What was coming out of the television? Talk of Christmas Eve gunplay in Baghdad. An Iraqi vice president's security guard killed by a drunken off-duty private security contractor. The shooter was fired and quickly hustled out of Iraq. And live from the Beltway, a set-piece battle of wits between a glowering congressman and a resplendently barbered former Navy SEAL who started a business called Blackwater USA.
Blackwater founder Erik Prince at the hearing proudly defended his employees as "Americans working for America protecting Americans." But a congressional staff report, drawn from Blackwater and State Department internal reports and e-mails, recounts derring-don't stories of shootings and reckless road smashups. A brigadier general in Iraq, Karl Horst, has complained that security contractors "run loose in this country" and that the Army has "no authority" to rein them in.
Americans are learning more about contractors in Iraq, where they outnumber the soldiers. Some cook, some translate and some, most famously Blackwater, provide security for U.S. officials and operations.
Los Angeles Rep. Henry Waxman, the Democrat who ran Tuesday's hearings, estimates that "40 cents of every discretionary federal dollar" goes to private companies.
As pressure builds to bring home the troops, that means bringing home contractors -- including Blackwater's, which Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings likened to "a shadow military of mercenary forces that are not accountable to the United States government or to anyone else."
Stateside, Blackwater's first domestic job was security work for the feds after Hurricane Katrina. The Virginian-Pilot, in its Pulitzer Prize-finalist 2006 series on Blackwater, reported that the firm sees home-front opportunities post-Iraq. Its deputy director of domestic operations, Seamus Flatley, said that it's "a distasteful fact" but "doctors, lawyers, funeral directors, even newspapers -- they all make a living off of bad things happening. So do we, because somebody's got to handle it."
That stopped me cold. Privateers doing jobs that have always fallen to government, to police officers, to citizen-soldiers? Blackwater officials had made a pitch for post-earthquake work in person to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, according to the paper. After Jeremy Scahill, author of "Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," repeated that account, the governor's office told The Times that there had been no such meeting.
Maybe the Blackwater boys were blowing smoke to impress clients. I tracked this around Sacramento recently and was told again no, no meeting. All right, but what about other Blackwater overtures? E-mails, letters, phone pitches? Carrier pigeons?
None that he knows of, says Frank McCarton, the chief deputy director at the state's Office of Emergency Services. And anyway, he told me, California wouldn't need that kind of help. "We have a very robust mutual-aid system" that allows states to call on other states' law enforcement, firefighters or National Guard for help in a crisis. After 9/11 in New York, McCarton remembers, "we had California Highway Patrolmen directing traffic in midtown."
And a state Office of Homeland Security spokesman told me that there is "no indication of any contact" between the OHS and Blackwater. And "to the best of everyone's knowledge [the OHS would] never . . . entertain the possibility" of hiring the firm.
Whatever the theater and politics behind Tuesday's hearings, they served a bigger purpose: asking Americans what we want our military to be.
A large, permanent standing army may make Americans uneasy, but we're uneasier still about mercenaries -- all the way back to the Revolution and the Hessians who fought with the British. Heartland America has a more recent and profound mistrust born from experience of private corporate and for-hire security forces, like Pinkerton, muscling workers in industries from steel to railroads to automobiles.
And in San Diego County, where Blackwater wants to build an 824-acre training facility, the locals do not seem pleased. Not only have residents protested, planning agency members who voted for it face a recall vote.
For nearly 20 years, the professional military has been shrinking and the military-contractor industry has been growing. In 1992, the same year that then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney proposed cutting the National Guard and Reserves by more than a quarter of a million bodies, the Guard was sent to Los Angeles to keep order after the riots. Currently, Guard deployments overseas have made the thin olive-drab line at home even thinner.
When the fighting's over, the citizen-soldiers come home and have to get on with civilian careers. But for security contractors, war is their civilian career. Where to take those skills, except to another crisis?
My father was a civil defense volunteer; some of his friends were in the National Guard. Citizen-soldiers have been citizen first and last. They didn't always get it right -- like at Kent State in 1970 -- but they were fully accountable. They were not hustled out of the country, like Blackwater's Christmas Eve shooter.
Gov. Schwarzenegger, if you're ever tempted to take that Blackwater meeting -- don't. Can it ever be the best policy to turn over the emergency protection and support of this "homeland" to mercenaries whose loyalty belongs not to our Constitution but to a CEO?