By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; A04
The Justice Department plans to conduct a criminal investigation of an American security guard's involvement in the fatal shooting of two Pakistani men last month, according to a senior lawmaker sent by the White House to Pakistan to defuse a growing diplomatic rift.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who arrived in Lahore on Tuesday, told Pakistani reporters that the Justice Department "will conduct its own full criminal investigation regardless of the immunity" that U.S. officials contend should protect the guard from prosecution in Pakistan.
Kerry's disclosure appeared meant to convince authorities in Pakistan that Raymond A. Davis will face legal scrutiny in the United States despite the administration's position that he has diplomatic immunity in Pakistan and should be released.
Kerry's comments came as President Obama made his first public remarks about the case, saying that Pakistan is obligated under international conventions to release Davis, a security contractor who is assigned to the U.S. consulate in Lahore.
"We expect Pakistan [to] recognize Mr. Davis as a diplomat," Obama said. "We're going to be continuing to work with the Pakistani government to get this person released."
The combination of Obama's comments, Kerry's trip and the pledge of a criminal probe represents a significant escalation of an effort that has been underway for weeks to end Davis's detention in a jail in Lahore.
A U.S. official familiar with the Justice Department plan said that the pledge of a criminal probe "was intended to signal that the U.S. government takes this seriously," but that it should not be interpreted as an indication that officials in the United States believe Davis broke any laws.
"It's not intended to signal that this guy is going to be charged and tried here," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
U.S. officials have maintained that the evidence indicates Davis fired in self-defense.
Even if there were evidence to the contrary, bringing charges against Davis in the United States "would be almost impossible," the U.S. official said, because of jurisdictional barriers and other complications surrounding the actions of a U.S. government representative operating under diplomatic immunity overseas.
Justice Department spokeswoman Alisa Finelli said such inquiries were routine.
"It is our practice to conduct criminal investigations of such incidents, and we intend to follow that practice here, considering all the facts and relevant laws," she said.
In court appearances in Lahore, Davis has said that he fired after the two Pakistani men approached him on a motorcycle and brandished a handgun in an apparent robbery attempt.
U.S. and Pakistani authorities have offered conflicting accounts of the event.
U.S. officials said Pakistani police reports indicate that Davis fired from inside his car while stopped at a traffic signal. But The Washington Post has obtained a police report in Pakistan that cites witness accounts that Davis also stepped out of the car and continued firing into the backs of the Pakistani men even as they fled.
The incident has touched off anti-American protests in Pakistan and added new tensions to an already-wary alliance between two governments struggling to contain terrorist groups based in Pakistan's tribal belt.
U.S. officials have threatened severe diplomatic measures, including cutting off high-level contacts, in an effort to pressure Pakistan to free Davis. But Pakistan has twice extended Davis's incarceration and indicated that he could face murder charges.
Obama and Kerry both seemed intent on softening the U.S. rhetoric surrounding the case, expressing sympathy for the families of the Pakistani men who were killed.
"We're concerned about the loss of life," Obama said in a White House news conference. "We're not callous about that. But there's a broader principle at stake that I think we have to uphold."
Obama repeatedly referred to Davis as a U.S. "diplomat," even though the State Department has said he was a security officer and a member of the "administrative and technical" staff.
Davis is a former Army Special Forces soldier. The Pakistani police report listed items including a Glock pistol, a "survival kit," an infrared flashlight and a telescope found in his car. U.S. officials have declined to comment on whether Davis was an employee of the CIA.