The Times has run what it believes is a big scoop on page A1 today: a story claiming that Blackwater bribed Iraqi government officials in order to prevent them from taking action against Blackwater after the Nisor Square shooting of September 2007.
As Marty Peretz recently observed, “Ours is an age when the moral authority of accusers is at its height. Also the moral authority of accusations. There was a time when accusations had to be proven. That requirement has long since passed.” That requirement has certainly passed at the Times.
The Times‘s astonishing indictment of Blackwater hangs on one thing and one thing only: the anonymous claims of two disgruntled ex-employees. The piece is long and has the appearance, amid many pointless digressions, of substance. But there is almost nothing to it — certainly nothing warranting being printed in a reputable newspaper. Here are the key qualifications, which are scattered through the piece:
1. “The executives, though, said they did not know whether the cash was delivered to Iraqi officials or the identities of the potential recipients.” In other words, nobody knows whether any money was paid, or to whom. You’d think that four ex-”executives” of Blackwater who have intimate knowledge of a bribery plot would also know something as basic as who was supposed to get the money and whether they got it — but obviously they don’t.
2. “The former Blackwater executives said it was not clear who proposed paying off Iraqi officials.” Not only don’t they know who was supposed to be bribed, they also don’t know who at Blackwater was behind the project.
3. “Two of [the Blackwater officials] said they took part in talks about the payments; the two others said they had been told by several Blackwater officials about the discussions.” In short, the Times doesn’t have four officials making an allegation — they have only two.
4. “A senior State Department official said that American diplomats were not aware of any payoffs to Iraqi officials.” So there is no corroboration from the U.S. government.
5. “… the four officials said that they were troubled by a pattern of questionable conduct by Blackwater, which had led them to leave the company.” In other words, the anonymous sources are not unbiased parties or objective observers — they are ex-employees who might have a motive to harm Blackwater’s reputation. And because they’re anonymous, nobody has any idea who they are or why they left. Maybe they really were conscientious objectors, as portrayed by the Times. But maybe they were fired for incompetence and are looking for revenge. Who knows?
Then there is the drama. The Times claims that Cofer Black, the former head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center and at the time a Blackwater employee, was in Baghdad working out the compensation agreement for the families of the Iraqis who had been killed in the aforementioned Nisor Square shooting:
According to former Blackwater officials, Mr. Black was furious when he learned that the payoff money was being funneled into Iraq. …
“We are out of here,” Mr. Black told a colleague, one former executive said. After returning to the United States, Mr. Black and Robert Richer, who had also joined Blackwater after a C.I.A. career, separately confronted Mr. Prince with their concerns about the plan, one former Blackwater executive said.
Blackwater has such a low opinion of the New York Times that none of the officials implicated in the story would speak to the Times. But Cofer Black has exclusively provided COMMENTARY with the following statement:
I never confronted Erik Prince or any other Blackwater official regarding any allegations of bribing Iraqi officials and was unaware of any plot or guidance for Blackwater to bribe Iraqi officials.
So the linchpin character in this story has demolished the story’s central allegation.
In sum, the Times has run a page A1 hit piece on Blackwater that, despite its length, consists only of the following: two people who quit Blackwater and dislike the company claim that Blackwater wanted to bribe Iraqi officials — a federal crime. They don’t know who came up with the idea; they don’t know who the money was intended for; they don’t even know whether any money changed hands. The accusers, of course, enjoy anonymity from the Times. And the central figure in the story completely denies the Times‘s account.