Investigations into Blackwater’s Iraq dealings have been handed over to the FBI, the State Department has said. The FBI bridges the process to its next stage, which will be in the hands of the Iraqi ministry of Justice or the US Justice Department.
The announcement comes two days after a controversial public hearing into the private security company’s involvement in unprovoked shootings and a killing by a drunken Blackwater employee of a body guard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The hearing stirred up a massive debate inside the US, not least because of the State Department’s own role in trying to cover up some really embarrassing mishaps.
"They are going to take the lead, the FBI, with the arrival of an FBI team in Baghdad," department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. He refrained from stating when the team would be in the Iraqi capital, citing security reasons. It is not clear how the FBI, which is the investigative arm of the Justice Department, will take the case forward. The shift occurred in case the case could be sent to the U.S. Justice Department or Iraqi authorities for further action, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
The Iraqi government’s investigation into the September 16 Blackwater shooting concluded that the security guards must face trial in Iraqi courts. The Iraqi ministers participating in the inquest also recommended that Blackwater pays compensation to the victims, according to a report by the Associated Press. The inquest concluded that 13 Iraqi civilians — not 11 as originally reported — were killed by Blackwater bodyguards last September 16 in Western Baghdad. The Iraqi government officials stayed put on their allegation that the Blackwater guards had not been first shot at before they opened fire.
The conclusion of the Iraqi authorities’ inquest into Blackwater follows two days after last Tuesday’s hearing of Blackwater’s director Erik Prince before the House committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Prince was asked to explain the role of private military firms in Iraq in general as well as various separate incidents of Blackwater employees’ misconduct.
Since 2005, Blackwater guards were involved in nearly 200 shooting incidents, mostly from moving vehicles. They reportedly hardly ever stopped to count the dead or assist the injured, according to a report drawn up by Henry Waxman, who heads up the House Committee.
Waxman’s Committee stirred up quite a controversy and its research was impeded by State department officials, who tried to silence critics by branding information classified and refusing to collaborate. When ultimately Waxman’s employees presented their findings, they shocked the American nation with details of emails between the State Department and Blackwater officials, indicating that the State Department advised Blackwater to pay off the family of a December 2006 shooting. It came across as a clear effort to cover up and mislead the public about the misconduct of a Blackwater employee who drunkenly killed a body guard of one of Iraq’s two vice presidents.
“It’s hard to read these e-mails,” Waxman commented, “and not come to the conclusion that the State Department is acting as Blackwater’s enabler.” However, if indeed the State Department is covering for Blackwater, it’s hard to see how Erik Prince should be taken to task for that.”
Blackwater’s chief told the committee last Tuesday that his company had sacked the employee and sent him back home, but that there were no rules for further action on the part of the company. “We as a private organization can’t do anything more. We can’t flog him, we can’t incarcerate him,” said Prince.
U.S. legal experts say that the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act that was enacted in 2000 might enable parties to bring a case. Another route is the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which Blackwater’s Prince himself has said his firm is accountable to. MEJA extends Federal criminal law to US civilians and professionals involved with the Armed Forces who commit serious offenses outside US territory.
House Resolution 2740, sponsored by Rep. David Price (D., N.C.) also introduces legislation, extending the reach of US criminal law for civilians to include security contractors. The Congress is expected to vote on Friday. Senate leaders are expected to endorse the measure too.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance journalist in Amsterdam. She participates in www.reportwitters.com a platform for twittering journalists.