AP, networks mum on Romney-Blackwater connection

››› ››› ROB DIETZ

News reports on Iraq's Interior Ministry ordering security firm Blackwater USA to leave the country following the deaths of at least eight Iraqi civilians have continued to ignore Blackwater USA vice chairman Cofer Black's role as chairman of Mitt Romney's counterterrorism policy advisory group.

In a September 17 article, the Associated Press reported that Iraq's Interior Ministry "ordered Blackwater USA, the security firm that protects U.S. diplomats, to stop work and leave the country after the fatal shooting of eight Iraqi civilians following a car bomb attack against a State Department convoy." The article noted that "vice chairman Cofer Black, a former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center, declined to comment when reached at his Virginia home." But there was no mention in the article that Black was named the head of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's counterterrorism policy advisory group on September 13, according to a press release that day from the Romney campaign. Similarly, in their coverage of Blackwater USA, none of the networks -- ABC, NBC, or CBS -- reported Romney's connections to Black during the nightly news broadcasts on September 17. Additionally, neither ABC's Good Morning America nor NBC's Today noted the connection in their reports during the broadcasts on September 18. The September 18 edition of CBS' The Early Show did not report on Blackwater USA at all.

The Romney campaign press release, which was noted by a September 13 Boston Globe article, quoted Black saying, "Governor Romney recognizes the threats before us and has already laid out the policies needed to give our men and women the tools they need to protect our country."

A September 17 Kansas City Star article reported on Romney's hiring of Black, but did not note Black's role as vice chairman of Blackwater USA.

As Media Matters for America noted, in September 17 reports, CNN, CNN.com, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times all failed to note the connection between Romney and Blackwater USA. By contrast, Time.com Washington editor Ana Marie Cox noted Blackwater USA's connection to the Romney campaign in a post on the Swampland blog. Cox wrote: "Company run by Mitt Romney's national security adviser ejected from Iraq over an incident in which 'eight civilians were killed and 13 were wounded when security contractors believed to be working for Blackwater USA opened fire in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of western Baghdad.' I suspect this is not the way Romney was planning on announcing his plan for withdrawal."

From the September 17 edition of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): Now we turn to Iraq, what could be a major setback for U.S. operations there. The Iraqi government has ordered a company that provides security for the U.S. to stop work and leave the country after a shooting that left a lot of civilians dead. That would be a big deal for this company, which does a lot of work over there. There are very different versions of exactly what happened here, and NBC's Jim Miklaszewski is with us from the Pentagon tonight with details. Jim, good evening.

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI (NBC chief Pentagon correspondent): Good evening, Brian. It's a heard -- it's a name that we've heard many times before: Blackwater, the private firm that has about 1,000 armed security guards inside Iraq providing security for the State Department and its employees there, now under fire in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

The incident took place Sunday in the Mansour district of Baghdad. Conflicting reports say a State Department convoy of six armored SUVs driven by Blackwater security contractors was passing through a square when a car bomb exploded. The convoy then reportedly came under small arms fire from several directions. One SUV was disabled. The Blackwater guards piled out of the vehicles and returned fire. Iraq officials say two Blackwater helicopters hovering overhead also fired on the square. And when the shooting stopped, up to 11 Iraqi civilians had been killed.

Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki, accused the Blackwater contractors of randomly firing on civilians and vowed to prosecute. Blackwater vice president Marty Strong said today his contractors shot back only in self-defense after taking heavy fire from insurgents.

STRONG: The initial reports are from multiple directions from people running around armed, almost 360 degrees.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Blackwater has lost over 30 contractors in Iraq, but is most remembered for its four security contractors savagely murdered and dragged through the streets of Fallujah three years ago. There are as many as 50,000 private armed contractors in Iraq. Most provide security for the U.S. government and its military bases, who are stretched so thin in Iraq, U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker says they can't get by without them.

CROCKER: We don't have enough people in the State Department to do this.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Nevertheless, critics refer to all private security as hired guns not held accountable for their actions.

PETER SINGER (military analyst): The contractors are very unpopular to Iraqi civilians. They're these guys in the black SUVs that zoom by, force you off the road, and they point guns at you.

MIKLASZEWSKI: In this case, however, State Department and military officials indicate that it appears that Blackwater guards acted properly. And there's no talk about pulling Blackwater out of Iraq, Brian.

WILLIAMS: Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon tonight. Mik, thank you for that. And for more on all of this, we're joined tonight by our NBC News Middle East bureau chief Richard Engel. He's in Beirut. And, Richard, first of all, this is the first conflict we have used contractors in this heavy a role. Lay out what kinds of jobs they're doing.

ENGEL: Some people have said, Brian, that while it used to be called the "coalition of the willing," now the war in Iraq has been subcontracted so much it's a coalition of the billing. The loss of Blackwater would be a potentially crippling blow to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the biggest embassy in the world. Whenever embassy personnel go out to visit reconstruction projects or visit local politicians, they are accompanied by Blackwater. They provide close air support, and you see their small helicopters flying over the Baghdad skyline all the time. They also protect the convoys as embassy personnel move back and forth. Essentially, they're bodyguards.

WILLIAMS: And, Richard, we've both seen these ubiquitous convoys. They are aggressive, they are armed to the teeth. But, in their defense, it's dangerous work in a dangerous place.

ENGEL: It certainly is. And, as Mik pointed out, they have lost 30 people in Baghdad, Blackwater alone. But other security contractors we've spoken to say that the company does have something of a reputation for being a bit trigger-happy. It's been called cowboys. This is not the first time they've had problems with the Iraqi government.

WILLIAMS: All right. Richard Engel with us tonight from Beirut. Thanks.

From the September 17 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:

GIBSON: In Iraq, the Interior Ministry there says it has revoked the license of a prominent American security firm, Blackwater USA. The move came as result of gunfight in Baghdad. Blackwater guards allegedly killed nine Iraqi civilians and wounded 15 while protecting a State Department convoy that had come under attack. Blackwater provides security to many top government officials in Iraq. Here's Terry McCarthy in Baghdad.

TERRY McCARTHY (correspondent): The Iraqi government says what happened to these people was a crime. They were on a busy street in western Baghdad when Blackwater security guards escorting a U.S. embassy convoy allegedly opened fire.

"They shot randomly," says this man who was wounded. "Shooting at cars with women and children inside."

As punishment, the Iraqi government said they were revoking Blackwater's permission to work in the country. The company has over 900 employees in Iraq and provides of most of the security for U.S. embassy officials. Blackwater said today its contractors "acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack." If they are expelled, the 1,000 employees in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad would be essentially confined to their compound and unable to get out to meet Iraqis.

CROCKER: There is simply no way at all that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq.

McCARTHY: Private security contractors have been controversial here for some time. They can, and do, use lethal force, and yet many Iraqis feel they are not accountable to anyone.

JEREMY SCAHILL (author, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army [Nation Books, February 2007]): Many deadly incidents have occurred involving the company, and none of its members have been held accountable for any of the actions or activities of Blackwater inside of Iraq.

McCARTHY: It is a dangerous job. Over 1,000 private security contractors have been killed in Iraq since the war began. But some Iraqis say they are too quick to shoot first. This video, released by a former employee of Aegis Security Company, shows guards shooting at Iraqi vehicles. As an indication of how serious the Blackwater affair has become, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a rare phone call tonight to Prime Minister Maliki to apologize. But the damage may already have been done. Terry McCarthy, ABC News, Baghdad.

From the September 17 edition of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric:

HARRY SMITH (guest anchor): To Iraq now, where today the government ordered the American security firm Blackwater to leave the country after some of its people were involved in a deadly firefight. The incident raises questions about the role of civilian contractors in Iraq. There are almost as many of them as there are U.S. troops. Here's David Martin.

DAVID MARTIN (national security correspondent): This is Blackwater in action. Blackwater helicopters drop off ammo for Blackwater snipers, fighting alongside American troops in the 2004 battle for Najaf.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Green flag is Mahdi Army. They're to be engaged at any opportunity.

MARTIN: If these guys look like commandos, that's because Blackwater hires former Navy SEALs and members of Delta Force. On Sunday, Blackwater was providing security for a State Department convoy when, according to the U.S. embassy, a car bomb went off and a firefight broke out. The Iraqi government says eight Iraqi civilians were killed.

Iraq's prime minister called Blackwater's actions criminal, and the Iraqi government barred it from operating anywhere in the country.

Secretary of State Rice phoned the prime minister to express regret for what Jeremy Scahill, author of a book about Blackwater, says was bound to happen.

SCAHILL: I mean, this is after four years of private security contractors running around Iraq in a sort of Wild West atmosphere. Finally the Iraqi government has stood up and said, "No more of this."

MARTIN: Carter Andress, who runs another security company -- that's him with General David Petraeus -- says Blackwater has a heavy-handed reputation.

ANDRESS: They're perceived as being arrogant when they operate on the road, and they way they operate interferes in what the mission is here because it alienates the Iraqis.

MARTIN: But the U.S. has to rely on hired guns to guard its diplomats. Otherwise, soldiers would have to do it, and there are not enough of them. David Martin, CBS News, the Pentagon.

From the September 18 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

CHRIS CUOMO (news anchor): A private security firm responsible for protecting U.S. diplomats and engineers in Iraq is being thrown out of the country for killing Iraqi civilians. Two guards for Blackwater USA allegedly shot and killed nine Iraqis and wounded 15 others in a recent gun battle after an attack on a State Department convoy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called Iraq's prime minister to discuss the incident. This could be a severe blow to the security of American operations in Iraq.

From the September 18 edition of NBC's Today:

NATALIE MORALES (Today national correspondent): The Iraqi government has ordered an American security contractor, Blackwater USA, to leave Iraq after a shooting Sunday that left eight Iraqis dead. Details are still unclear, but American officials said bombs were going off in the area and shots were being fired at an American diplomatic convoy at the time. Iraq says it will review the status of all security companies now working there.

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