Riding Blackwater's Roller Coaster

blackwater girl Janessa Gans
CBS
Janessa Gans, a former U.S. official who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, often traveled around Iraq in a Blackwater convoy.

After the Blackwater shooting incident on September 16 in Baghdad's Nisour Square that left as many as 17 Iraqis dead, she wrote an angry letter to the Los Angeles Times saying that Blackwater's aggression on many occasions had undermined the diplomatic work she was trying to accomplish in Iraq.

"We would careen around corners, jump road dividers, reach speeds in excess of 100 mph and often cross over to the wrong side of the street, oncoming traffic be damned," she wrote.

"I began to wonder whether my meetings, intended to further U.S. policy goals and improve the lives of Iraqis, were doing more harm than good ... how many enemies were we creating?"

CBS News found Janessa Gans safely back in the U.S., teaching political science at Principia College in Illinois.

This is an edited transcript of our interview with her:

CBS: When you heard about the shooting in Nisour Square on September 16th, were you surprised?

Gans: Frankly, I was surprised at how long it had taken the Iraqi government to be upset about the activities of Blackwater inside their country. During my more than two years in Iraq, I saw first-hand the aggressive tactics of Blackwater in the streets, and I wondered why is the Iraqi government not speaking up about this?

CBS: What was it like to be a passenger in a Blackwater convoy?

Gans: Well it just felt like you were suiting up to go on a roller coaster. I remember just telling myself, "Just pretend it's a roller coaster ... rolls and flips and jumping over barriers." It was just uncomfortable ride - always fast, all the time.

CBS: Were Blackwater guards especially aggressive?

Gans: Well I did ride with other companies, and my personal experience was that Blackwater was the most aggressive.

You want the biggest, meanest guys protecting you [in a war zone] and they do their jobs very well most of the time. Think of their 100 percent success rate ... no diplomats in their care killed.

I was grateful on a daily basis for protection from Blackwater - without which I could not have gone to meetings or done my work, but I think that softer tactics would have been appropriate.

I'm very pro-military. My brother was a Navy SEAL for 10 years and my father was in the Air Force. It's just that these guys were making my job harder.

Their approach was "We're getting you from Point A to Point B - and nothing will stand in our way. And if there's a hint of anyone approaching, we view that as a terrorist threat or a possible decoy and we will do what it takes to remove the obstacle."

If the sole mission was to get me safely from A to B, then they were 100% successful, and correct - but the mission was larger: to improve the lives of Iraqis and achieve peace and stability.

If the Iraqis' only contact with Americans was with aggressive convoys of security contractors - with guns, speeding around, delaying their traffic and pelting them with water bottles, damaging their cars - then certainly their image of the United States was not going to be positive.

CBS: Did you ever protest to Blackwater?

Gans: I did in one incident in which it seemed obvious that there was a family in a car driving in front of us. They were clearly not terrorists. They couldn't get out of the way in time and so we forced them off the road. And I thought, "Was that necessary?"

I asked one guard if he thought their tactics might be creating more terrorists. He had never considered that possibility. He'd just never thought of it that way before.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."