Matt Apuzzo, Lara Jakes Jordan / Associated Press & James Risen / The New York Times – 2008-05-10 21:47:36
Criminal Charges Not Likely for Blackwater in Killings of Iraqis
Matt Apuzzo, Lara Jakes Jordan / Associated Press
WASHINGTON (May 10, 2008) — Blackwater Worldwide, the security contractor blamed by an angry Iraqi government for the shooting deaths of 17 civilians last year, is not expected to face criminal charges — all but ensuring the company will keep its multimillion-dollar contract to protect US diplomats.
Instead, the 7-month-old Justice Department investigation is focused on as few as three or four Blackwater guards who could be indicted in the Sept. 16 shootings, according to interviews with a half-dozen people close to the investigation.
The final decision on any charges will not be made until late summer at the earliest, a law enforcement official said. All spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.
The State Department publicly raised the question of Blackwater’s corporate liability last month when it extended the company’s contract by one year. The contract still could be canceled if criminal charges are brought, but the department said it is unlikely to penalize the corporation if only its employees are charged.
“I think that’s really what the FBI investigation needs to look at: Is the company culpable, or are the individuals culpable?” Greg Starr, the State Department’s top security officer, said last month.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said, “If it is determined that there are any individuals who need to be held accountable, we support that.”
The shootings began when a Blackwater convoy, responding to a Baghdad car bombing, entered the Nisoor Square traffic circle. Blackwater says the convoy was ambushed by insurgents, touching off a firefight. Iraqi witnesses described an unprovoked attack in which security guards fired indiscriminately, killing motorists, bystanders and children in the square.
The shooting enraged the Iraqi government, which originally sought to expel the company from the country, and strained diplomatic relations between Washington and Baghdad.
The shooting also raised questions at home and abroad about the US reliance on heavily armed private contractors in war zones. With nearly 1,000 personnel working in Iraq, Blackwater is the largest State Department security contractor; critics have compared its guards to mercenaries.
Since the shooting, Blackwater also has come to symbolize the legal gray area in which such security contractors operate. Iraqi officials wanted to charge Blackwater guards in Baghdad, but US contractors are immune from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
US prosecutors believe they have jurisdiction to bring a case in Washington, but that legal theory is untested.
This week, the Justice Department continued its secret grand jury interviews in the case with the testimony of a US military official. So far, an estimated 40 witnesses have been brought before the grand jury in Washington, including Blackwater security guards and company managers.
Iraqi witnesses also are expected to testify in coming months, according to people close to the case.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
Blackwater Likely Won’t Face Charges in Iraq Killings
WASHINGTON (May 10, 2008) — Blackwater Worldwide, the security contractor blamed by an angry Iraqi government for the shooting deaths of 17 civilians, is not expected to face criminal charges – all but ensuring the company will keep its multimillion-dollar contract to protect US diplomats.
Instead, the seven-month-old Justice Department investigation is focused on as few as three or four Blackwater guards who could be indicted in the Sept. 16 shootings, according to interviews with a half-dozen people close to the investigation.
The final decision on any charges will not be made until late summer at the earliest, a law enforcement official said. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.
The State Department publicly raised the question of Blackwater’s corporate liability last month when it extended the company’s contract by one year. The contract could still be canceled if criminal charges are brought, but the department said it was unlikely to penalize the corporation if only its employees were charged.
“I think that’s really what the FBI investigation needs to look at: Is the company culpable or are the individuals culpable?” Greg Starr, the department’s top security officer, said last month.
Copyright © 2008 The Journal Gazette. All rights reserved.
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Iraq Contractor in Shooting Case Makes Comeback
James Risen / The New York Times
WASHINGTON (May 10, 2008) — Last fall, Blackwater Worldwide was in deep peril.
Guards for the security company were involved in a shooting in September that left at least 17 Iraqis dead at a Baghdad intersection. Outrage over the killings prompted the Iraqi government to demand Blackwater’s ouster from the country, and led to a criminal investigation by the F.B.I., a series of internal investigations by the State Department and the Pentagon, and high-profile Congressional hearings.
But after an intense public and private lobbying campaign, Blackwater appears to be back to business as usual.
The State Department has just renewed its contract to provide security for American diplomats in Iraq for at least another year. Threats by the Iraqi government to strip Western contractors of their immunity from Iraqi law have gone nowhere. No charges have been brought in the United States against any Blackwater guard in the September shooting, either, and the F.B.I. agents in Baghdad charged with investigating whether Blackwater guards have committed any crimes under United States law are sometimes protected as they travel through Baghdad by Blackwater guards.
The chief reason for the company’s survival? State Department officials said Friday that they did not believe they had any alternative to Blackwater, which supplies about 800 guards to the department to provide security for diplomats in Baghdad.
Officials say only three companies in the world meet their requirements for protective services in Iraq, and the other two do not have the capability to take on Blackwater’s role in Baghdad. After the shooting in September, the State Department did not even open talks with the other two companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, to see if they could take over from Blackwater, which is based in North Carolina.
“We cannot operate without private security firms in Iraq,” said Patrick F. Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management. “If the contractors were removed, we would have to leave Iraq.”
Still, serious risks remain for Blackwater and at least some of its current and former personnel. A federal grand jury continues to consider evidence in the Baghdad shooting. Although the company is not likely to face any criminal charges, people involved in the case say that some Blackwater guards involved in the shooting are cooperating with the F.B.I. as it pursues evidence against other guards.
Separately, a former Blackwater guard is under criminal investigation for the December 2006 shooting death of an Iraqi guard for an Iraqi vice president, and may soon face federal charges. In a third case, two former Blackwater workers pleaded guilty to weapons-related charges, but both received sentences that included no jail time in return for their cooperation with federal prosecutors in a broader investigation.
A House committee has also asked the Internal Revenue Service to begin an inquiry into whether Blackwater has designated its guards as independent contractors rather than employees to in order to avoid paying and withholding federal taxes. The State Department renewed the security contract for only one year — just long enough to take the company into the start of the next administration. And Blackwater’s political connections to the Bush administration may not serve it well if the Democrats win the White House in November.
Given the furor that surrounded Blackwater after the September shooting in Baghdad, critics say the decision to renew the company’s contract in Iraq is a sign of the Bush administration’s inability to curb its reliance on outside contractors in the war.
“The shooting incident was like a hammer blow, but where are the consequences?” said Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institute and author of “Corporate Warriors,” a book about contractors in Iraq. “I think it points to the fact that the dependence on contractors is like a drug addiction. They just can’t help themselves.”
Representative Henry Waxman, California Democrat who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating Blackwater on several fronts, said, “I can’t understand why Blackwater’s contract was renewed. It seems to me the administration should have looked for others who could do the job, including the US military.”
In the past administration officials have dismissed the notion of using military personnel to guard diplomats.
Founded in 1997 by Erik Prince, a former member of the Navy Seals and heir to a family fortune made in the auto parts industry, Blackwater began to generate controversy in Iraq long before last September’s shooting. Blackwater had developed a reputation among both Iraqis and American military personnel as a company that flaunted a quick-draw image that led its security personnel to take overly aggressive actions to protect the people they were paid to guard.
Last year the State Department acknowledged that Blackwater had been involved in significantly more shootings per convoy mission than DynCorp and Triple Canopy, which provide security for the State Department outside Baghdad.
The shooting death of the bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president in 2006 rankled the Iraqi government well before last September’s shooting. An off-duty Blackwater guard who American and Iraqi officials said had been drinking heavily was the sole suspect.
The off-duty Blackwater guard, Andrew J. Moonen, who no longer works for the company and who is a former Army paratrooper, is now under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in Seattle. Although Mr. Moonen has not been charged, his lawyer, Stewart Riley of Seattle, said that he had recently been in contact about the case with prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s Office in Seattle.
People familiar with the case said they believed that the Justice Department had recently concluded that it had found a way to skirt some of the jurisdictional problems that in the past made it difficult to bring charges in American courts for crimes committed by contractors in Iraq.
“I think they may come to a decision on what to do with this case in the next three or four months,” said one person familiar with the matter. Mr. Riley says that Mr. Moonen maintains his innocence in the shooting.
In addition, a wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater filed by the families of four Blackwater guards killed in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004 — an event that prompted the first major battle in Falluja between the American military and insurgents that year — is also still pending.
A federal appeals court is expected to rule this year on whether the families can proceed with their lawsuit or be forced into arbitration with Blackwater, an outcome the company prefers, according to the families’ lawyer, Daniel Callahan of California.
Donna Zovko of Cleveland, the mother of Jerko Gerald Zovko, one of the Blackwater guards, says Blackwater has stonewalled the families.
“It is 1,501 days since he was killed, and I don’t know one-tenth of what happened to him, and no one seems to care,” Mrs. Zovko said in an interview.
Given so many headlines about his company, Mr. Prince until recently seemed eager to tell his side of the story, and there were reports that he planned to write a book. But on Friday, Anne Tyrrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman, said Mr. Prince’s book project had been put on hold.
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