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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Iraq

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Just as his critics had been predicting, President Donald Trump granted a long list of pardons and commutations this week — from his 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort to former Rep. Duncan D. Hunter of California to Charles Kushner (father of White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner) to four former Blackwater security guards. Some of the sharp criticism that Trump has received for the Blackwater pardons has been coming from people in national security or law enforcement, and former FBI special agent Thomas O'Connor slams those pardons in an op-ed published on CNN's website on Christmas Eve Day.

The four security guards, who worked for the private security firm Blackwater during the George W. Bush era, were serving time in prison for their involvement in the slaughter of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square on September 16, 2007. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince is a far-right Trump supporter and the brother of Betsy DeVos, secretary of education in the outgoing Trump Administration.

O'Connor, who spent 23 years as an FBI special agent before retiring in 2019, explains, "I know that these men were undeserving of pardons because I was a member of the FBI evidence response team that traveled to Iraq and investigated the site of these killings."

O'Connor goes on to describe the events that occurred in Baghdad 13 years ago during Bush's second term as president.

"On September 16, 2007, Baghdad, Iraq was a dangerous place," the former FBI special agent recalls. "No one will dispute that fact. On that day, a bombing took place a few miles from a busy traffic circle called Al Nisour Square, which is used by Iraqis to access major roadways across Baghdad. A security detail from the private government contractor Blackwater was protecting a U.S. official attending a meeting at a government building when the bomb was detonated."

O'Connor notes that "the Blackwater Raven 23 defendants claimed that they responded to gunfire aimed at them while stopping traffic in Nisour Square that day." But after an "FBI team made four trips to Iraq to investigate this shooting," O'Connor writes, the evidence "was introduced into several U.S. court hearings.

"A jury heard the evidence and found four Blackwater guards guilty of murder, manslaughter and weapons charges," O'Connor notes. "The system worked, and justice was brought to the deceased, the injured victims and their families. The families of those killed and wounded at Nisour Square will now watch those responsible for this tragedy go free thanks to a pardon by the president of the United States. This simply makes me sad and angry."

O'Connor wraps up his op-ed by emphasizing that the four Blackwater guards were not acting in self-defense in Nisour Square.

"There is no forensic evidence of anyone shooting at the Blackwater team," according to O'Connor. "How do I know? The evidence told me that."

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Former national security official Susan Rice

If Joe Biden takes my advice and chooses Susan Rice to be his running mate, then there will be criticism from people who opposed the Iraq War. That's because if you Google "Susan Rice" and "Iraq War," you will find several sources, including Wikipedia, that say she supported it. Let me try to save critics and journalists from that error by setting the record straight.

From everything I've been able to find, Rice did not support the Iraq War. She opposed it, in a show of wise and independent judgment.

I came by this information by falling victim to these sources and including a line in a recent column saying she endorsed the invasion. Shortly after it appeared online, I got a nice email from her press spokesperson, Erin Pelton, thanking me for the column but informing me that Rice opposed the war.

This came as a surprise. I asked for documentation but wasn't convinced by the information she sent. I talked with Pelton by phone; she said she would see what else she could find.

Then, Rice called and explained, in a gracious and congenial way, how frustrating this "urban legend" has been for her. She recounted her thinking, assured me that colleagues from the Brookings Institution, where she worked at the time, would back her up, and said, with a laugh, "I'll swear on a stack of Bibles!" Unsure what to think, and with the deadline for the Tribune's print edition looming, I deleted the reference.

Later, I contacted Michael O'Hanlon and Ivo Daalder, fellow foreign policy scholars who were at Brookings with Rice at the time. O'Hanlon told me, "Susan was consistently against it from 2002." Daalder concurred: "Susan was definitely against the war."

Their memories confirm what Rice wrote in her memoir, Tough Love: "From the start, I viewed that war of choice as a dangerous diversion from the main objective of defeating al-Qaida globally and in Afghanistan." She served as an adviser to Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign "because he was the only leading Democratic candidate to oppose the Iraq War." She signed up with Barack Obama in 2008 because he also opposed it.

But she got falsely tagged as a supporter of the war, and the stain has refused to come out, mainly because of two statements that have been misinterpreted.

In a December 2002 interview on NPR, she said: "It's clear that Iraq poses a major threat. It's clear that its weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that's the path we're on. I think the question becomes whether we can keep the diplomatic balls in the air and not drop any, even as we move forward, as we must, on the military side."

But O'Hanlon notes: "The military options she alludes to are not specified. For the Clinton administration, they were typically airstrikes or cruise missile strikes of limited duration and effect, not invasions."

Rice also endorsed the idea of "regime change." But there is less there than meets the eye. Bill Clinton signed a bill making it U.S. policy to "support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime." But he didn't think the cause called for a U.S. invasion. The point was to encourage Iraqis to do the job.

In that December interview, Rice also said: "The administration frankly owes the American public a much fuller and more honest assessment of what the costs will be of the actual conflict, as well as the aftermath, the post-conflict reconstruction. And the costs are going to be huge."

Rice didn't oppose the invasion as boldly and unequivocally as some did. Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast said he listened to interviews she did before the war and concluded, "I still can't tell whether Susan Rice supported the war or opposed it." But being cautious and circumspect is not the same thing as supporting the war.

Why does all this matter? First, because the Iraq War was the biggest foreign policy catastrophe since Vietnam, and one most experts endorsed. Second, because Rice had to know her views carried a real risk. Most Democratic senators voted for the war resolution — including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Had the outcome been a glorious triumph, her opposition might have doomed her from serving in another administration.

A lot of smart, knowledgeable people made the mistake of endorsing the Iraq War. Susan Rice deserves credit for not being one of them.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.