When four Blackwater USA security guards were ambushed and massacred in Fallujah in 2004, graphic images showed the world exactly what happened: four men killed, their bodies burned and dragged through the streets. A chanting mob hung two mutilated corpses from a bridge.
Since then, Congress and the families of the murdered private security contractors have been demanding answers: Why did the lightly armed and undermanned team go through the heart of one of Iraq's most hostile cities? Why did the two teams sent out that day have four members, not the usual six?
Some answers can be found in memos from a second team for Blackwater operating around Fallujah on March 31, 2004.
Blackwater, based in North Carolina, sent two squads through Fallujah without maps, according to memos obtained by The News & Observer. Both of the six-man teams, named Bravo 2 and November 1, were sent out two men short, leaving them more vulnerable to ambush.
The Bravo 2 team members had protested that they were not ready for the mission and had not had time to prepare their weapons, but they were commanded to go, according to memos written by team members. The team disregarded directions to drive through Fallujah and instead drove around it and returned safely to Baghdad that evening.
The November 1 team went into Fallujah and was massacred.
The Bravo 2 team memos, in emotional, coarse and damning language, placed the blame squarely on Blackwater's Baghdad site manager, Tom Powell.
"Why did we all want to kill him?" team member Daniel Browne wrote the following day. "He had sent us on this [expletive] mission and over our protest. We weren't sighted in, we had no maps, we had not enough sleep, he was taking 2 of our guys cutting off [our] field of fire. As we went over these things we new the other team had the same complaints. They too had their people cut."
The memos surface amid heightened congressional scrutiny of Blackwater, a private security firm based in Moyock, and the private security industry, which grows ever more valuable to the Pentagon. Reports last week indicate that there are now more private contractors than troops operating in Iraq. Blackwater has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts.
The aftermath of the killings shows one difference between contractors and the military. Had an officer sent four lightly armed soldiers into Fallujah, he would likely have faced public scrutiny in the military justice system. In this case, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has been trying to get documents such as these memos from Blackwater without success.
The families of the four men killed in the ambush -- Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona, Scott Helvenston and Michael Teague -- sued Blackwater in Wake County Superior Court in an effort to find out what happened. Blackwater countersued the estates of the four men in federal court, successfully arguing for arbitration, in which the proceedings are closed to the public and the investigation of the incident can be much more limited.
Powell, the site manager, left Blackwater shortly after the Fallujah incident. He will not discuss the event while litigation is pending, said his attorney, Clifford Higby of Panama City, Fla. Efforts to reach the other Blackwater contractors for comment were unsuccessful.
Blackwater, owned by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, did not respond to requests for comment starting in early June. A company lawyer, John W. Phillips of Seattle, sent a letter protesting the paper's possession of the memos and suggesting possible legal action if they were used in a news report.
Mission under protest
Team Bravo 2 arrived in Baghdad late on the night of March 30, 2004, according to the memo written by team leader Jason Shupe. The team members had just driven up from Kuwait after flying in from the United States.
At that point in the war, attacks on the U.S. military had been growing steadily. Still, aid workers and journalists could travel throughout Iraq. Today, by contrast, they are largely confined to safe zones in Baghdad.
Then, as now, the U.S. was leaning more heavily on private security contractors than in any previous war. Many of the contractors are paid far more than soldiers for their work guarding U.S. officials or, in the case of the four who were killed, empty flatbed trucks.
In a meeting held just before midnight, Powell -- the Blackwater site manager -- told Shupe that his team would likely go on a mission the next morning. Shupe protested; his team members were fighting jet lag and had not "sighted" their weapons, or adjusted the scopes so that the bullets would hit the targets sighted in the cross hairs.
The next morning, Powell said the mission was on, according to memos from three team members. Bravo 2 was ordered to go to the Jordanian border and pick up an executive for ESS, a food catering company, and escort him to Baghdad. The team would go in two vehicles, with two men in each vehicle. Two team members would stay in Baghdad.
Shupe protested, calling it "a bad idea" to send out the crew shorthanded: "Tom disregarded our concern and stated, 'The guys in Falluja only have four guys, you can do this mission with four guys.' " Shupe and the other team members were concerned that vehicles with a driver and one passenger could not protect themselves against attack from the rear.
Powell said he was keeping two men from the squad in Baghdad.
Shupe argued back, according to his memo: "I stated very sarcastically, 'you are going to split my team so you can have an admin guy and a phone watch. ... [M]y guys were fighting jet lag, we have not sighted our weapons in, we have no maps of the route, and no one is familiar with the route.' "
Powell responded: "The route is easy you just drive to Falluja, then through Fallujah to Al Ramiadia then to the boarder."
Do the job or go home
Shupe wrote that he continued to argue against the mission and noted that Blackwater's contract with ESS didn't start until April 3.
"Tom stated 'everything is not a debate you do your job and I will do mine,' " Shupe wrote. Powell gave him an ultimatum, Shupe wrote: Do the job, or go home.
Shupe briefed his team. Like Shupe, they thought the mission was a bad idea, according to the written accounts of two other team members.
Shupe and his three teammates left Baghdad in two vehicles, with four extra cans of fuel. Shupe wrote that he had no idea where or when he would be able to refuel.
As Bravo 2 drove into Fallujah on Highway 10, the team came to an interchange and passed a road sign that pointed to Fallujah. They made a U-turn to go back into Fallujah, as Powell had instructed. But Shupe then decided to pull off the highway. He wrote that he found a map with Highway 10 on it and consulted a global positioning system device.
"I made the call to stay on the highway," Shupe wrote. "The road that we would have got on would have taken us into downtown Falluja. This was at approx. 1000 hrs."
A deadly ambush
Unknown to Shupe, about a half-hour before, Blackwater's November 1 squad had driven into Fallujah, on its way to Camp Ridgeway, an American base west of town. Two team members had been kept behind in Baghdad.
Batalona and Zovko were in the front vehicle, followed by three empty flatbed trucks, followed by Helvenston and Teague in the rear vehicle. Gunmen approached the rear of the convoy and shot Helvenston and Teague. When the lead vehicle doubled back, the gunmen shot and killed Batalona and Zovko. A crowd gathered, set the cars on fire, pulled the men out and dragged their bodies through the street.
Oblivious of the massacre, Bravo 2 drove to the Jordanian border.
Back in Baghdad, Troy James Lewis, one of the Bravo 2 members kept behind, was handed several boxes of maps and told to sort them out, he wrote.
"I came across a small bundle of maps, approximately 5-6, that were listed at the tops as Al Falluja," Lewis wrote. "I thought this to be an important find as I remembered that my team had gone out without any maps of Al Falluja because they were told there were not any to be had."
Lewis finished his task and sat around drinking coffee. After lunch, Lewis wrote, the other Bravo 2 team member who stayed behind, Jay Suits, pounded on his door, visibly upset. He said a Blackwater team had been hit. The two men ran into Powell's office. Powell told them that a Blackwater team had been attacked and that Powell would lead a "quick reaction force" of five men to Fallujah.
"I immediately thought this to be a very bad idea as it sounded tactically unsound as we were obviously out numbered and out gunned," Lewis wrote. "The mission was later scrubbed."
Meanwhile, Bravo 2 arrived at the Jordanian border and picked up the ESS executive, who had been waiting for hours. While filling up the vehicles, Shupe got a phone call from Kuwait telling him that a Blackwater team had been ambushed. Shupe spoke with Powell: "The conversation was very vague and he was still trying to figure out what the situation was."
After the call, Shupe decided he wasn't going to take any more information or orders from Powell. The team stopped at an American military base for information, then drove back safely to Baghdad, taking care to skirt Fallujah.
The next day, Browne typed up an angry report on the day: "If [Powell] had been right and by treating us like children had saved our lives I would be eternally grateful. As it is he [expletive] up and the mission that he sent them out on with no planning and preparation went bad and all aboard died."
Browne later wrote a second report in a more analytical tone. He did not, however, back away from his initial report: "While it is not cool, calm and collected it is accurate."