WASHINGTON - The US State Department faced tough questions Tuesday over reports that it offered immunity to Blackwater security firm employees in the wake of a Baghdad shooting that left 17 civilians dead.
Top Democratic lawmakers sent letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanding answers over reports that Blackwater, which protects US diplomats in Baghdad, had been offered protection from prosecution when the State Department investigated the September 16 shooting.
According to The Washington Post, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who took over the investigation into the shootings are barred from using any information obtained in the State Department probe.
"This rash grant of immunity was an egregious misjudgment," Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Committee, wrote to Rice.
"It raises serious questions about who conferred the immunity, who approved it at the State Department, and what their motives were," Waxman said, urging that the department answer his questions and provide any documents related to the reported immunity deal by Friday.
Joseph Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also sent Rice a letter asking her to confirm whether the reports are accurate.
"If so, who authorized these grants of immunity? Was there consultation with the Department of Justice prior to such grants of immunity?" Biden asked.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the department did not have the authority to give someone immunity from federal criminal prosecution.
"The kinds of, quote, 'immunity' that I've seen reported in the press would not preclude a successful criminal prosecution," he said.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd Tuesday called the reports "inaccurate" but gave no details.
"The Justice Department and the FBI cannot discuss the facts of the Blackwater case, which is under active investigation. However, any suggestion that the Blackwater employees in question have been given immunity from federal criminal prosecution is inaccurate," Boyd said in a statement.
If the reports of the immunity offer are accurate, though, it could reignite the controversy in the Iraqi capital over the role of private security firms such as Blackwater USA in the war-torn country, which a recent Defense Department report characterized as out of control.
The New York Times said officials in the State Department's investigative unit, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, made the immunity offer though they lacked authority to do so.
Most of the guards involved in the shooting were promised they would not be prosecuted for anything they said in interviews as long as their statements were truthful, the Times reported.
And one law enforcement official told the Washington Post that some Blackwater guards cited the immunity promises in refusing to be interviewed by the FBI, which took over the investigation this month.
McCormack sought to distance Rice from the scandal, emphasizing that her attitude is that "if there are individuals who broke rules, laws or regulations, they must be held to account."
It was Rice who had asked the FBI to take over the investigation, he added.
Blackwater guards protecting a State Department convoy opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square on September 16, killing 17 civilians.
Although Blackwater guards had claimed they were fired on first, most accounts from the scene insisted that no one ever fired on the US convoy.
Blackwater boss Erik Prince has rejected an official Iraqi report calling the killings unprovoked, insisting his men were fired upon.
The Iraqi government has called for Blackwater to be barred from operating in the country.
On Tuesday the Iraqi cabinet backed a law revoking immunity granted in 2004 to private security firms operating in the country by then US administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer.
"These companies will not get immunity and will be subject to Iraqi law," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told AFP.
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