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Government Pursues Charges Against Blackwater Guards in Iraqis’ Deaths

December 8, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Federal charges against five Blackwater Worldwide guards were unsealed Monday in relation to a 2007 incident in Baghdad that left 14 Iraqis dead and another 20 injured. NPR reporter Dina Temple-Raston discusses the charges and the legal strategy on both sides.

GWEN IFILL: Nearly 200,000 civilian contractors have been paid more than $85 billion to serve the U.S. government and military in Iraq. The five Blackwater security guards indicted by the Justice Department today are all former military. A sixth guard has already admitted guilt.

They could face 30 years in prison for opening fire with machine guns and grenade launchers on unarmed Iraqi civilians.

For more on the government’s case and the contractors’ defense, we turn to Dina Temple-Raston, who covers the FBI for National Public Radio.


DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, National Public Radio: Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: Bring us up to date. Remind us what the circumstances were of this alleged shooting in Baghdad in September of 2007.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, on Sept. 16, 2007, a convoy of Blackwater SUVs came into this traffic circle that was very crowded in Baghdad. And on that, everyone seems to agree; what happened next is sort of up for debate.

Now, the Blackwater people say that what happened is a car started moving forward when they ordered it to stop. They thought the car was actually a suicide car bomber, and so they opened fire. And they’ve also said some insurgents fired at them.

But the FBI and the Department of — sorry, the Department of Defense and the Iraqi government have all investigated all of this. And they didn’t find any sort of provocation for the shooting. And that’s what’s at issue now.

The rules of engagement

GWEN IFILL: Are there -- these are all -- most of these men engaged in this were former military. Are there rules of engagement which apply to contractors in cases like this, when they should pull their weapons, when they should use this kind of force?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, each of these contractors have their own sort of rules and agreements with whoever it is that contracted them. In this case, they were not contracted by the Department of Defense, but they were contracted by the State Department. And this has created a legal gray area that they're actually trying to work out now.

I mean, the rules of engagement now -- post having agreed on a status-of-forces agreement, as they did last month -- are much clearer. And now, in fact, if the exact same episode was to happen in Iraq, the Blackwater people would be -- have to have their day in an Iraqi court, as opposed to a U.S. court.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the gray area. You're right. These Blackwater guards were there protecting a State Department convoy, USAID, I guess, but yet this is a Defense Department prosecution or a Justice Department prosecution. Who draws the line about who pursues what?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the problem is there's something called MEJA, which is basically a military extraterritorial jurisdiction agreement. And in that MEJA, it says that anyone who is supporting a military operation or a DOD operation is subject to this jurisdiction.

Now, I think what defense attorneys are going to say in this particular case is that they weren't supporting a Defense Department operation, but, in fact, were supporting the State Department, which had a different mission. That's going to be their argument.

And, therefore, these charges that have been brought against them, they don't have the jurisdiction to even bring them. We'll see what happens with that.

Conducting the investigation

GWEN IFILL: Well, and who did the investigation? Obviously somebody had to go back to Iraq and try to find out, establish the facts of this case.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there were actually at least three different investigations. The FBI actually went and did an investigation and actually bought the cars that were in the -- that were blown up or on fire in the traffic circle, bought them from the Iraqis, and brought them back to the United States to actually do forensics on them.

And so they did one set of investigation; I think the military did another set of investigation; and the Iraqis government did a third. And in all those cases, they agreed that it seemed to them that there was no provocation whatsoever for the Blackwater guards to open fire.

GWEN IFILL: Now, even though these indictments were unsealed here today in Washington, apparently these guards surrendered to authorities in Salt Lake City, Utah. Why Utah?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it was a defense strategy, which it seems didn't work. I think they're not going to get jurisdiction in Utah.

But one of the five men actually is a Utah resident. And I think that they were thinking that they might get a more sympathetic jury -- a jury, perhaps, that would be more pro-the Iraq war and maybe more pro-gun if they were in Utah.

But as I understand it, a judge turned them down, and this is going to have to happen in Washington, D.C.

Will the sixth guard testify?

GWEN IFILL: So what do we know about what the defense is for these six -- well, it's for these five, because the sixth pled guilty -- for these five contractors? What are they saying happened?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they're saying that they -- that they were actually shot upon and that they fired in self-defense. I think one of the really interesting things that's going to come out is this sixth man who pled guilty. He pled guilty to one charge of manslaughter and one charge of voluntary manslaughter, I think.

And all the other men in this are facing 14 counts of manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter.

So the question is whether or not this sixth man is actually going to end up testifying against the people who were with him there in the square. And that's going to strengthen the Justice Department's case quite a bit.

GWEN IFILL: So there's an assumption that a plea deal was involved here?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Absolutely. There's not even an assumption. A plea deal was definitely involved. It's a question of what he traded for these smaller charges.

GWEN IFILL: Do we know whether this is the only investigation of this type that's going on now involving the behavior or the actions of contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: I think there are other investigations going on, but the reason why we've heard so much about this one is because it was such an egregious case. And it became a cause celebre in Iraq, in which it seemed like they were going to get off scot-free and that an Iraqi life wasn't worth as much as an American life.

And this is why it ended up being put in the status-of-forces agreement. It was a huge stumbling block in the status-of-forces agreement that they agreed to last month. They wanted to make sure that something like this never happened again.

GWEN IFILL: Dina Temple-Raston, thank you very much, from National Public Radio.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Pleasure to be here.