Jury convicts four Blackwater security guards

WASHINGTON – A federal jury has returned guilty verdicts for all four former Blackwater security guards charged in the 2007 shootings of more than 30 Iraqis in Baghdad. The jury in Washington found Nicholas Slatten guilty of first-degree murder. The three other three guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges. The four men were charged with a combined 33 counts in the shootings.

The jury had reached verdicts on only part of the charges, but Judge Royce Lamberth allowed them to announce the verdicts they had reached. The jury was expected to continue deliberating on the other counts.

The September 16, 2007 shootings in Nisour Square triggered an international uproar over the role of defense contractors in urban warfare. Blackwater had been hired by the State Department to protect American diplomats in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. Blackwater convoys of four heavily armored vehicles operated in risky environments where car bombs and attacks by insurgents were commonplace.

The case was mired in legal battles for years, making it uncertain whether the defendants would ever be tried. The trial focused on the killings of 14 Iraqis and the wounding of 17 others. During an 11-week trial, prosecutors summoned 72 witnesses, including Iraqi victims, their families and former colleagues of the defendant Blackwater guards.

The defendants’ lawyers said there was strong evidence that the guards were targeted with incoming gunfire from insurgents and Iraqi police, prompting the guards to return fire in self-defense. But federal prosecutors said there was no incoming gunfire. Some of the Blackwater guards harbored a low regard and deep hostility toward the Iraqi civilian population, and the shootings were unprovoked. They said that from a vantage point inside his convoy’s command vehicle, Slatten aimed his SR-25 sniper rifle through a gun portal, killing the driver of a stopped white Kia sedan, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y. One of the government witnesses in the case, Blackwater guard Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to killing the driver’s mother, who died in the passenger seat of the white Kia next to her son.

The maximum sentence for conviction of first-degree murder is life imprisonment. The gun charges carry mandatory minimum prison terms of 30 years. The maximum prison term for involuntary manslaughter is eight years; and for attempted manslaughter it is seven years.

– edited from the Associated Press, October 22, 2014
PeaceMeal Nov/December 2014

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In Iraq, Blackwater verdict provides no relief from bitterness

BAGHDAD — Like most Iraqis, Ali Abbas Mahmoud didn’t know when he awoke October 23 that a jury in Washington DC had found four former Blackwater security guards guilty the previous day in one of the most infamous episodes of the U.S.-led occupation. He learned about the outcome of the trial from an American journalist. “They killed my elder brother and his son, but can this conviction bring them back?” asked Mahmoud.

One official suggested that Iraqis are too preoccupied with the savagery of the Islamic State onslaught that has claimed thousands of lives since mid-June to care about a trial involving a handful of deaths from the distant past. “We have a kind of ignorance in the Iraqi media. Why? The tragedy that the Iraqis are suffering from now is from more than a security company that killed a few Iraqis,” said Kamil Ameen Hashim, a spokesman for the Ministry of Human Rights.

For many Iraqis, the incident — coming on top of the infamous detainee abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison and the killings by U.S. Marines of 24 civilians at Haditha — epitomized much of what was wrong with the U.S. occupation. That was especially true for what was widely seen as the impunity afforded to Blackwater and legions of other private U.S. security contractors who poured into Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Ali Abbas Mahmoud’s elder brother Muhammad Abbas Mahmoud, his 11-year-old nephew Qasim Muhammad Abbas, and the boy’s mother were sitting inside a pickup when the shooting broke out. They were hauling furniture to a new home in a Shiite neighborhood after tensions with minority Sunni Muslims forced them to leave their old house.

Ali Abbas Mahmoud, a 52-year-old Ministry of Housing employee, said he'd never forget how his sister-in-law, frantic with grief and terror, called him as she sat bleeding inside the pickup. “She was in the vehicle. She screamed, ‘They slaughtered your brother and they slaughtered your nephew and I’m injured.’ She made me as hysterical as she was.”

Mahmoud said the verdicts did nothing to alter his hatred for the United States or his opposition to the ongoing U.S.-led military intervention against the Islamic State group. The trial “reminds us of the pain and sorrow we suffered. We know that from the beginning, when they invaded Iraq in 2003, that the Americans are tyrants. When they invaded Iraq, they invented a reason for that,” he said. “Now, whether legally or illegally, they want to come back again.”

– edited from McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Oct. 23, 2014
PeaceMeal Nov/December 2014

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Blackwater guards go on trial after 7 years

After years of delays, four former guards from the defunct security firm Blackwater Worldwide went on trial June 11 in U.S. District Court in Washington DC for the killings of 17 Iraqi civilians and the wounding of 18 others. The carnage of September 16, 2007 was seen by critics of the George W. Bush administration as an illustration of a war gone horribly wrong.

Witnesses told an investigating team of F.B.I. agents a horrific tale of a convoy of Blackwater mercenaries firing wildly on unarmed civilians in a crowded traffic circle in Baghdad. The team’s leader commented, “This is the My Lai massacre of Iraq.”

While Blackwater guards said the shooting had begun with an ambush by insurgents, American military officials told investigators that there had been no sign of such an attack. Even if there had been, the military said, firing grenade launchers in such a crowded space was excessive.

Prosecutors planned to call more than four dozen Iraqi citizens, including relatives of those killed in the attack, to travel to Washington to testify in the trial that is expected to last months.

The government’s first witness, Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani, broke down on the witness stand as he recounted how his nine-year-old son Ali was shot in the head while riding in the back seat of the family car.

One defendant, Nicholas Slatten, is charged with first-degree murder. The other three — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — are charged with voluntary manslaughter. The Justice Department dropped charges against a fifth guard for lack of evidence. A sixth guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, reached a deal in 2008 in which he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, admitting that he and his colleagues had fired unprovoked on unarmed civilians and agreeing to testify against the others in exchange for a reduction in sentence from 30 years to 10 years.

– edited from The Associated Press and The New York Times
PeaceMeal, July/August 2014

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New indictments in 2007 Blackwater shootings

The Justice Department on October 17 brought fresh charges against four former Blackwater Worldwide security contractors, resurrecting an internationally charged case over a deadly 2007 shooting on the streets of Baghdad. A new grand jury indictment charges the men in a shooting that inflamed anti-American sentiment in Iraq and heightened diplomatic sensitivities amid an ongoing war. The men were hired to guard U.S. diplomats.

The guards are accused of opening fire in busy Nisoor Square on Sept. 16, 2007. Seventeen Iraqi civilians died, including women and children. Prosecutors say the heavily armed Blackwater convoy used machine guns and grenades in an unprovoked attack. Defense lawyers argue that their clients are innocent men who were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents. An FBI investigation at the time found that, of the 17 Iraqis killed by the guards, at least 14 were shot without cause.

The guards were charged with manslaughter and weapons violations in 2008, but the following year federal Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the case, ruling the Justice Department withheld evidence from a grand jury and violated the guards’ constitutional rights. The dismissal outraged many Iraqis, who said it showed Americans consider themselves above the law.

Two years ago, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit revived the prosecution by ruling unanimously that Urbina had misinterpreted the law. The three appellate judges found that Urbina had “made a number of systemic errors based on an erroneous legal analysis.” Prosecutors again presented evidence before a grand jury, which brought the new indictments.

The defendants include Dustin Heard, a retired U.S. Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a retired U.S. Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former U.S. Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn., and Paul Slough, a U.S. Army veteran from Keller, Texas. All are charged with multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter.

In September, prosecutors dropped charges against a fifth Blackwater guard, Donald Ball, a retired Marine from West Valley City, Utah. A sixth guard involved, Jeremy Ridgeway of California, pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in 2008, cooperated with the government and is awaiting sentencing.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said the prosecution “demonstrates our commitment to upholding the rule of law even in times of war and to bringing justice to the memories of those innocent men, women and children who were gunned down in Baghdad more than six years ago.”

– edited from The Associated Press and Washington Post
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2013

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30 false fronts won contracts for Blackwater mercenaries

WASHINGTON – Blackwater Worldwide created a web of more than 30 shell companies or subsidiaries, in part to obtain millions of dollars in American government contracts after the security company came under intense criticism for reckless conduct in Iraq, according to Congressional investigators and former Blackwater officials. While it is not clear how many of those businesses won contracts, at least three had deals with the United States military or the Central Intelligence Agency, according to former government and company officials. Since 2001, the C.I.A. has awarded up to $600 million in classified contracts to Blackwater and its affiliates, according to a U.S. government official.

The Senate Armed Services Committee released a chart in September that identified 31 affiliates of Blackwater, now known as Xe Services. The network was disclosed as part of a committee’s investigation into government contracting. The investigation revealed the lengths to which Blackwater went to continue winning contracts after Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in September 2007. That episode and other reports of abuses led to criminal and Congressional investigations, and cost the company its lucrative security contract with the State Department in Iraq.

The network of companies — which includes several businesses located in offshore tax havens — allowed Blackwater to obscure its involvement in government work from contracting officials or the public, and to assure a low profile for any of its classified activities, said former Blackwater officials, who, like the government officials, spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Former company officials say that Erik Prince, the business’s founder, was eager to find ways to continue to handle secret work after the 2007 shootings in Baghdad’s Nisour Square and set up a special office to handle classified work at his farm in Middleburg, Va. Enrique Prado, a former top C.I.A. official who joined the contractor, worked closely with Mr. Prince to develop Blackwater’s clandestine abilities, according to several former officials. In an internal e-mail obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Prado claimed that he had created a Blackwater spy network that could be hired by the American government. “These are all foreign nationals,” he stated, “so deniability is built in and should be a big plus.”

The C.I.A.’s continuing relationship with the company, which recently was awarded a $100-million contract to provide security at agency bases in Afghanistan, has drawn harsh criticism from some members of Congress, who argue that the company’s tarnished record should preclude it from such work. The company is facing a string of legal problems, including the indictment last April of five former Blackwater officials on weapons and obstruction charges, and civil suits stemming from the 2007 shootings in Iraq.

A C.I.A. spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, said that Xe’s current duties for the agency were to provide security for agency operatives. Contractors “do the tasks we ask them to do in strict accord with the law; they are supervised by C.I.A. staff officers; and they are held to the highest standards of conduct,” he said.

After awarding Blackwater the new security contract in June, C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta publicly defended the decision, saying Blackwater had “cleaned up its act.” But Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said she could not understand why the intelligence community had been unwilling to cut ties to Blackwater. “I am continually and increasingly mystified by this relationship,” she said. “To engage with a company that is such a chronic, repeat offender, it’s reckless.”

Iraq War documents from 2004 to 2009 published on the Internet by WikiLeaks in October contain evidence of many abuses, including civilian deaths, committed by Blackwater employees, according to The New York Times. The leak of 391,832 U.S. Army field reports shows around 15,000 civilian deaths that previously had not been admitted by the United States government. Review of the documents by The Guardian (U.K.) show that “U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers.” The coalition, according to The Guardian, has “a formal policy of ignoring such allegations” that do not involve coalition military troops.

– edited from The New York Times, Sept. 3 & Oct. 23, 2010
PeaceMeal. March/April 2011

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Blackwater said to approve Iraqi payoffs after shootings

WASHINGTON — Top executives at the private military security firm, Blackwater Worldwide, authorized secret payments of about $1 million to Iraqi officials to silence their criticism and buy their support after a September 16, 2007 incident in which Blackwater security guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded dozens more. The shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square was the bloodiest and most controversial episode involving Blackwater in the Iraq war. At midday a Blackwater convoy opened fire on Iraqi civilians in the midst of the crowded intersection, spraying automatic weapons fire in ways that investigators later claimed was indiscriminate and even launching grenades into a nearby school.

According to former company officials, Blackwater approved the cash payments in December 2007, as protests over the deadly shootings stoked long-simmering anger inside Iraq about reckless practices by the security company’s employees. American and Iraqi investigators had already concluded that the shootings were unjustified and top Iraqi officials were calling for Blackwater’s ouster from the country. Company officials feared that Blackwater might be refused an operating license it needed to retain its no-bid contracts with the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. State Department. From 2004 through now, the company has collected more than $1.5 billion for its work protecting American diplomats and providing air transportation for them inside Iraq.

Four former Blackwater executives said in interviews that Gary Jackson, who was then the company’s president, had approved the bribes, and the money was sent from Amman, Jordan, where Blackwater maintains an operations hub, to a top manager in Iraq. One of the executives said that officials in Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which is responsible for operating licenses, were the intended recipients.

Blackwater’s strategy of buying off the government officials, which would have been illegal under American law, created a deep rift inside the company, according to the former executives. They said that Cofer Black, who was then the company’s vice chairman and a former top CIA and State Department official, learned of the plan from another Blackwater manager while he was in Baghdad discussing compensation for families of the shooting victims with U.S. Embassy officials. Alarmed about the secret payments, Mr. Black cut short his talks and left Iraq. Soon after returning to the United States, he confronted Erik Prince, the company’s chairman and founder, who did not dispute that there was a bribery plan, according to a former Blackwater executive familiar with the meeting. Mr. Black resigned the following year.

The former officials said that Mr. Black and other former CIA officers working for the company believed that Blackwater had cultivated a cowboy culture that was contemptuous of government rules and regulations, and that some of the company’s leaders — former members of the Navy Seals including Mr. Prince and Mr. Jackson — had pushed the boundaries of legality.

The four former Blackwater executives, who had held high-ranking posts at the company, would speak only on condition of anonymity. Two of them said they took part in talks about the payments; the two others said they had been told by several Blackwater officials about the discussions. In agreeing to describe those conversations, the four officials said that they were troubled by a pattern of questionable conduct by Blackwater, which had led them to leave the company.

Five Blackwater guards involved in the shooting are facing federal manslaughter charges and their trial is scheduled to start in February in Washington. A sixth guard pleaded guilty.

Blackwater, now known as Xe (pronounced “z”) Services, has never faced criminal charges in the case. However, a federal grand jury in North Carolina, where Blackwater has its headquarters, has been conducting a lengthy investigation into the company. One of the former executives said he had disclosed to federal prosecutors the plan to pay Iraqi officials to drop their inquiries into the shooting case. If Blackwater followed through, the company or its officials could face charges of obstruction of justice and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans bribes to foreign officials.

In late 2008, the outgoing Bush administration and the Iraqi government hammered out an agreement governing the role of security contractors in Iraq. Under the new rules, security contractors lost their immunity from Iraqi laws, which had been granted in 2004 by L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran the country after the U.S. invasion.

In March 2009, the Iraqis said that Blackwater would not be awarded an operating license. Two months later, the State Department replaced the company with a competing security contractor, Triple Canopy.

– edited from The New York Times, 11 November 2009
PeaceMeal,Nov/December 2009

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Blackwater’s license to kill

Federal agents investigating the September 16 killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by operatives of the Blackwater security company have concluded that 14 were victims of unjustified and unprovoked shootings. Some died in a hail of bullets as they fled. The investigators also have rejected assertions by Blackwater that its forces were defending themselves, saying there is no evidence to support that claim.

This initial glimpse into the evidence uncovered by the FBI bolsters the Iraqi government’s claim (made within hours of the shootings in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square) that the killings were criminal, as well as the findings of a U.S. military investigation that called all 17 of the killings unjustified. But that raises a crucial and complicated question: Who will prosecute the killers?

The answer may be no one. That certainly seemed to be the view of veteran diplomat Patrick Kennedy, who recently reviewed the State Department’s use of private security. Kennedy and his team came back from Baghdad concluding that they were “unaware of any basis for holding non-Department of Defense contractors accountable under U.S. law.”

Although the FBI conclusions appear damning, each of the three potential avenues for prosecuting Blackwater have fatal flaws:

1) U.S. civilian law applies only to contractors working for or directly accompanying the U.S. military, while Blackwater works for the State Department in Iraq as “diplomatic security.” 2) Applying U.S. military law to civilians has not been tested legally, although a 2006 amendment to the Defense Authorization Act places all U.S. contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice — the court-martial system. 3) Iraqi law: The Iraqi government wants to prosecute the Blackwater shooters in its courts, but an order issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in June 2004 grants all contractors sweeping immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

“These legal loopholes amount, in practice, to a license to kill with impunity,” says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is suing Blackwater for wrongful death and war crimes in federal court over the shootings. “There is no genuine deterrence to acting unlawfully.”

Even if the Justice Department moves forward, the investigation was contaminated from the start. The State Department’s initial report on the shooting was drafted by a Blackwater contractor on U.S. government stationery. Two weeks passed before the FBI was dispatched to investigate; for two weeks, the only people looking into this crime were from a non-law-enforcment agency, the State Department, which had potential culpability of its own.

Then there is this fact: The State Department inspector general, Howard Krongard, who previously has been accused of impeding investigations into Blackwater, has direct family ties to the company. His brother, A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard, former CIA executive director, this year joined Blackwater’s advisory board as a paid consultant. While at the CIA, Krongard played a role in Blackwater’s first soldier-for-hire contract in Afghanistan in 2002.

In late October, it came out that the State Department had granted “limited use immunity” to some Blackwater operatives involved in the shootings before taking their statements. The result? Some Blackwater agents reportedly have refused to answer FBI questions, and those statements cannot be used as evidence, nor can any charges be based on them.

The immunity-for-statements deal calls the State Department’s motivation into question, says military law expert Scott Horton of Human Rights First. “It seems less to be to collect the facts than to immunize Blackwater and its employees.” This makes prosecution in any venue difficult, if not impossible.

The Bush administration has overseen a radical privatization of the U.S. war machine. There are now more private contractors in Iraq — tens of thousands of them armed — than U.S. troops. At the same time, the White House has militarized the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, staffing it with private warriors from Blackwater, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy. This force, conceived as a small-scale bodyguard operation for U.S. diplomats, now constitutes a paramilitary squad thousands strong, seemingly accountable to no one.

– edited from an article by Jeremy Scahill in the Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2007. Scahill is the author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.”

– PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2007

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Witnesses testify in Blackwater lawsuit

WASHINGTON - A federal grand jury investigating the security firm Blackwater Worldwide heard witnesses Nov. 27, as a private lawsuit accused the government contractor’s bodyguards of ignoring orders and abandoning their posts shortly before taking part in a Baghdad shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. Filed in U.S. District Court in Washington DC, the civil complaint also accuses Blackwater of failing to give drug tests to its guards in Baghdad — even though an estimated one in four of them was using steroids or other “judgment altering substances.”

Two Justice Department national security prosecutors handling the Blackwater case spent much of the afternoon in the grand jury room, which is off limits to the public. Two witnesses also spent hours behind closed doors in the District of Columbia’s federal courthouse. The Justice Department says it likely will be months before it decides whether it can prosecute the guards, and it is trying now to pinpoint how many shooters in the Blackwater convoy could face charges.

According to the lawsuit filed by lawyers working with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Blackwater bodyguards had already dropped off the State Department official they were tasked with protecting when they then headed to Nisoor Square where the shootings occurred. Blackwater and State Department personnel staffing a tactical operations center “expressly directed the Blackwater shooters to stay with the official and refrain from leaving the secure area,” the complaint says. “Reasonable discovery will establish that the Blackwater shooters ignored those directives.”

The lawsuit also notes: “One of Blackwater’s own shooters tried to stop his colleagues from indiscriminately firing upon the crowd of innocent civilians, but he was unsuccessful in his efforts.”

Lead plaintiff attorney Susan L. Burke said. “We’re looking for compensatory (damages) because the people who were killed were the breadwinners in their families. And we’re looking for punitive in a manner that suffices to change the corporation’s conduct,” she added. “We have a real interest in holding them accountable for what were completely avoidable deaths.”

– edited from The Associated Press, November 27, 2007
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2007

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)