Monday, April 05, 2004

The Fallujah killings -- let the spin begin

It didn't take long for the spin to start regarding the recent Fallujah killings of four -- what shall we call them? -- "U.S. contractors". Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this entire story is how hard it's been to dig up the details of just what those "contractors" were doing in Fallujah in the first place. And what an interesting exercise in spin control it's been.

Some of the first news articles referred simply to the brutal murder of four "U.S. civilians," a description guaranteed to enrage just about everyone. After all, it's one thing for military personnel to come under fire, that's what they're there for. But innocent civilians? How dare they? Why, those amoral, cowardly savages! But, right from the start, there was something about this story that just smelled bad.

Given that Fallujah is widely recognized as a hotbed of anti-American sentiment, what on earth were American civilians doing there in the first place? More to the point, what were they doing, driving around the town in an SUV? It seems you had to wait a bit for the actual details to start trickling out, bit by bit.

The April 2 edition of the local Globe and Mail opened with a front page article, "U.S. vows to pacify Fallujah", by describing the victims, not simply as civilians, but as "U.S. contractors". Aha, one thinks, that's a little more forthcoming, but still, what kind of contractors? Doing what? For who? Sadly, the rest of the article says absolutely nothing more, and we're left guessing.

However, in a second, front page but below the fold story, "Soldiers walk softly in an angry town," we read how "... insurgents gunned down four American security contractors as they drove past in their SUVs..." Aha, again! Now they're not just contractors, but security contractors. It's a painful process but, if we're determined, we can tease these details out given time. But this still leaves questions. Security for who? Protecting what? Surely, there's more to this story.

And then we come to a buried, A14, single column story, "Killings shed light on role of hired gun", by Julian Borger, which describes the business of Blackwater Security Consulting of North Carolina, which confirms that the victims were, in fact, private hired guns -- essentially, mercenaries -- and describes Blackwater as "founded in 1996 by a former U.S. Navy commando ... to provide military and police training, and to serve as bodyguards and bomb-disposal experts." Blackwater employees are described as "soldiers of fortune, who earn as much as $900 (U.S.) a day in a conflict zone, far more than normal troops."

Well! That certainly cleared things up, didn't it? So from an initial picture of hapless and harmless civilians wandering around Fallujah, we're now dealing with four, highly-trained, well-armed mercenaries. And doesn't that just change the whole social dynamic? Suddenly, I'm not feeling so sympathetic anymore. But here's where the story gets good.

Regardless of what kind of training and background the victims had, there's still a wide-open question -- if they were security contractors, what were they doing in Fallujah and what were they protecting? And here's where the spin starts.

It didn't take long before the story started to spread how these contractors had been assigned to guard a food convoy in the area. Now, that's a terrific cover story -- selfless American contractors, risking their lives to deliver food to needy Iraqis, spreading the principles of democracy and freedom, and being rewarded by being brutally murdered. But in my readings lately, I could swear I read that the food was destined, not for needy Iraqis but for U.S. troops in the area. I'm going to try to find that reference but, for now, just keep this niggling detail in the back of your mind as you read the rest of this piece.

You'd think that the destination of that food convoy would be an integral part of this whole story, but it's tough to actually find that described anywhere. In Borger's piece in the Globe and Mail, Blackwater Security confirms only that "the four [victims] had been in in Fallujah to provide protection for food convoys into the town."

"Into the town"? Why so vague? Surely, if the food had been meant for Iraqi civilians, that would have been a huge PR detail, and the fact that it's omitted is certainly cause for suspicion. Borger writes of the convoy, "The firm gave no further details." And I can imagine why. But it appears that this is now the new spin point -- don't actually say where the food was going, but imply as strongly as you can that it was for innocent civilians.

This spin point is repeated numerous times in a TownHall piece by columnist Kathleen Parker, here, in a column linked to from the popular blog But Atrios doesn't pick up on Parker's subtle (and not so subtle) misdirection.

Early on, Parker describes the Iraqis as "those zoo animals we witnessed gleefully jumping up and down after stomping, dragging, dismembering and hanging the charred remains of American civilians whose only crime was to try to help them." Note the clear implication that the contractors were trying to "help" the Iraqis, but the maddening vagueness about exactly how.

Further down, however, Parker gets more explicit when she describes the contractors as "members of a security team who escorted American convoys carrying food supplies to an ungrateful town." Now this is pretty clear; Parker is obviously claiming that the food was bound for the Iraqis which, as we've seen, is anything but clear.

And just to drive the point home, toward the end, Parker writes, "Until Tuesday, we couldn't imagine that people we're trying to feed would murder and mutilate us", again working in the now-approved spin point with no evidence to back it up.

And don't forget Blackwater's own description -- that the four contractors had been hired, according to Borger's article, to "provide protection for food convoys into the town. The firm gave no further details."

It's obvious there's some serious spin happening here, and I'm trying to track down the previous article that claimed that the convoy was destined, not for hungry civilians, but for locally-based U.S. troops, a story which, I might add, just makes far more sense on its face.

More details as they surface.

UPDATE: The more I google for details, the more I'm convinced that there is real spin here. As another data point, we have this online article, which reads in part (emphasis added):

"It was unclear why the American contractors were travelling unescorted in such a dangerous area. The four worked for Blackwater Security Consulting of Moyock, N.C., which provides training and guard services to customers around the world. Blackwater is a government subcontractor providing security for the delivery of food in the Fallujah area."

Once again, that suspiciously vague reference to food being delivered to "the Fallujah area." I'm convinced that, if the food had been meant for hungry Iraqis, everyone would be making that painfully clear.

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