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US: Plea by Blackwater Guard Helps Indict Others

by GINGER THOMPSON and JAMES RISENNew York Times
December 9th, 2008

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 USA." href="http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/blackwater_usa/index.html?inline=nyt-org">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.



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