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Immunity Jeopardizes Iraq Probe

Guards' Statements Cannot Be Used in Blackwater Case

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007; Page A01

Potential prosecution of Blackwater guards allegedly involved in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians last month may have been compromised because the guards received immunity for statements they made to State Department officials investigating the incident, federal law enforcement officials said yesterday.

FBI agents called in to take over the State Department's investigation two weeks after the Sept. 16 shootings cannot use any information gleaned during questioning of the guards by the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which is charged with supervising security contractors.


Plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight as Iraqi demonstrators loyal to Muqtada Al Sadr attempt to advance on a facility being defended by U.S. and Spanish soldiers, in this April 4, 2004 file photo in the Iraqi city of Najaf.
Plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight as Iraqi demonstrators loyal to Muqtada Al Sadr attempt to advance on a facility being defended by U.S. and Spanish soldiers, in this April 4, 2004 file photo in the Iraqi city of Najaf,. The Blackwater USA contractors were actively involved in defending the position. The images were taken by Spanish freelance photographer Gervasio Sanchez and were made available to The Associated Press Tuesday, October 2, 2007. The likelihood of criminal charges being brought against Blackwater USA bodyguards in September's shooting incident in Iraq is clouded. The Associated Press has learned that the State Department promised the bodyguards immunity from prosecution as part of its investigation into the deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians. (AP Photo/Gervasio Sanchez,File) (Gervasio Sanchez - AP)
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Some of the Blackwater guards have subsequently refused to be interviewed by the FBI, citing promises of immunity from State, one law enforcement official said. The restrictions on the FBI's use of their initial statements do not preclude prosecution by the Justice Department using other evidence, the official said, but "they make things a lot more complicated and difficult."

Under State Department contractor rules, Diplomatic Security agents are charged with investigating and reporting on all "use of force" incidents. Although there have been previous Blackwater shootings over the past three years -- none of which resulted in prosecutions -- the Sept. 16 incident was by far the most serious. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security was under pressure to quickly determine what had happened in what soon became a major controversy in Baghdad and Washington.

It is unclear when or by whom the grant of immunity was explained to the guards. Under federal case law applying to government workers, only voluntary answers to questions posed by the employing agency can be used against them in a criminal prosecution. If an employee is ordered to answer under threat of disciplinary action, the resulting statements cannot be used.

"You can't use the fruits of that statement," another law enforcement official said. "It doesn't prevent them from talking [to the FBI], but . . . why run the risk? I think any lawyer would advise against it. "

Diplomatic Security spokesman Brian Leventhal declined to comment on the situation, first reported yesterday by the Associated Press. Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide, also declined to comment.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack referred all questions to the Justice Department. "But if anyone has broken the rules or applicable laws, they should be held to account," McCormack said.

Blackwater chief executive Erik Prince has said the personal security guards, contracted by the State Department from his company to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, came under fire in a Baghdad traffic circle and shot only in self-defense. But the Iraqi government, which has conducted its own investigation, concluded that the Blackwater guards fired the only shots in the incident and were completely at fault. A U.S. military investigation also concluded that the shootings were unprovoked.

Amid growing diplomatic tension and congressional criticism, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked the FBI to take over the case to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest between the department's Diplomatic Security agents in Baghdad and the Blackwater personnel they supervise.

Although the FBI maintains an office at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a team of Washington-based agents was dispatched as additional insurance against what one administration official called a possible "taint" on the investigation's objectivity. To ensure a firewall, FBI investigators were barred from reading interviews and reports on the incident gathered by Diplomatic Security agents.

Several of the Blackwater personnel, however, asserted that they had already told their stories, under immunity grants from the State Department, and declined FBI interviews that could be used against them, law enforcement officials said.


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