(MintPress) — The private military contractor Academi, formerly known as Blackwater, was fined $7.5 million earlier this week by the U.S. Justice Department for 17 counts of illegally trafficking weapons and selling arms to enemies of the United States. The controversial use of mercenary forces have been banned under international law. However, many countries, including the U.S., continue the controversial practice.
The latest report indicates that Blackwater, the recipient of many lucrative military contracts, has been involved in illicit arms deals and misconduct stretching back almost a decade. Most of the crimes committed occurred during the 2003-2011 Iraq War have been dismissed or are still under investigation.
According to Al-Manar, a news agency affiliated with Hezbollah, Blackwater security contractors have been spotted inside Syria, working with the Israeli Mossad and the CIA to aid Syrian rebels in their ongoing fight to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
Salim Harba, a Syrian expert in strategic affairs, confirmed the information during a March interview with the news agency remarking, “A coordination office was established in Qatar under American-Gulf sponsorship. The office includes American, French and Gulf – specifically from Qatar and Saudi Arabia – intelligence agents, as well as CIA, Mossad and Blackwater agents and members of the Syrian Transitional Council.”
Wikileaks also published an email correspondence between SCG International director Chief Executive James F. Smith and “Statfor VP,” a former Blackwater employee. SCG International is a security firm operating inside Syria. The company says it is taking part in a legitimate “fact finding” mission. However, its true mission is to “bring about regime change,” according to counter-terrorism expert Fred Burton.
Smith and Statfor VP exchanged numerous emails, agreeing to work cooperatively on future projects in Syria.
U.S. officials have not responded to these reports, as the recent settlement requiring Academi to pay between $5 million and 7.5 million is in regard to previous violations and misconduct mostly occurring during U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The settlement is relatively small given the company’s estimated $1.5 billion net value. Academi continues to rake in lucrative government contracts, including a contract signed in 2006 worth $320 million to provide security for U.S. and foreign officials in conflict zones.
Many claim that the small fine does not begin to fit the scale of the crimes Blackwater committed in what appears to be a lengthy list of arms violations and murder of innocent civilians.
The group reportedly possesses illegal AK-47s in the U.S. and previously sold satellite phones to Sudan in 2005 while later trying to establish security services in the East African country in 2006.
Sudan is considered an “enemy” of the U.S., a country subject to a strict arms embargo because of its yearly listing on the State Department list of “State Sponsors of Terror.” Blackwater did not receive permission from the U.S. government to carry out these operations.
The group has also exported ammunition to Iraq and Afghanistan and has been contracted to train the Canadian military. From 2006-2008 Blackwater helped Sweden and Denmark develop secret plans for armored personnel carriers. All of these actions were reportedly unsanctioned.
Because Academi maintains its headquarters in the U.S., the company is subject to U.S. laws and is required to seek government permission for its sometimes sensitive intelligence and security work. Much of the work carried out during the Iraq War was not sanctioned by U.S. authorities.
All Academi operations, including those sanctioned by the United States, are considered illegal under the 1989 Mercenary Convention, which strictly forbids, “armies for hire” and “mercenary armies” under the employ of any government. The U.S. rejects this assertion since Washington is not a signatory to this convention.
Blackwater violations in Iraq
Arguably the most blatant Blackwater violations occurred in 2007 when a Blackwater security detail tasked with securing a stretch of road in Western Baghdad in preparation for a meeting between U.S. diplomats and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) representatives, opened fire on innocent civilians.
On Sept. 16, 2007, Blackwater guards opened fire on Iraqi civilians during the routine security operation. Winessesses to the event said the attack was unprovoked, a random act of indiscriminate shooting which killed 17 Iraqi civilians and left 20 injured.
An internal Iraqi investigation found that at least five Blackwater employees were responsible for firing the shots, killing 17 without cause. U.S. federal investigators found that the guards killed 14 without cause.
The U.S. charged the guards with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and a weapons violation. However, the charges were later dropped by a New York judge December 2009 because “the case against the Blackwater guards had been improperly built on testimony given in exchange for immunity.”
The dismissal has been challenged by the Obama administration as the Justice Department announced last month that it will review the dismissal and the facts of the case. On a recent visit to Iraq, Vice President Joseph Biden said “a dismissal is not an acquittal,” vowing, “The Obama administration will appeal the decision.”
The massacre has been roundly condemned by Nuri Al-Maliki and the Iraqi government, damaging U.S.-Iraqi relations during an already tenuous time.
Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis, a coordinator of the Security and Intelligence Studies Program at the U.S.-based King College, contends that the massacre is part of a larger problem: making war economically profitable for contractors and private companies who are not fighting for supposed moral reasons, but rather only for financial gain.
Providing cover for a human rights violator?
“What you are seeing here is that parts of the American government are in a cozy relationship with the company, but other parts are trying to prosecute it for violations of the U.S. Criminal Code. And that’s the tension between the American government’s agencies fighting in this particular interesting situation,” said Fitsanakis in a Russia Today interview.
Fitsanakis continues, saying, “It wasn’t the biggest or the most active military contractor in Iraq but it was most certainly trigger-happy and most high-profile, which is counterintuitive – when you are in this kind of business, you want to keep a very low profile. The company is trying to do this now very carefully. My feeling is that it is going to have to try very, very hard to try to disassociate itself from its background.”
Although eyewitnesses and insiders have testified to the excesses and criminal activity of Blackwater during the Iraq war, little has been done to further investigate misconduct and prosecute those responsible.
For example, Howard Lowry testified in 2010 that Blackwater guards frequently had him procure illegal steroids, cocaine and hashish. His testimony was part of a 2008 lawsuit filed by two former Blackwater employees alleging that they had seen Blackwater staff take part in all night cocaine fueled parties at Baghdad’s al-Hamra hotel.
“It was like a frat party gone wild. There was cocaine all on the tables. There were blocks of hash, and you could smell it in the air,” said Lowry during the trial. Witnesses involved in the case also allege to have seen illegal weapons smuggling.
Erik Prince, the former Blackwater CEO, left the U.S. in 2010 and now resides in Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., prompting many to speculate that the former CEO’s relocation is a self-imposed exile to escape charge should he be indicted for crimes committed during the Iraq war or during other Blackwater operations.
Despite the consistent violations, no significant pressure has been brought to bear on the security contractor. Many critics postulate that this is tantamount to a U.S. government endorsement for the continued crimes of Academi and other security contractors.