US: Plea by Blackwater Guard Helps Indict Others

Publisher Name: 
New York Times

In the first public airing of an investigation that remains the
source of fierce international outrage, the Justice Department on
Monday unsealed its case against five private security guards, built
largely around the chilling testimony of a sixth guard about the 2007
shootings that left 17 unsuspecting Iraqi civilians dead at a busy
Baghdad traffic circle.

In pleading guilty to manslaughter, the sixth security guard, Jeremy
P. Ridgeway of California, described how he and the other guards used
automatic rifles and grenade launchers to fire on cars, houses, a
traffic officer and a girls' school. In addition to those killed, there
were at least 20 people wounded.

The six guards were employed by Blackwater Worldwide, the largest security contractor in Iraq; the company, based in North Carolina, has not been charged in the case.

Mr. Ridgeway said in court documents that the episode in Nisour
Square on Sept. 16, 2007, started when the guards opened fire on a
white Kia sedan "that posed no threat to the convoy."

He told investigators that although he could not clearly see the
front passenger in the Kia, he noticed that the passenger was moving
his arms, according to the documents.

"Defendant Ridgeway then fired multiple rounds from his M-4 assault
rifle into the front passenger's side windshield of the white sedan,
killing the passenger," the documents read. The statement went on to
say that even after it was clear the driver of the sedan had been
killed, several others in the convoy continued to fire on the car, and
at least one of them launched a grenade.

After the car was in flames, according to the statement, "Defendant
Ridgeway recognized that there had been no attempt to provide
reasonable warnings to the driver of that vehicle."

The five guards named in the indictment rejected those assertions,
and in a legal move aimed at challenging the venue for the case, they
surrendered to federal authorities in Salt Lake City, in what is
considered a more conservative, pro-military part of the country than
Washington, D.C., where the Justice Department made public its case.

The indictments and the defendants' cross-country legal maneuver set
the stage for the first test of the government's ability to hold
private security contractors accountable for what it considers crimes
committed overseas. They are also likely to produce protracted,
technical arguments aimed at scuttling the case well before a jury has
the opportunity to evaluate the guards' actions.

The shooting by Blackwater guards that day ignited outrage about the
use of private security contractors in war zones and severely strained
relations between the United States and the fledgling Iraqi government.
The case remained a sore point during the Bush administration's
negotiations with Iraq for an agreement setting new rules for the
continuing presence of American troops there. Ultimately, a major
provision of the agreement ended immunity for private contractors
working in Iraq. United States officials restated the government's
commitment to pursue justice in the Nisour Square shootings.

Echoing the findings of previous investigations by Iraqi and United
States authorities, prosecutors said on Monday that they found no
evidence that any of the Iraqis killed had posed a threat to the
guards. Instead, prosecutors accused the guards of acting with blatant
disregard for human life and the rule of law.

"We honor the brave service of the many U.S. contractors who are
employed to support the mission of our armed forces in extremely
difficult circumstances," said Jeffrey A. Taylor, the United States
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."

High-ranking advisers on President-elect Barack Obama's transition team
said they were closely monitoring the indictments. They declined to
comment, except to point out that in 2007 Mr. Obama introduced
legislation in the Senate aimed at closing the legal loophole that had
allowed nonmilitary contractors to escape prosecution.

His legislation, and most similar measures, failed, although a 2004
amendment to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act gave the
government broad - some said ill-defined - authority to prosecute
personnel whose work directly supports the military overseas.
Prosecutors said they would argue that the amendment gives the
government jurisdiction for filing charges against the guards, who were
hired by the State Department, not the Department of Defense.

"This is an unprecedented use of the law," said Tara Lee, a lawyer
who is an expert on military law. Other experts said the court of
public opinion was likely to weigh as heavily in this case as the legal
issues, which is why Mr. Ridgeway's testimony - the first time a guard
has admitted to crimes while on duty - was so important to the
prosecution, and why the venue was so important to the other defendants.

Mark Hulkower, a lawyer for one of the guards, said the lawyers
believed Salt Lake City would provide a jury pool "where people are
more sympathetic to the experiences of coming under enemy fire."

The five guards charged in the indictment were Paul A. Slough, 29,
of Keller, Tex.; Nicholas A. Slatten, 24, of Sparta, Tenn.; Evan S.
Liberty, 26, of Rochester, N.H.; Dustin L. Heard, 27, of Maryville,
Tenn.; and Donald W. Ball, 26, of West Valley City, Utah. At a news
conference in Washington, the prosecutors said the indictments were the
culmination of one of the most complicated investigations in the
history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, involving 10 agents who interviewed hundreds of witnesses during at least four trips to Iraq.

According to the indictments, the Blackwater guards disobeyed orders
by leaving their base to respond to reports of a car bomb. Upon
arriving at Nisour Square, the indictments said, the guards moved into
the circle against the flow of traffic and, without warning, began
firing.

The shootings were without provocation or justification, said
Patrick Rowan, the assistant attorney general for national security. He
said the investigation showed that 13 other Blackwater guards in the
convoy had acted professionally. The company has not said if it is
paying the legal fees of the guards facing charges, although a
Blackwater spokeswoman said last week that it did so in some instances.

Margot Williams contributed research from New York.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
  • 23 Private Security
  • 104 Globalization
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 176 War Profiteers Site
  • 187 Privatization
  • 210 Blackwater USA