the war, and Blackwater has become its face. No matter what the investigation finds, he said, it won’t change his opinion of the company. ‘Even if they fired second,’ he said, ‘I still consider them to be at fault. They’re at fault for being in Iraq in the first place.’"
For many people, the Iraqi and Blackwater witness statements may be a wash. Unless the national police headquarters video proves more helpful than the Sallyport video, or some reliable third party turns up during the joint committee’s work, we may never know ground truth about what happened.
So What’s Your Angle, Rabbit?
So, if we don’t rage about how one group (pick one) obviously wronged the other, what’s left to say?
After all, ‘what the license regime used to be’ type discussions are somewhat philosophical at this point, as Blackwater is already back at work and this is entirely a political issue now.
The political jockeying is clear to anyone who keeps an eye on Mess’opotamia: Minister al-Maliki is trying to keep the unwashed masses happy and keep cleric al-Sadr in check, the cleric wants everyone but him out or dead, President Bush wants them both to shut up and toe the line, etc.
But below the surface there is even more political intrigue and agenda—which is why we said before that this whole controversy really has little to do with the stinking license.
And that intrigue and agenda is our topic. Because it will have a great impact not only on the entire industry, but on the entire U.S. "thing" in Iraq. (War, occupation, mission, presence, effort—whatever implication-laden term you choose.)
We’ve probably watched one too many bad made-for-TV detective movies, but we couldn’t help but wonder, "What’s their motive for this?"
With regard to Blackwater specifically, the most obvious answer is that Blackwater contractors / mercenaries have killed more than a couple of MoI personnel over the past few months. Let’s take a quick look (remembering that we don’t have all the facts on any of these incidents):
Certainly the most advertised and also, by appearances, the most clear cut: the Christmas Eve shooting, which The Rabbit used as a multi-part case study of contractor accountability issues. This involved an off-duty guy who got drunk at a bar run by government-civilians and then shot an MoI security guard. The shooter reportedly claims self-defense, but it would be good to see Justice/FBI get off the dime and do something with this case. We can’t find it so we would like to know: Has anyone asked them about it at a press conference or Congressional hearing?
Then in May of 2007, Blackwater forces on a motorcade ended up shooting an Iraqi driver (and reputed MoI employee) right outside the Ministry HQ. Reports from the scene range from ‘the driver did nothing wrong’ to the Blackwater guards "tried to wave off the vehicle, shouted, fired a warning shot into the radiator, then shot into the windshield when the driver refused to pull back … such steps are recommended under the rules for the use of force."
Add to that the fact that Iraqi Police (part of the MoI) and/or insurgents / freedom fighters posing as Iraqi Police have either exchanged fire with or fired upon PSCs—and Blackwater motorcades specifically—on numerous occasions, and you have a lot of ticked off folks inside the Ministry.
In short, when the opportunity to shiiv Blackwater came along, justified or not, the MoI was only too glad to get in as many blows as possible.
But this is the Middle East, and there is more to it than just bad blood.
The fact is, the Ministry apparently is as corrupt and rotten through and through in fact as the U.S. government is in the hyperbole of pundits and partizans.
Here’s what was being reported (via NPR among other places) several weeks before the Nisour Square incident:
State Department investigators in Iraq have concluded that the government of Nouri al-Maliki is not capable of even rudimentary enforcement of anti-corruption laws. The investigators also say that corrupt civil servants with connections to the government are seen as untouchable, and that employees of Iraq’s watchdog Commission on Public Integrity have been murdered in the line of duty.
If you believe the report, and you listen to people who work at these ministries, you get the impression that corruption is completely sapping the country’s resources. I had a long talk this afternoon with someone who works at the Ministry of Interior—that’s the department that supervises all of Iraq’s police forces. And he told me that it’s corrupt from top to bottom—that officials at the top of the pile are making money from things like contracts to buy equipment.
NPR was far from alone in advancing this story, however. For example, The Nation ran "Corruption is ‘Norm’ Within Iraqi Government," which had this to say:
[The report] also maintins that the extensive corruption within the Iraqi government has strategic consequences by decreasing public support for the U.S.-backed government and by providing a source of funding for Iraqi insurgents and militias.
The Ministry of the Interior, which has been a strong hold of Shia militias, stands out in the report. The study’s authors say that "groups within MOI function similarly to a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) in the classic sense. MOI is a ‘legal enterprise’ which has been co-opted by organized criminals who act through the ‘legal enterprise’ to commit crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, bribery, etc." This is like saying the mob is running the police department. The report notes, "currently 426 investigations are hung up awaiting responses for documents belonging to MOI which routinely are ignored." It cites an episode during which a CPI officer discovered two eyewitnesses to the October 2006 murder of Amer al-Hashima, the brother of the vice president, but the CPI investigator would not identify the eyewitnesses to the Minister of the Interior out of fear he and they would be assassinated. (It seemed that the killers were linked to the Interior Ministry.) The report adds, "CPI investigators assigned to MOI investigations have unanimously expressed their fear of being assassinated should they aggressively pursue their duties at MOI. Thus when the head of MOI intelligence recently personally visited the Commissioner of CPI…to end investigations of [an] MOI contract, there was a clear sense of concern within the agency."
Gee, that doesn’t sound good.
But so what? What does utter corruption in the MoI have to do with the Blackwater incident, or the operation of other PSCs in Iraq?
Private security contractors in Iraq say most expatriate companies in the country operate without licenses because corrupt government officials who issue them demand bribes of up to $1 million.
"A couple of companies tried to get licenses, but no one has licenses because the bribes they were asking were too big, up to $1 million," said a member of the elite Blackwater USA security company, which has been ordered by Iraqi authorities to halt its operations.
So, now that the wellspring of $100 bill footballs has dried up, what’s a corrupt Iraqi official to do? Lean on someone for some graft? They won’t pay? Lean a little harder, like the May 2007 MoI protests about Blackwater. Still no baksheesh? Time to break some kneecaps.
And then, of course, there is the purported MoI involvement in illicit detention centers, torture chambers and death squads.
All these things have been regularly trotted out as evidence of just how abysmally U.S. policy in Iraq has failed. The Rabbit takes no position here on whether that is or is not the case. BUT, it is quite remarkable that this same thoroughly corrupt, rotten and evil MoI that is the scourge of all that is good in the world is suddenly quite reputable, fair and ethical when they begin to disparage PSCs and denounce "mercenary crimes." Then, it’s nothing but sunshine and puppy dogs.
Interesting, that, isn’t it?
Again, we hope that the joint report will bring us all some sort of hard evidence on exactly what happened. If the contractors / mercenaries failed to follow their Rules for Use of Force, then they certainly should be sent to a fair trial with due process safeguards.
There is, however, significant cause to be very careful in considering information coming out of the MoI about PSCs in Iraq. To put it mildly.
The MoI, however, is not the only major faction in Iraq having a big ax to grind with Blackwater. Next week we’ll begin discussing one of the most viewed and least understood events from the Iraq Experience.
What people are saying about The Rabbit:
"The White Rabbit? There is no such thing. Never happened. When do I get the coke and hookers?" – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, overheard backstage at Arledge Auditorium