Blackwater world begins to fray, workers say
New York Times (2007-10-26) Paul Von Zielbauer, James Glanz
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By PAUL VON ZIELBAUER AND JAMES GLANZ, The New York Times
© October 26, 2007
The Blackwater compound here is a fortress within a fortress. Surrounded by a 25-foot wall of concrete topped by a chain-link fence and razor wire, the compound sits deep inside the heavily defended Green Zone, its two points of entry guarded by Colombian army veterans carrying shotguns and automatic rifles.
In the mazelike interior, Blackwater employees live in trailers stacked one on top of another in surroundings that one employee likens to a "minimum-security prison."
Since Sept. 16, when Blackwater guards opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square, the compound has begun to feel more like a prison, too. On that day, employees of Blackwater, a Moyock, N.C.-based private security firm hired to protect American diplomats, responded to what they called a threat and killed as many as 17 people and wounded 24.
For weeks, not a word has emerged publicly from the compound, as the FBI, the American military and the Iraqi government investigate what happened Sept. 16 and earlier Blackwater shootings in Iraq.
But in recent days, that secretive Blackwater world has begun to fray under so much scrutiny, said four current and two former Blackwater employees. They described a grating sense among many Blackwater guards, especially those with years of experience, that the killings on Sept. 16 were unjustified.
"Some guys are thinking that it was not a good shoot, that it was not warranted," said one Blackwater contractor, using military jargon for an episode that results in a wrongful death. "I don't think there was criminal intent involved. I just think it was the application of the use of deadly force gone horribly wrong."
He added, "To mitigate one threat, 17 people had to die?"
Blackwater employees are aware of the conclusions of Iraqi investigators: that Blackwater never received fire and that any threat was illusory. Like the company in its official statements, the guards appear to believe that three armored Blackwater vehicles received several rounds of gunfire somewhere in the city that day, and that this might help explain why the guards fired into Nisoor Square.
Still, a growing number of Blackwater guards here believe that the federal investigation may result in criminal charges against some of the four to six members of the team believed to have fired weapons on Sept. 16. Most of the men who fired are former Marine infantrymen in their 20s, one Blackwater contractor with a military background said.
In a series of detailed interviews, given despite a company policy that forbids contractors from speaking openly, the Blackwater employees provided the first glimpse into how the deaths on Sept. 16 and in previous episodes were being recounted and understood by the armed men who protect American officials on Baghdad's streets each day.
Reporters for The New York Times spoke directly with four of the current and former employees; two others communicated with The Times in discussions and e-mail messages passed through intermediaries.
In the weeks since the shootings, Blackwater has been flooded with federal agents and investigators. A new batch of State Department security agents have flown in to help supervise each Blackwater convoy. FBI agents are interviewing Blackwater guards involved in the Sept. 16 episode. Blackwater lawyers also arrived at the camp about two weeks ago, contractors here said, to monitor those interviews.
"I'm just trying to hold on," said one member of the Blackwater convoy that was involved in the Sept. 16 killings, in an e-mail message. "They've been trying to bring in so many state agents, it's getting full over here."
Inside the Blackwater camp, a crisp American flag is carefully raised and lowered each day in Baghdad's dusty heat. In the closely stacked gray metal trailers that serve as living quarters, employees have 8-by-12-foot rooms and shared bathrooms. Recreation time is limited, and the employees eat among themselves. Many of the younger guards sunbathe on their trailer roofs - a few regularly did so in the nude, until female helicopter pilots flew overhead, saw them and complained.
According to Blackwater employees, the leader of the convoy on Nisoor Square was a man known as Hoss. He and two or three other members of the team have returned to the United States because their tours of duty were up or their contract with the company had ended, one employee here said. In Hoss' case, the trip home was to remove shrapnel from a wound he received before the Sept. 16 shootings.
Blackwater workers rarely interact with Iraqis in Baghdad, and regulations forbid them to travel outside the Green Zone when they are not on well-armed missions to protect State Department officials. Most convoys through the city do not carry Iraqi translators, leaving the young guards, former military men, to judge whether a gesture, a foreign phrase or a glance suggests a threat strong enough to justify a violent response.
Even in the Blackwater compound, no definitive account has emerged of how and why the Sept. 16 shootings occurred, company employees said. For its part, Blackwater has said its guards were responding to an insurgent attack. But in furtive discussions over recent weeks, certain details about the episode, they said, have gained currency among many Blackwater workers, many of whom would like to believe that their colleagues acted appropriately.
Those workers said, for example, that Blackwater guards who fired at Iraqis in Nisoor Square described how an Iraqi driver had pulled up his car well after the Blackwater convoy had arrived and warned traffic to stay back. The encroaching car, the workers said, caused their colleagues to feel threatened and initiate machine-gun fire. They also said friction between Blackwater convoys and groups of armed Iraqi police in the days before the shooting had created a mutual distrust, and that the police officers, perhaps as a result of earlier disputes, fired at the Blackwater convoy. "The Iraqi police were testing these guys at various intersections," said one former Blackwater guard who has spoken with men on the convoy at Nisoor Square.
Iraqi police officers at the intersection have said they were not armed that day, and none of the dozens of Iraqi witnesses interviewed by Iraqi investigators and reporters for The New York Times said they saw anyone firing at the Blackwater convoy or even brandishing a weapon.
But in a measure of the gulf between the narratives that have taken hold in the Blackwater compound and on the streets of Baghdad, the former guard and a current employee said a consistent view had developed within the compound: that Blackwater was fired upon by Iraqis with AK-47s who fled the scene immediately after Blackwater returned an overwhelming amount of fire.
"How long does it take for a dead terrorist to become a dead civilian?" a Blackwater employee said. "As long as it takes to remove an AK-47 from the body," suggesting that accomplices may have removed weapons as they fled.