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Blackwater in Court Today in War Crimes Hearing

by Jeremy Scahill

Lawyers for Blackwater and its owner Erik Prince are in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia today where they are arguing that the five lawsuits against them should be thrown out. The judge in the case, TS Ellis III, is a Reagan appointee with an interesting recent history. He presided over the plea agreement of John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban;" he sentenced Lawrence Franklin to 12 years in the AIPAC/Israel espionage scandal and he also tossed out a case brought by German citizen Khalid El-Masri against private companies allegedly involved with the CIA's extraordinary rendition program. Judge Ellis said that to allow the case to proceed would "present a grave risk of injury to national security." Blackwater has made a similar argument in this case, essentially that it was involved with sensitive operations on behalf of the government and cannot be sued (This is covered in great detail in my book).

Will a war crimes lawsuit against Erik Prince and Blackwater be allowed to proceed? That is in the hands of a Reagan-appointed judge in Virginia. Ellis has refused to grant Blackwater's request for a gag order in the case, which Blackwater wanted. In my recent piece for The Nation, "Blackwater: CIA Assassins?" the second half of the story got buried because of breaking news. It dealt with Blackwater's attempt to make the US government the defendant in these civil cases instead of Prince and Blackwater. For background, I am posting that section here:

Blackwater Strikes Back

Prince and his Blackwater empire are facing the prospect of a potentially explosive civil trial over the killing of Iraqi civilians. Attorney Susan Burke and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), who are suing Prince and his companies on behalf of their Iraqi victims, have alleged that Prince is "equivalent to a top mafia boss who is responsible for all the day-to-day crimes committed at his direction and behest." If the case proceeds, the process of discovery could blow the lid off some of the darkest secrets of the powerful security contractor and its secretive owner. Burke and CCR are suing Prince and his companies directly rather than his individual employees because they say Prince "wholly owns and personally controls all Defendants." Burke also alleges that Prince has committed "violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal statute permitting private parties to seek redress from criminal enterprises who damage their property." Among the allegations are war crimes, extra-judicial killings and assault and battery of Iraqis.

Since the first case was filed by Iraqi civilians against Prince and Blackwater over the killing of seventeen Iraqis at Baghdad's Nisour Square on September 16, 2007, the company's high-powered lawyers have fought feverishly to have that and four other cases dismissed. Now, facing a crucial August 28 hearing in federal court in Virginia, they are putting forward a new argument: instead of Prince and Blackwater standing trial, the US government should be the defendant.

In a motion filed August 12, Blackwater's lawyers asked federal Judge T.S. Ellis III to order "that the United States ‘be substituted as the party defendant,' in place of all of the current Defendants." In his motion, Blackwater lawyer Peter White of the powerhouse firm Mayer Brown argued that the company was working for the State Department in Iraq and therefore was on official business when the alleged killings and injuries of Iraqis took place. White cites the 1988 Westfall Act, which prohibits suits against government employees for their actions on behalf of the government and states that the government will assume liability for any lawsuits against employees.

Federal tort law defines "employees" in this context as "persons acting on behalf of a federal agency in an official capacity, temporarily or permanently in the service of the United States, whether with or without compensation." The fact that the defendants are "corporate entities" in this instance, White claims, "does not alter that conclusion." In the motion, Blackwater's attorneys note that the company, which recently renamed itself Xe Services, now does business with the government under the name US Training Center (USTC).

"The idea that the United States government should accept liability for the unprovoked criminal manslaughter of seventeen innocent Iraqis by Blackwater mercenaries, and place it on the back of taxpayers, is corporate animism run amok," says Ralph Nader, who has spent his entire career fighting against corporate personhood. "If Blackwater wants to be treated like a person, then its latest mutation, USTC, should be prosecuted, convicted and given the equivalent penalty of corporate capital punishment by revoking its charter and terminating its corporate operations."

The Westfall Act was passed in 1988 as an amendment to the Federal Torts Claim Act "to protect federal employees from personal liability for common law torts committed within the scope of their employment, while providing persons injured by the common law torts of federal employees with an appropriate remedy against the United States." After Westfall, the government assumed legal responsibility for suits filed against federal employees and made the sole remedy for victims suits against the government.

Blackwater has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to intervene in the case and to assume liability for the allegations against Blackwater. If that were to happen, legal experts say, the case would be dead in the water. "It's clear that if they win this motion and the government is substituted, since the wrongs occurred in a foreign country, the government is absolutely immune and the case will be dismissed," says Alan Morrison, a former federal prosecutor who is now the associate dean for public interest at George Washington Law School. "This is an effort [by Blackwater and Prince] to absolve themselves...of any liability for the alleged wrongs to the plaintiffs." He adds: "A gigantic, for-profit corporation is seeking to use this statute, designed to protect government employees, to shield themselves from any responsibility for the deaths and injuries" of Iraqis.

"When Blackwater chooses to interpose itself in the middle and to make profit off these individual employees in the relationship with the government, the notion that Blackwater itself, a corporation, could be an employee is unusual to say the least," says Morrison. "Why would Congress want to, in effect, transfer liability from a large, well-heeled corporation like Blackwater to the United States taxpayers for this kind of conduct? What they'd be saying [if Blackwater's interpretation of the Westfall Act is accepted] is they would have wanted to assume liability for that which they didn't have any liability in the first place."

The Justice Department has not yet issued a position in this case. "Unfortunately, there's nothing we can provide in regard to your inquiry at this time," an official wrote in an e-mail. Earlier, in response to questions from The Nation, a Justice Department spokesperson sent a memo filed by the department earlier this year in a similar case against Blackwater in federal court in Florida, in which the department had rejected the company's attempt to make the government responsible. "Defendants' request for Westfall Act certification should be denied because only natural persons can be considered ‘employee[s] of the government,'" Assistant Attorney General Tony West wrote on June 8 in a thirty-five-page filing opposing Blackwater's motion.

Several legal experts interviewed by The Nation said they could not foresee the Justice Department intervening on Blackwater's behalf. But the Westfall Act has been used by attorneys general in both the Bush and Obama administrations to attempt to absolve senior Bush officials of liability for their alleged role in crimes and to make the government liable. On June 26 Holder's office intervened in a lawsuit filed by CCR against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and twenty-three other military and medical officials "for their role in the illegal detention, torture, inhumane conditions and ultimate deaths" of two Guantánamo prisoners.

Citing the Westfall Act, Tony West wrote that "the type of activities alleged against the individual defendants were ‘foreseeable' and were ‘a direct outgrowth' of their responsibility to detain and gather intelligence from suspected enemy combatants." In defending the government's position, West cited case law stating that "genocide, torture, forced relocation, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by individual defendants employed by Department of Defense and State Department were within scope of employment" and similar cases justifying CIA torture as part of official duty.

"It is essentially saying torture is all in a day's work when it comes to holding people in military detention," says Shane Kadidal, who heads the Guantánamo project at CCR. In that case, the issue was not whether Rumsfeld and the others were "employees" but whether they were doing official business. Blackwater's argument is a tougher sell, says Morrison. "Does it hold water?" he asks. "It holds Blackwater."

Meanwhile, in another development, Prince's lawyers have responded to explosive allegations made against Prince by two former employees. In sworn affidavits submitted by lawyers representing the Iraqis suing Blackwater, the two alleged that Prince may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. One of the former employees alleges that Prince "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe," and that Prince's companies "encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life." They also charge that Prince was profiting from illegal weapons smuggling. In a motion filed August 10, Prince's lawyers asked Judge Ellis to strike from the record the sworn statements of the two former employees, saying that "the conclusory allegations they contain are inadmissible on multiple grounds, including lack of foundation, hearsay, irrelevance, and unfair prejudice." They charge that the lawyers suing Blackwater are attempting to "use this litigation as a ‘megaphone' to increase their ability to influence the public's perceptions regarding the use of contractors in military battlefield situations, the Iraq War, and most particularly about Erik Prince and the other defendants. Unsubstantiated statements made in filings in this Court become ‘newsworthy' simply because they appear in those filings." The lawyers characterize the allegations as "scandalous, baseless, inadmissible, and highly prejudicial." Interestingly, nowhere do Prince's lawyers say flatly that the allegations are untrue.

As the cases against Prince move forward, the company continues to do a robust business with the federal government, particularly in Afghanistan. Schakowsky has called for a review of all of the companies' current contracts, and she has called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stop awarding the company contracts. The "Obama administration should at the very least cancel and debar [Blackwater's] present and pending government contracts," says Nader. "Otherwise corporate crimes, privileges and immunities continue to pay and pay and pay."

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