By Steve Fainaru and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Federal authorities have convened a grand jury to investigate multiple shootings involving private security contractors in Iraq, including a Sept. 16 incident in which guards for Blackwater Worldwide killed 17 civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
The Washington grand jury has issued subpoenas to several private security firms, including Blackwater, a legal source briefed on the probe said yesterday. Authorities are seeking company "after-action" reports and other documents that may shed light on specific incidents, he said.
The source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the probe, declined to say which incidents have been targeted, but he said the investigation ranges well beyond Blackwater. Private security companies in Iraq "have been shooting a lot of people," he said.
The Sept. 16 shootings at Baghdad's Nisoor Square provoked outrage within the Iraqi government, which moved to have Blackwater banned from the country, and led to several investigations, including a joint U.S.-Iraqi commission on the use of private security contractors.
FBI investigators have reportedly concluded that the killing of 14 of the 17 civilians was unjustified under State Department rules on the use of force. But the case is muddied by the question of what laws, if any, apply to security contractors operating under military, State Department and civilian contracts.
The grand jury must confront that question, sources said, and there remains significant debate among investigators about whether laws that appear to apply to contractors operating under Defense Department contracts also apply to those working for the State Department. The Blackwater guards involved in the Nisoor Square shootings were operating under a State Department contract.
Spokesmen for the State Department, the Justice Department, the FBI and the FBI's Washington Field Office declined to comment. ABC News first reported that a grand jury was investigating Blackwater. Quoting law enforcement sources, it reported online that several Blackwater guards assigned to the convoy involved in the Sept. 16 incident received subpoenas to testify.
A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne E. Tyrrell, said last night that she could not comment on whether the company had received subpoenas or whether its employees had been asked to testify.
"We have always supported stringent accountability for the industry, we still do, and if somebody was complicit in wrongdoing we would want that person to be held accountable," Tyrrell said. "We will cooperate with any inquiry or investigation and will withhold further comment until the results are complete and made available."
The U.S. military has brought numerous charges against soldiers and Marines in Iraq, including dozens of servicemen accused of murder. But no case has been brought against private security contractors, even though they are involved in some of the most dangerous work in Iraq and employees frequently engage in combat.
That the grand jury is looking into incidents beyond the Sept. 16 shooting may signal that federal authorities are seeking to gather information about abuses within the industry, after years of reports that some security contractors used heavy-handed tactics, such as running civilian vehicles off the road and firing weapons indiscriminately.
The Iraqi government has said it knows of at least 20 shooting incidents involving security contractors, with more than half a dozen linked to Blackwater.
But the U.S. government's ability to prosecute remains hampered by the lack of clarity over what laws may apply. For instance, contractors were immunized from Iraqi laws under a June 2004 order signed by the U.S. occupation authority. That ruling remains in effect.
In addition, investigations are complicated by questions about evidence, jurisdiction and the availability of witnesses. "If they're going to try to indict, they've got a lot to overcome," said Patricia A. Smith, an Alexandria lawyer who represents two former employees of Triple Canopy, a private security firm based in Herndon, in a civil lawsuit. The former employees say they were wrongfully terminated after reporting that their Triple Canopy team leader fired shots into the windshield of a taxi for amusement last year on Baghdad's airport road.
A jury ruled against the two former guards but said Triple Canopy acted inappropriately. The guards are planning to appeal.
After that shooting, the company fired three guards -- including the two who reported the incident -- and reported the shooting to U.S. military officials in Baghdad. But no investigation was conducted by the military or Iraqi or U.S. authorities.
Smith said she was unaware of any subpoenas being issued related to the Triple Canopy shooting.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.