Justice, of a Sort, for Blackwater

For 1,929 days, the Bush administration's mercenary force of choice,
Blackwater Worldwide, has operated on a US government contract in Iraq
in a climate that has wed immunity with impunity. Today the Justice
Department took the first concrete step to hold accountable the
individuals responsible for the single greatest massacre of Iraqi
civilians at the hands of an armed private force deployed in Iraq by the
US government.

Five Blackwater operatives turned themselves
in to federal authorities
in Salt Lake City on Monday morning after being officially notified
that they had each been indicted on fourteen manslaughter charges and
allegations they used automatic weapons in the commission of a crime. A
sixth Blackwater operative has already pleaded guilty to two charges as
part of an agreement to testify against his colleagues. The
thirty-five-count indictment was unsealed today in Washington, DC. It
stems from the operatives' alleged role in the Nisour Square shootings
in Baghdad in September 2007 that left seventeen Iraqi civilians dead
and more than
twenty wounded. Today's indictments represent the first time in more
than five years of the Iraq occupation that the Justice Department has
criminal charges against armed private contractors for crimes committed
against Iraqis.

Significantly, Blackwater as a company faces no charges in the case.

"The government alleges in the documents unsealed today that at least 34
unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed or
injured without justification or provocation by these Blackwater
security guards in the shooting at Nisour Square," said Patrick Rowan,
assistant attorney general for national security. "Today's indictment
and guilty plea demonstrate that those who engage in unprovoked and
illegal attacks on civilians, whether during times of conflict or times
of peace, will be held accountable."

In a dramatic twist, in addition to the manslaughter charges, the
are being charged under an antidrug law that provides for a
thirty-year mandatory minimum sentence for using machine guns in the
commission of violent crimes. Count thirty-five of the indictment
charges that the men "knowingly used and discharged firearms,"
"an SR-25 sniper rifle; machine guns (M-4 assault rifles and M-240
machine guns); and destructive devices (M-203 grenade launchers and
grenades), during and in relation to a crime of violence for which each
of them may be prosecuted in a court of the United States."

Jeremy Ridgeway, the Blackwater operative who pleaded guilty on
Friday, has agreed to testify against the other five men, according to ABC News.
Citing documents filed in his plea agreement, ABC reports that Ridgeway
"acknowledged the government evidence would prove he and the others
'opened fire with automatic weapons and grenade launchers on unarmed
civilians.' He agreed none of the civilians 'was an insurgent, and many
were shot while inside of civilian vehicles that were attempting to
flee.' Ridgeway also admitted one victim was shot in his chest 'while
standing in the street with his hands up.'"

Federal prosecutors made clear that Blackwater itself will not
face any charges in the case. As in most of the crimes committed against
Iraqis by US military and private forces, this incident is being
portrayed as the work of a few bad apples and not the bloody end-product
of an out-of-control occupation. "We honor the brave service of the many
US contractors who are employed to support the mission of our armed
forces in extremely difficult circumstances," said Jeff Taylor, US
Attorney for the District of Columbia. "Today, we honor that service by
holding accountable the very few individuals who abused that employment
by committing some very serious crimes against dozens of innocent
civilians." Blackwater owner Erik Prince and other company executives
face no consequences for the actions of their men, nor does the State
Department, which deployed the company's men in Iraq.

The Nisour Square killings propelled Blackwater to international infamy
and sparked demands from the US-installed Iraqi government for
Blackwater to be expelled from the country. The Bush administration
rejected those calls and in April renewed Blackwater's Iraq contract for
another year. Blackwater, the largest US security contractor in Iraq,
has worked on a US government contract since August 28, 2003, when it
was hired on an initial $27.7 million no-bid contract to protect the head of
the Coalition Provisional Authority, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. To date,
Blackwater has been paid over a billion dollars for its "security" work
for the State Department.

The shootings on September 16, 2007 were labeled "Baghdad's
Bloody Sunday
." They occurred shortly after noon when Blackwater
forces opened fire on a civilian vehicle in a crowded intersection,
killing a young Iraqi medical student, Ahmed al-Rubaie, and his
mother, Mahasin. That shooting kicked off fifteen minutes of sustained
gunfire, as civilians fled for their lives. Witnesses say the shooting
was unprovoked, and according to ABC News, Ridgeway admitted to
prosecutors that "'there was no attempt to provide reasonable warning'
to the driver of a vehicle that was first targeted." For more than a
year, Blackwater has claimed its forces were the victims of an armed
ambush. "Among the threats identified were men with AK-47s firing on the
convoy, as well as approaching vehicles that appeared to be suicide
bombers," Prince claimed in prepared Congressional testimony in October
2007. Prince insisted that "based on everything we currently know, the
Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex
war zone."

The company's claims were rejected by both the US military and the FBI.
The military concluded there was "no enemy activity involved,"
determined that all of the killings were unjustified and labeled the
shootings a "criminal event." That investigation found that many Iraqis
were shot as they attempted to flee, saying "it had every indication of
an excessive shooting." The US military unit that responded to the
shootings that day said they were "surprised at the caliber of weapon
being used." Two weeks after the massacre, the FBI finally was
dispatched to Baghdad.

In November 2007, the first glimpse into the conclusions of the FBI probe emerged in the New York Times, which reported that the
federal agents had "found that at least 14 of the shootings were unjustified and
violated deadly-force rules in effect for security contractors in Iraq."
The report added, "Investigators found no evidence to support assertions
by Blackwater employees that they were fired upon by Iraqi civilians,"
quoting one official as saying, "I wouldn't call it a massacre, but to
say it was unwarranted is an understatement." A military investigator
"said the F.B.I. was being generous to Blackwater in characterizing any
of the killings as justifiable."

While the indictments in the Nisour Square case are significant and
historic, there will be substantial legal hurdles for prosecutors, not
the least of which is the State Department's move in the
immediate aftermath of the shootings to immunize the shooters from
prosecution. The Bush administration left the initial investigation to
Blackwater's employer, the State Department. Investigators from the
department's Diplomatic Security Division offered the Blackwater
shooters "limited-use immunity" before questioning them, meaning that
their statements and information gleaned from them could neither be used
to bring criminal charges against them nor even be introduced as
evidence. When the FBI eventually arrived in Baghdad, some of the
Blackwater guards involved in the shooting refused to be interviewed, citing
promises of immunity from the State Department. The agency also
discovered that the crime scene had been severely compromised.

The Blackwater guards will be at the center of a precedent-setting
battle over what legal experts call a "grey zone" in US law under which private
forces operate in Iraq. The men are being charged under the
Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act
. Passed in 2000, the law
provides for prosecuting contractors working for or alongside the US
military. Blackwater works for the State Department, and lawyers for
the company's five accused operatives will certainly challenge the
law's application to their clients. They also intend to use Blackwater's
longstanding argument that the shootings were the result of an armed
attack against the men. "We think it's pure and simple a case of
self-defense," said Paul Cassell, a Utah attorney on the defense team.
"Tragically, people did die."

By surrendering to authorities in Salt Lake City rather than in
Washington, the accused men have fired their first defensive shot at
federal prosecutors. They intend to fight for their trial to take place in a
conservative, gun-friendly area of the country. "Though the case has
already been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in
Washington, the guards surrendered in Utah," reports the
Associated Press. There "they would presumably find a more conservative
jury pool and one more likely to support the Iraq war."

The five accused are: Paul A. Slough, 29, of Keller, Texas; Nicholas
A. Slatten, 24, of Sparta, Tennessee; Evan S. Liberty, 26, of
Rochester, New Hampshire; Dustin L. Heard, 27, of Maryville,
Tennessee; and Donald W. Ball, 26, of West Valley City, Utah.

While Nisour Square was by far the most high-profile fatal incident
involving Blackwater and other private forces in Iraq, scores of other
such incidents have gone unprosecuted. Among these is the alleged
killing by a Blackwater operative of a bodyguard to Iraqi Vice
President Adel Abdul Mehdi on Christmas Eve 2006, inside Baghdad's
heavily fortified Green Zone. The Iraqi government has labeled that
incident a "murder."

Blackwater also is being sued in civil court in the United States by
Iraq victims of the Nisour Square shootings. No date has yet been set
for that trial.