A recently released video shows a 2007 incident in which an American Apache helicopter fired upon and killed 12 people in Baghdad, among them two Reuters photographers. The video has sparked significant backlash as Wikileaks, the website that hosted the video has framed the footage as “collateral murder” and commentators have argued this is another example of the American military run amuck. Meanwhile, this week’s reading concerned the Revolution in Military Affairs including the use of private military contractors, which frequently receive a similar level of press and public scrutiny. Given this week’s reading on Blackwater head Erik Prince, it seems relevant to take a look at the current status of an incident in which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians, also in Baghdad in 2007.
On September 16, 2007, six Blackwater guards opened fire in broad daylight, killing 17 and wounding 20 Iraqi civilians in an area known as Nisour Square. Based on the incident, the U.S. Justice Department eventually brought criminal charges, families of some of the victims brought civil charges, and the Justice Department investigated bribery charges against Blackwater itself for trying to silence Iraqi officials. Voluntary manslaughter charges were brought against 5 ex-employees, while a 6th ex-employee struck a deal with prosecutors and provided evidence against his former Blackwater associates while pleading guilty to lesser charges.
The most recent status of the three types of charges:
Criminal case – The case against the 5 employees was dismissed by a Washington D.C. federal judge on December 24, 2009 on the grounds that the prosecution’s case was dependent upon statements given by the accused to State Department investigators while under an agreement that such statements would not be used in a criminal case. However, recent evidence has emerged that the State Department did not make a serious probe into the incident and critically mishandled evidence, speaking nothing of the statements obtained from the Blackwater guards. A security official at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq further alleges that Blackwater intentionally destroyed evidence and acted to deceive State Department investigators. While such allegations may increase the likelihood that the Justice Department’s appeal is heard by another court, Yale Law lecturer Eugene Fidell does not expect the courts to ultimately hear the appeal. He feels the incident will serve as a continued source of grievance by the Iraqis and their government towards the United States. Finally, he expects the 6th ex-employee to withdraw his plea and face no penalty.
Civil case – “Blackwater has reached a settlement in 7 civil lawsuits filed against it by families of Iraqis killed” in the Nisour Square incident. While the details of the settlement were not officially revealed, one of the wounded told AP that Blackwater offered $100,000 for each person who died and $30,000 to those wounded. An additional group of 10 plaintiffs has not yet settled.
Bribery charges – 4 former Blackwater executives allege Blackwater sent approximately $1 million to its Iraq office for use in paying off Iraqi officals who were angry and vocal about the shootings. The plan was to have a prominent Iraqi lawyer persuade Iraqi officials to allow Blackwater to remain in Iraq to continue its multi-million dollar contracts, but shortly after the shooting Blackwater was kicked out of the country. While precise details concerning who authorized and knew about the proposal are still emerging, the plan presumably caused a rift in the company. Meanwhile, Blackwater officially denies all such allegations. The practice of bribing foreign officials is illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It is believed securing a conviction will be difficult because of the lack of a paper trail to prove the statutory requirement of “corrupt intent.”