Blackwater Seeks Gag Order

It became common practice during the Iraq occupation for the US State
Department to work with private security companies like Blackwater to
help facilitate giving what amounted to hush money to the families of
shot dead by private security contractors. In fact, Blackwater's owner,
Erik Prince, discussed this practice when he testified in front of
Congress in October 2007 and admitted to paying $20,000 to a Blackwater
victim's family and $5,000 to another.

"We don't determine that value," Prince told Congress when asked how his
company decides how much an Iraqi life is worth. "That's kind of an
Iraqi-wide policy. We don't make that one."

Now, Blackwater (which recently renamed itself "Xe") is attempting to
use other means to silence its victims. On July 20, the company's
high-powered lawyers from Mayer Brown, which
boasts that it represents eighty-nine of the Fortune 100 companies and
thirty-five of the
fifty largest US banks, filed a motion in the US District Court for
the Eastern District of Virginia to impose a gag order on Iraqi
civilians suing the company. The motion also seeks to silence the
lawyers representing the families of Iraqis allegedly killed or injured
by Blackwater in a series of violent incidents spanning several years.
Four cases in the Washington, DC, area were recently consolidated before
Judge T.S. Ellis III of the Eastern District of Virginia for pretrial
motions. After preliminary issues are resolved, each case is slated to
be tried individually.

The July 20 motion, filed on behalf of Blackwater by Peter H. White of
Mayer Brown, requests that Judge Ellis issue "an Order restraining
extrajudicial statements relating to these cases by the parties and
their counsel to ensure that all parties receive a fair trial and a
decision from an impartial jury." The motion specifically seeks to
prohibit statements to "the national and local news media."

At the same time, according to a court filing, Blackwater is also asking
Judge Ellis to seal evidence that Blackwater claims is confidential or
could impact national security. The company argues that if its contracts
with the State Department and its "Tactical Standard Operating
Procedure" guide are publicly revealed, it "could give valuable
information to those who wish to plan more effective attacks against
diplomatic personnel stationed in Iraq." Susan Burke, the lead attorney
on the civil lawsuits against Blackwater, is not contesting Blackwater's
request to seal these specific documents--primarily because they will
still remain evidence. But, it does mean that the public will not be
able to view them. "Blackwater is basically trying to keep from public
view all of the evidence that shows their criminality," says Burke.
"They are trying to ensure that we cannot apprise the public of the
progress of the lawsuit."

Blackwater's gag-order motion focuses at length on Burke. It cites her
labeling of Erik Prince as "a modern-day merchant of death" whose
"repeated illegal conduct...must be stopped" and then lists statements
by Burke and other lawyers that Blackwater says "are merely the latest
in a long line of inflammatory public utterances":

* The death of plaintiff Sa'adoon was "part of a pattern of illegal
Xe-Blackwater shootings around the globe known to company management,"
and part of a "culture of lawlessness and unaccountability" fostered by
the company.

* The deaths of plaintiffs in the Hassoon case "reflect the pattern
and practice of recklessness in the use of deadly force" by Blackwater
"mercenaries" who have "flouted the laws of the United States and their
host nation Iraq."

* "Xe-Blackwater's repeated illegal conduct has caused hundreds of
unnecessary deaths and thousands of unnecessary injuries. This shooting
of [plaintiff] Rabea was not an isolated event. Xe-Blackwater personnel
repeatedly and routinely shot for no reason as they prowled the streets
of Iraq."

When asked about these specific statements, Burke quickly shot back:
"It's all accurate. Those are all completely accurate statements. I
stand by what I said."

The Blackwater legal team argues "there is no constitutional right to
sway potential jurors through press releases, media interviews, and
other extrajudicial statements. 'Legal trials,' the Supreme Court has
observed, 'are not like elections, to be won through the use of the
meeting-hall, the radio and the newspaper.'"

Burke's partner in the lawsuit, the Center for Constitutional Rights, says
it will fight vigorously against Blackwater's attempt to silence their
Iraqi clients and attorneys. "Blackwater has consistently spent millions
of dollars on PR and public advocacy to try to promote their position
and this is something that they have done before," says Bill Quigley,
CCR's Legal Director. "This is a blatant attempt to gag the First
Amendment rights of the individual Iraqis, their families, their lawyers
and the public at large and to bury these factual allegations under a
cone of silence. It's not new for Blackwater."

Judge Ellis has scheduled a public hearing on Blackwater's requests for
sealed evidence for July 28 at 5:30 pm,, where journalists and the public can
express their views to the judge. A hearing on the gag order request is
set for August 7. Both will be held in the Eastern District of Virginia
court. It is possible that Blackwater could ask the State Department to
intervene on the company's behalf to support the sealing of documents,
as Blackwater has done in the past with the Department of Defense. "I
would encourage the State Department, the Obama administration and
anybody else that thinks that Blackwater's misdeeds should be kept out
of the public eye to really think very, very carefully before advancing
that position publicly," says CCR's Quigley. As for the gag order, among
the arguments Burke could make is this: Blackwater itself has a record
of leaking information from court cases to the media.

Earlier this year, lawyers from the US Justice Department prosecuting
five Blackwater operatives for the September 2007 Nisour Square massacre
accused Blackwater's attorneys of improperly passing court discovery
material to journalists, specifically Matt Apuzzo of the Associated
Press. Apuzzo wrote several stories based on leaked "evidence" that
supported Blackwater's line on the case, namely that their men fired in
self-defense. (Apuzzo is a reporter with a track record of confronting
US government attempts to keep information from the public or
"off the record." There is no allegation Apuzzo engaged in improper or
unethical conduct in covering Blackwater.) On April 6, 2009, US Attorney
Jeffrey A. Taylor wrote:

Since the prosecutors sent a letter to the defendants on December 3,
2008, formally advising them to surrender themselves for arrest, there
have been a number of documents and other material associated with this
case that have been selectively provided to Mr. Matt Apuzzo, a reporter
for the Associated Press wire service. In each instance, the material
was provided to Mr. Apuzzo in an apparent attempt to influence
improperly the opinions of prospective jurors at a trial in this
[Blackwater's] counsel have insisted on the right to disseminate copies
of discovery material to third parties as they deem appropriate, and
have declined to accept language that would place enforceable
limitations on what those third parties can do with the material.

The judge in that case issued an order clarifying the rules, and
Blackwater's lawyers, who insisted they had done nothing wrong, reached
an agreement with prosecutors not to leak information. This case shows
"it's Blackwater, not us, that has been violating court strictures,"
says Burke. "For them to actually be bringing this on against us is
ridiculous. There's nothing we've done that would merit any kind of

Quigley sees Blackwater's attempt to gag the Iraqi victims, their
families and the attorneys representing them as an attack on the
public's right to information about a government contractor that has
been paid more than $1 billion in US taxpayer funds. "Blackwater is
concerned about what the lawyers say and what the parties say and what's
in the record, but what they're really concerned about is that
journalists will cover it," says Quigley. "And so, even though this
isn't an attempt directly to gag journalists, it's clearly--the thrust
this thing is to deprive journalists of any information that they can
use to write about Blackwater or to hold Blackwater accountable or even
to discuss the issues of hired mercenaries by our government."

Another interesting line to emerge in Blackwater's motion is that the
company now prefers to be called by one of its recently created
alternate identities, "US Training Center." One would be forgiven for
thinking this is an Olympic facility, instead of a mercenary operation.
The lawyer representing Blackwater, Peter H. White, boasts in his bio
that he is "listed in The Best Lawyers in America--White Collar
Criminal Defense."

Blackwater/Xe/US Training Center did not respond to a request for

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 The Nation