Contractors' Actions Labeled Unjustified
Thursday, November 15, 2007
FBI investigators believe that the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater Worldwide security contractors in Baghdad on Sept. 16 was unjustified under State Department rules for the private guards, U.S. officials said. But possible prosecution is weeks, if not months, away and remains complicated by uncertainty over what U.S. law might cover the guards' actions.
The shooting deaths of three other civilians in the same incident may have been within guidelines for the use of deadly force, officials said.
The preliminary FBI conclusions were reached after an on-site investigation in Baghdad last month. But officials said yesterday that the inquiry is ongoing and that the FBI, together with the U.S. attorney for the District, is still conducting interviews in the case.
They will eventually provide a "prosecutive memo" to the Justice Department's National Security Division, with an outline of the evidence and an assessment on whether prosecutable crimes were committed. The division head will determine whether to submit the case to a grand jury.
The investigators discovered that some of those who died were attempting to flee and found no evidence supporting Blackwater's contention that the contractors were fired on and shot back in self-defense. The incident occurred as the guards tried to stop traffic at Baghdad's Nisoor Square to allow an expected U.S. diplomatic convoy to pass.
The FBI findings were first reported Tuesday night by the New York Times. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said yesterday that it would be "inappropriate for us to comment on evidence or the nature or direction of the investigation."
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne E. Tyrrell said that the company will support holding any of its employees accountable "if official findings conclude that someone was complicit in wrongdoing." But she said that "the investigation remains underway and, to the best of our understanding, the key people involved in the incident have yet to even speak with authorities."
The four or five Blackwater guards who allegedly fired their weapons did not speak to the FBI during the investigation in Baghdad because "at the time they did not have legal counsel," Tyrrell said. Blackwater has since provided legal advice and has not suggested that they retain outside attorneys.
Immediately after the shootings, the guards were questioned by agents of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), which oversees their contract to protect civilian U.S. officials in Iraq. Those interviews, however, were conducted under legal protections against self-incrimination that are granted to government employees and cannot be used by FBI investigators or in a potential prosecution.
The Justice Department's concerns over the possibility that government evidence could be "tainted" by exposure to the initial, off-limits DS investigation increased yesterday when ABC News published on its Web site a written statement given by one of the guards to DS agents on Sept. 18. The guard, identified only as "Paul," described a chaotic scene in which he perceived threats from an approaching passenger car, a "red bus" and "a man in a blue button down shirt with black pants" pointing an assault rifle. In each case, he said, he "engaged" the threat and stopped it.
Possible prosecution is also complicated by the uncertainty surrounding the laws under which the guards might be charged. Although security contractors working for the Defense Department can be held liable under military-related statutes, it remains unclear whether those laws also cover guards working for the State Department. The White House opposes legislation approved last month by the House to extend U.S. law to all contractors. The office of the State Department's legal counsel said last night that it has reached agreement with Senate sponsors of an alternative version of the measure.