A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
There are probably twenty to twenty-five thousand armed mercenaries in Iraq now, a bigger force than any except the U.S. force, by the way. And there are no laws governing them, and nobody’s been arrested for anything. Either you have twenty to twenty-five thousand hired men with guns who are angels, or there’s a huge miscarriage of justice going on. -- Robert Greenwald, director, "Iraq for Sale"
Robert Greenwald is an amazing guy. He gave up a lucrative career as a Hollywood producer of profitable commerical television programs and movies to become a cinematic documentarian, exposing those individuals, organizations and companies who threaten democracy. In the process, he has created a new distribution system that consists of home screenings, the Internet sales of DVDs (BuzzFlash is a big seller), traditional theater screenings, organizational viewings and more. He's given us "OutFoxed," "Wal-Mart:The High Cost of Low Price," and more. And he's done it with corroborated research, professionalism, and low budgets (but high quality).
Just in time for the election, Greenwald produces another stunner: "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers."
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BuzzFlash: You have made another great documentary with Brave New Films -- this time, "Iraq For Sale." I want to talk a little bit about the Greenwald style. "Wal-Mart" is another film where you let the people tell the story. Why do you think that’s important?
Robert Greenwald: I think facts and figures provide support, but I don’t think anybody’s mind really gets changed or their heart gets touched by a fact and figure. So what I tried to do with the Wal-Mart movie and this one, is have people -- and people who you know are speaking truthfully and from the heart -- let them tell the stories. Then support them with facts and figures. Another way to say it is you start with the heart -- if you reach their hearts, then you’ll get to the minds. I think that’s the way one reaches the large number of people who are unconvinced, or uncertain, or in opposition.
BuzzFlash: We asked you a similar question when we interviewed you about your great "Wal-Mart" documentary. We see in this film that these are what we would call your average American -- in fact, ironically, the type of person the Bush administration holds up as your average American. They’re not elite college graduates. Many of them are living on the margins -- that’s why they went to Iraq to work for privatized contractors, so they could get good pay. We asked you this with "Wal-Mart" -- how did you find these people?
Robert Greenwald: The story producers, Abbie Hurewitz, Amanda Spain, and Kerry Candaele, spent several months working the phones and then flying and meeting people, similar to the "Wal-Mart" experience. Here, it was very specific, and a smaller gene pool, if you will, than the "Wal-Mart" film, where there were millions of employees who were very unhappy with them. The number of contractors, or people who interrogated at Abu Ghraib, or people who worked for Blackwater, was not as large and widespread. But what we found was similar to "Wal-Mart," which was that there are people who went through the experience of working for Halliburton, going to Iraq because they wanted to "do the right thing," which, in their mind, meant helping the troops, rebuilding the country, making a living for their family. They were going with positive motivations, and then seeing this level of profiteering and stealing money from the taxpayer -- and they wanted to do something about it. They wanted to speak up. They wanted not to have the experience be meaningless in the larger sense.
I think when we found those people, the documentary was an outlet and a way to take what had been deeply troubling and upsetting, and frightening, and debilitating, and infuriating, and turn it into something that could help other people, and could create change.
BuzzFlash: One of the strongest impressions the film leaves one with is the breadth of the privatization of the Iraq war that has occurred. That’s been documented elsewhere, but to see it visualized leaves one almost gasping. Some people might say, if privatizing war makes it more efficient, then why would you argue against it? But one of the key findings in your film-- and repeated over and over again, and shown with examples over and over again -- is that privatizing, in many cases, hasn’t led to efficiencies. It’s led to shoddy workmanship, and to putting the the lives of our soldiers at stake, in the case of water purification. Indeed, many people working for these corporations have put their lives at stake -- they took risks in order to make profit. Were you surprised at the extent of the payroll that these companies have, and at how many people are put at risk for profit?
Robert Greenwald: Yes, I had no idea about the size and scope of it, frankly. What was shocking to me was that this is all going on without any debate. A basic function of the government -- the protection of the state -- is being outsourced to people who are now doing these things for a different set of motivations. The corporation basically wants to increase its share price. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.
BuzzFlash: I want to emphasize again that you let the people tell the story. There’s not this sort of omniscient narrator leading you through. But the people who have been involved -- the family members, the people who worked for these companies and have returned to the United States -- they do the talking. At one point a man in the film who was an expert in water purification breaks down crying because he knew that contaminated water was being given under privatization contract to our military personnel, our G.I.s. He warned that it was contaminated with all sorts of bacteria, and the company just didn’t care. He couldn’t get them to purify the water, and that’s what they were being paid for.
Robert Greenwald: Well, it goes back to something we know about large corporations, right? What they focus on is making as much profit as possible. Before going into the movie, I didn’t really think there would be stories like the water story, like the Blackwater story, like the Friday massacre story -- where people would be losing their lives because of the corporate decision to cut corners and maximize every dollar. That’s scandalous.
BuzzFlash: In one segment there is a sort of macho tech guy who nearly breaks down because of what he saw having to do with a convoy. The convoy keeps going, one, even if they had nothing to deliver, just so they would get paid, and, two, they disregarded warnings that the people in the convoy might be endangered. And people were killed. This convoy was ambushed. In short, the privatization doesn’t lead to more efficiency. It just leads --
Robert Greenwald: Into more profit?
BuzzFlash: To more profit. In many cases, the goal of the companies, as you point out, is to maximize profit, not to be more efficient.
Robert Greenwald: Exactly. That’s what they’re about. You know, the original idea for outsourcing certain functions was it would save money, and it would be more efficient. Well, there’s absolutely no evidence. In fact, there’s significant evidence now that outsourcing or profitizing, as I call it, the function leads to costing the taxpayer more dollar. So we have a situation where the people we’ve elected to protect our money and to protect our safety are failing on both counts. We are less safe because of the profitizing, and our tax money is going to make the head of Halliburton $42 million last year. That’s insane.
BuzzFlash: You do bring up the salaries of the CEOs of these corporations, which is sort of astonishing. After all, people have died because of their presumed negligence. I’m sure that will be fought out in the courts. We also have the issue here that many of these companies, particularly Halliburton, received no-bid contracts.
Robert Greenwald: Well, at cost-plus.
BuzzFlash: Explain what that means.
Robert Greenwald: Well, it’s very interesting. We were doing our research, and in a meeting somebody says, yeah, and Halliburton has a cost-plus contract. Somebody else says, what do you mean? Well, it means that they get a hundred percent of their cost for doing the job. Plus they get a a guaranteed additional percentage of whatever they’ve spent as their profit. The more you spend, the more profit you get. Imagine it in terms of your own business. The more you spend on BuzzFlash, the more profit you are guaranteed. In the movie world, it would mean the more I spend on a film, the more profit I have. There’s no incentive to save any money. In fact, it’s the opposite. It pays to spend more.
BuzzFlash: What about the very tragic irony that Bush and Cheney spend so much time exploiting the good name of our troops and extolling how noble the troops are. And the vast majority of them are. They think they’re fighting for America. But while these G.I.s are making a few bucks a month, they’re seeing these independent contractors bring in people that they may pay $100,000 a month or $80,000 a month, and they're driving around these brand-new Humvees.
Robert Greenwald: There’s a couple of points here. First, our tax dollars are being used to pay for Halliburton charging us $45 for a six-pack of Coke, $100 to get laundry done, or $40,000 for Humvees that take a secretary from where she’s staying to the Halliburton office, all inside the Green Zone. Again, that’s all our tax dollars, number one. Then the other part of it is this whole aspect of bidding out the contracts. Let’s say Halliburton gets the job to clean the kitchen area. Well, they’ll bring in another contractor, who will then subcontract to a third contractor, who will then hire somebody for $3-4 a day. So on top of this guy’s or women’s shoulders, you have four companies skimming off and taking most of the money.
BuzzFlash: There’s so many points here, in terms of what is basically a scam of the taxpayers.
Robert Greenwald: Right.
BuzzFlash: There was a case of someone in the military, if I recall, who repaired some sort of a radio device. His job became to train privatized people who were subcontracted how to do the same work he was doing. And then he was displaced from his job, and ended up doing clerical work.
Robert Greenwald: Right.
BuzzFlash: In other words, someone in the military was, we would assume, doing his job well and he trained people to replace him. Then he became someone that was unnecessary, but he couldn’t be drummed out of the military because he was doing a fine job. He became a clerical person while someone else was paid several times what his salary was to do the same job that he had to train them to do.
Robert Greenwald: Yes. Halliburton came over and essentially took a function away from the military and took it over themselves. We put up a link on the website with an extended video about that guy, David Manning, because it was so shocking. And it was completely opposite of everything we’re being told should be happening. It’s less efficient. It’s taking trained personnel and making them train untrained, for profit. It’s turning over the equipment to a for-profit company. And then the soldiers that we’re paying for are sitting around. It’s truly scandalous.
BuzzFlash: It reminds me of everything the Republicans used to accuse the "social welfare state" of doing. It’s all featherbedding. Actually what they’ve created in Iraq is just an unnecessary duplication of functions and paying privatized companies enormous amounts of money to do jobs that could be done for a lot less, and with a lot more oversight, by the military.
Robert Greenwald: Yes. We tried to get statistics to show how much are we spending on the private contractors. How much are they making? How much would it have cost if the military had done it? You can’t get the numbers even. They said no, it doesn’t exist. Nobody knows.
BuzzFlash: There’s another issue when you get to the security firms like Blackwater. One of the interesting things is that these people who work for the privatized companies have no chain of command to report to. They can kill an Iraqi and just be sent home. If you’re in the military and you intentionally kill a civilian, as we’ve seen, soldiers will be on trial. The private contractors have no accountability. There’s no authority over them. They just get shipped back to the United States.
Robert Greenwald: That’s again something that I was unaware of. But there are probably twenty to twenty-five thousand armed mercenaries in Iraq now, a bigger force than any except the U.S. force, by the way. And there are no laws governing them, and nobody’s been arrested for anything. Either you have twenty to twenty-five thousand hired men with guns who are angels, or there’s a huge miscarriage of justice going on. The soldiers talk about how hard it makes their life, because you have these cowboys running around who are hired to protect individuals driving up and down the streets of Iraq. Their job is to save the guys that they’re guarding. If they ram a car, if they shoot somebody, there are no legal consequences, number one. And number two, an Iraqi who’s been shot by a Blackwater guard does not differentiate. That person, or his family, have now been recruited to be an enemy because of something that was done by a mercenary who we had no control over, who is working for a corporation that is there for only one reason, which is profit.
BuzzFlash: We encourage all our readers to both buy the film and participate in the screenings that you’re encouraging people to have in October, because this is just a very gripping, remarkable documentary that shows the dark underside of Iraq, and war for profit. These companies are not doing a patriotic service. They’re merely fattening the CEOs -- their pocketbooks -- and increasing the share value. It has nothing to do with winning a war on terrorism. It’s winning a war for profit.
But at the end of the film, as the credits roll, there are some amusing shots, if it weren’t so pathetic, of you and your staff trying to call these companies to get them to comment. In all fairness, you tried to get them to have a spokesperson in your film and let them have their say. And as the credits roll for quite some time, all we see is you and two people on your staff continually trying to speak to anybody who will speak for these companies. So we assume the companies you covered were not very enthusiastic about the film.
Robert Greenwald: Well, the companies that we covered did not participate in the film. And of course, now Halliburton KBR’s attacking us. They haven’t seen the film --
BuzzFlash: But you invited them to participate.
Robert Greenwald: We sent 31 phone calls and X number of e-mails, and they just refused. Instead, now they are saying we got it wrong -- they found some language to attack something they refused to participate in, and that they’ve never seen. Now one would have thought, after Wal-Mart, these corporations would have realized that the worst thing is to just do nothing, and that they should participate or they should have their point of view in the movie. But as a function, and despite all of our efforts, we were not able to get them to participate. And let me tell you -- I can understand why, when we realized the head of CACI made $20 million. He sent us a threatening letter, telling us we should cease and desist, which we’re refusing to do. If I made $20 million and I was trying to hide it, I’d probably send a threatening letter too.
BuzzFlash: That’s a firm that’s long been affiliated with the Republican Party.
Robert Greenwald: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Once again, this is another incredible, revelatory documentary. It’s been a Godsend that you’ve shifted to doing these very, very detail-driven and people-driven documentaries. I think that’s an important thing. It’s letting average Americans tell the story -- the kind of people Bush claims he champions -- and here they are, revealing the truth. And you’re getting threatening letters for that. You’re to be commended.
Robert Greenwald: Well, thank you. I think the important thing is that people remember the film is a tool. It’s an organizing tool and a tool to create social change. We fail if people just get the movie and watch it. But get the movie, watch it, and then do something, whether it’s write a letter, make a phone call, or host a screening. The beauty of films, that we’re discovering, is it allows people to participate in democracy, not just sit back and be pissed off. Here’s a way that you can go out and engage in a conversation, whether it’s legislatively, or in your district, or around human rights, or around profiteering. I hope the BuzzFlash readers, as they have so wonderfully in the past, will find inventive ways to make the film be as effective as it can be.
BuzzFlash: Thank you. And we look forward to your next project.
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"Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" (DVD), A Robert Greenwald/Brave New Films Production, a BuzzFlash premium.
"Iraq for Sale" (A review/The Nation)
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW