FBI Concludes Blackwater Killings Unjustified
Wednesday, November 14, 2007; 1:33 PM
The FBI has concluded that the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater security contractors in Baghdad on Sept. 16 was unjustified under State Department rules for the private guards, U.S. officials said today.
The shooting deaths of three other civilians in the same incident may have been within guidelines for the use of deadly force, officials said.
FBI investigators who spent two weeks in Baghdad last month have briefed prosecutors on their findings, but a formal "prosecutive memo" laying out the key elements of the case has not been sent to the Justice Department yet. Justice will make the final decision on whether to go forward with legal proceedings against the Blackwater personnel.
The investigators found no evidence to support Blackwater's public insistence that the guards shot only in response to gunfire directed at them. The Blackwater guards were attempting to stop traffic at Baghdad's Nisoor Square to allow an expected U.S. diplomatic convoy to pass.
The FBI's conclusions were first reported last night by the New York Times.
FBI investigators concluded that the killings of three of the 17 Iraqis could have fallen within the deadly force guidelines. They include two people in a civilian car that moved forward after a warning and a third unidentified man standing nearby. Some of the other 14 people whose deaths were determined to be unprovoked were apparently shot while trying to flee the area, officials said.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne E. Tyrrell said today 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, they 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.
The guards were questioned immediately following the shootings by agents of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), which supervises their contract to protect civilian U.S. officials in Iraq. Those interviews, however, were conducted under legal protections against self-incrimination granted government employees and cannot be used by the FBI or in a potential prosecution.
A possible prosecution is also complicated by the uncertainty surrounding applicable 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 to extend U.S. law to all contractors, which was approved last month by the House and is pending in the Senate.
The families of three of the dead Iraqi civilians filed a federal lawsuit last month against North-Carolina-based Blackwater; its parent company, the Prince Group; and founder and chief executive Erik Prince. The suit, in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asks for unspecified damages to compensate for alleged war crimes, illegal killings, wrongful death, emotional distress and negligence, calling the Sept. 16 incident a "massacre" and "senseless slaughter."
The U.S. military in Iraq has been critical of State's supervision of the more than 800 guards in Iraq under the Blackwater contract, as well as two other private security companies working there for the department. A report compiled by the first soldiers to arrive at the scene of the shooting found no evidence that anyone other than the Blackwater guards had fired weapons.
Prince has said that Blackwater personnel did not shoot until they came under fire, offering as evidence what he said was damage to Blackwater vehicles caused by bullet holes.
State regulations for the contractors outline a series of responses to perceived threats, including visual and audio warning signs, and authorize the use of deadly force only in response to imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to the guards or those they are protecting.
Following the Sept. 16 incident, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered DS agents to accompany all diplomatic convoys and directed that video and audio recordings be kept of their operations. She also approved recommendations by a special panel sent to review all security contractor operations in Baghdad that include increased training and supervision for contractors and improved communication and coordination with the military.