A Whitewash for Blackwater?

The federal manslaughter indictment of five Blackwater Worldwide
security guards in the horrific massacre of more than a dozen Iraqi
civilians in Baghdad may look like an exercise in accountability, but
it's probably the exact opposite -- a whitewash that absolves the
government and corporate officials who should bear ultimate

If what Justice Department prosecutors allege is
true, the five guards -- Donald Ball, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty,
Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough -- should have to answer for what
happened on Sept. 16, 2007. The men, working under Blackwater's
contract to protect State Department personnel in Iraq, are charged
with spraying a busy intersection with machine-gun fire and grenades,
killing at least 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 20 others. One man,
prosecutors said yesterday, was shot in the chest with his hands raised
in submission.

The indictment, charging voluntary manslaughter
and weapons violations, demonstrates that those who engage "in
unprovoked attacks will be held accountable," Assistant Attorney
General Patrick Rowan claimed.

But it demonstrates nothing of the
sort. As with the torture and humiliation of detainees at the Abu
Ghraib prison, our government is deflecting all scrutiny from the
corporate higher-ups who employed the guards -- to say nothing of the
policymakers whose decisions made the shootings possible, if not

Prosecutors did not file charges against the North
Carolina-based Blackwater firm -- the biggest U.S. security contractor
in Iraq -- or any of the company's executives. The whole tragic
incident is being blamed on the guards who, prosecutors say, made
Baghdad's Nisoor Square a virtual free-fire zone.

The Blackwater
guards were nervous because of a car bombing elsewhere in the city that
day. The company says the Blackwater convoy came under attack by
insurgents, prompting the guards to fire in self-defense. "Tragically,
people did die," defense attorney Paul Cassell told reporters.

is a huge difference between self-defense and the kind of
indiscriminate fusillade that the Blackwater team allegedly unleashed.
Proper training and supervision -- which was the Blackwater firm's
responsibility -- would have made it more likely for the guards to make
the right split-second decisions amid the chaos of Nisoor Square.
Rather than give Blackwater a free pass, the Justice Department ought
to investigate the preparation these men were given before being sent
onto Baghdad's dangerous streets.

Blackwater no doubt has rules
and regulations about when and where its people can discharge their
weapons. But were those rules enforced? Did the guards who were
indicted yesterday have any reason to believe they would be punished
for the rampage? Or were the shootings considered acceptable inside the
Blackwater bunker? Company executives should have to answer these and
other questions -- under oath.

But a real attempt to establish
blame for this massacre should go beyond Blackwater. It was the Bush
administration that decided to police the occupation of Iraq largely
with private rather than regular troops.

There are an estimated
30,000 security "contractors" in Iraq, many of them there to protect
U.S. State Department personnel. The presence of these heavily armed
private soldiers has become a sore point between the U.S. and Iraqi
governments. Until now, the mercenaries -- they object to that label,
but it fits -- have been immune from prosecution by the Iraqi courts
for any alleged crimes. This will change on Jan. 1, when the new
U.S.-Iraqi security pact places them under the jurisdiction of Iraqi
law. Blackwater and other firms are likely to have a harder time
retaining and recruiting personnel, given the possibility of spending
time in an Iraqi prison. Yet it is presumed that more private soldiers,
rather than fewer, will be needed as the United States reduces troop

Barack Obama has criticized the Bush administration's
decision to outsource so many essentially military tasks in Iraq and
elsewhere. The officials who made that decision, however, are not being
held accountable -- not yet, at least. We deserve, at a minimum, a
thorough investigation of what security contractors have done in the
name of the United States.

Putting national security in the hands
of private companies and private soldiers was bad practice from the
start, and incidents such as what happened at Nisoor Square are the
foreseeable result. The five Blackwater guards may have fired the
weapons, but they were locked and loaded in Washington.

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