Two defense contractors indicted in shooting of Afghans

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

Two defense contractors working for a subsidiary of the former Blackwater Worldwide were charged with shooting and killing two Afghan citizens in Kabul and wounding a third, prosecutors said Thursday, the first slayings linked to the firm in that country and its latest legal blow.

Justin Cannon, 27, and Christopher Drotleff, 29, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Norfolk on murder and other charges in the May 5 shootings, in which the men opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles on a car that they said they thought was trying to run them down. The indictment was unsealed Thursday.

At the time of the shootings, the men were Pentagon contractors employed by Paravant LLC, a Blackwater subsidiary that specializes in firearms training. They were in Afghanistan to train that country's army in using and maintaining weapons systems and were transporting two Afghan translators at the time of the incident, their attorney said.

The charges are another legal black eye for Blackwater (now called Xe Services LLC), which has been under fire for a string of incidents in which its heavily armed guards have been accused of using excessive force overseas. But the controversy over the North Carolina company's tactics has focused on its actions in Iraq, where it has provided security under a State Department contract.

The indictment marks the first instance in which employees of a Blackwater-affiliated company have been charged for their actions during the war in Afghanistan.

The 13-count indictment highlights growing sensitivities over the U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan, which is expected to bring a flood of military contractors into the war zone, and the security problems that led to last week's deadly attack on a CIA base there.

The May 5 shootings have caused "diplomatic difficulties" for State Department personnel in Afghanistan, prosecutors said in a court filing Thursday, and officials are concerned that media coverage of Thursday's charges will require enhanced security for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Mark Corallo, a Xe spokesman, said the company "immediately and fully cooperated with the government's investigation of this tragic incident and terminated the individuals involved for violating company policy." He would not comment further.

Daniel J. Callahan, an attorney for Cannon and Drotleff, said they should not have been charged because they acted in self-defense. "They thought their lives were in jeopardy," he said. "They thought insurgents were attacking them.''

The charges followed a rare piece of good news for the company: A federal judge in the District dismissed criminal charges last week against five Blackwater guards accused of killing 14 Iraqi citizens in a shooting in a busy Baghdad square in 2007. The judge criticized the tactics of Justice Department prosecutors handling the case.

Cannon, of Corpus Christi, Tex., was arrested there Thursday by FBI agents, and Drotleff was taken into custody in Virginia Beach, where he lives. They were each charged with counts that include second-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

On May 5, the two men were in a two-car convoy in Kabul with two other Paravant contractors and the translators. Federal law enforcement officials and Callahan agree that the shootings occurred after one of the Paravant cars was involved in a traffic accident. But they differ about how the accident unfolded.

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