Blackwater guards' accounts of 2007 attack on civilians unveiled in court papers

Relatives of one of 14 Iraqi civilians killed when Blackwater security guards opened fire on them in 2007 visit his grave in Baghdad in 2008.
Relatives of one of 14 Iraqi civilians killed when Blackwater security guards opened fire on them in 2007 visit his grave in Baghdad in 2008. (Hadi Mizban/associated Press)

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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010

One Blackwater Worldwide security guard thought he had witnessed a murder. Another felt that innocent Iraqis "clearly were no threat to anyone." A third worried that his managers would try to cover up what had happened. All three were horrified by what they thought was an unprovoked attack in 2007 that left 14 Iraqi civilians dead in Baghdad, prosecutors say.

The guards' accounts of the shooting by a team of Blackwater contractors emerged from prosecutors' court papers that a federal judge ordered unsealed Friday, two weeks after he dismissed manslaughter and weapons charges against five Blackwater contractors in the incident.

Federal prosecutors have said the shooting was an unprovoked assault on civilians. They were seeking to bring five guards -- one has pleaded guilty -- to trial on voluntary manslaughter and weapons violations in the District's federal court. But on Dec. 31, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina threw out all charges against the guards, ruling that prosecutors had acted overzealously and recklessly in their investigation.

Urbina's decision followed three weeks of closed hearings into the conduct of prosecutors, federal agents and witnesses. On Friday, the judge ordered redacted motions filed by prosecutors and defense attorneys to be unsealed, providing a detailed account of the shooting and the government's efforts to investigate it.

Until now, it was not clear how other Blackwater guards had reacted to the Sept. 16, 2007, incident in Nisoor Square, which strained relations between Washington and Baghdad. The episode so badly stigmatized Blackwater that it renamed itself Xe Services, and the incident prompted serious questions about how to police the behavior of private contractors in war zones.

The papers reveal that 19 Blackwater guards were providing security for diplomats under a State Department contract and were members of a four-vehicle convoy that secured an evacuation route for U.S. officials fleeing a bomb explosion.

After the incident, prosecutors wrote, three guards felt so terrible about what they had witnessed that they vowed to report what occurred to authorities. "We could not believe what we had just seen," one guard, Adam Frost, wrote in a journal.

Another, Mark Mealy, told the grand jury that he saw "some heinous" acts that deeply upset him. He also watched as two of the guards involved in the shooting patted each other on the back and bragged "about what a great job they had done," prosecutors wrote.

Frost wrote in his journal that a manager had encouraged him not to talk to FBI agents. The guards, former members of the military and Iraq War veterans before joining Blackwater, later testified before a grand jury.

In the court papers, defense attorneys argued that the five guards charged in the shooting -- Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten, Donald Ball, Dustin Heard and Paul Slough -- fired in self-defense. The attorneys also accused government officials of improperly using immunized statements to build their case. The guards provided those statements to State Department investigators in the hours and days after the shooting, thinking they could be fired if they did not talk to the investigators. They also thought they had a guarantee that their statements would not be used against them.

Attorneys for the guards urged Urbina to throw out the indictment. Two of the guards' attorneys went further and accused prosecutors of engaging in intentional misconduct by withholding helpful evidence from grand jurors and by using the immunized statements in their investigation.

According to the court papers and Urbina's 90-page opinion, it was clear early on that Justice Department officials were worried about how the guards' statements might hinder their investigation.

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