Local News

Legal scrutiny could blemish Blackwater

Posted December 8, 2008 1:19 p.m. EST
Updated December 8, 2008 6:10 p.m. EST

— Blackwater Worldwide security guards opened machine gun fire on innocent, surrendering Iraqis and launched a grenade into a girls' school during a gruesome Baghdad shooting last year, prosecutors said Monday in announcing manslaughter charges against five guards.

A sixth guard admitted in a plea deal to killing at least one Iraqi in the 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square. Seventeen Iraqis were killed in the assault, which roiled U.S. diplomacy with Iraq and fueled anti-American sentiment abroad.

The five guards surrendered Monday and were due to ask a federal judge in Utah for bail.

The company, based in Moyock, N.C., is not named in the criminal case, but faces additional legal problems.

Victims' families are suing the company for the 2007 shootings that claimed the lives of 17 Iraqi civilians.

Blackwater is the largest security contractor in Iraq and provides heavily armed guards for diplomats. Since last year's shooting, the company has been a flash point in the debate over how heavily the U.S. relies on contractors in war zones.

"it's going to cost them a lot of money, even if they win all the cases," Duke professor Scott Silliman, an expert in national security law, said. "You're talking about litigation that could go on for years."

Blackwater has also been under investigation by the federal courts in Raleigh for weapons smuggling. It's the type of controversy Silliman said is tough to rebound from.

"It's going to smear, to some extent, the image of Blackwater," he said.

Retired Lt. General Robert Springer suggested Monday that the legal issues could hurt business for Blackwater, the largest employer in Camden County.

"I don't know that they'll continue to get all these high-powered government contracts," he said.

Blackwater provides up to 600 local jobs in Moyock and pays $143,000 annually in property taxes.

Even if demand for contractors shrinks, Springer said, Blackwater will have plenty of business. "We just don't have enough military men and women to do all of these things," he said.

Blackwater issued a statement of support for the five guards Monday, and said it was "extremely disappointed and surprised" that one of the guards had pleaded guilty.

The indicted guards: Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas, are charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and with using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence, a charge that carries a 30-year minimum sentence.

"The tragic events in Nisoor Square on Sept. 16 of last year were shocking and a violation of basic human rights," FBI Assistant Director Joseph Persichini said.

Witnesses said the contractors opened fire unprovoked. Women and children were among the victims and the shooting left the square littered with blown-out cars.

Blackwater says its guards were ambushed by insurgents while responding to a car bombing.

"We think it's pure and simple a case of self-defense," defense attorney Paul Cassell said Monday as the guards were being booked. "Tragically people did die."

The shootings caused an uproar, and the fledgling Iraqi government in Baghdad wanted Blackwater, which protects U.S. State Department personnel, expelled from the country. It also sought the right to prosecute the men in Iraqi courts.

"The killers must pay for their crime against innocent civilians. Justice must be achieved so that we can have rest from the agony we are living in," said Khalid Ibrahim, a 40-year-old electrician who said his 78-year-old father, Ibrahim Abid, died in the shooting. "We know that the conviction of the people behind the shooting will not bring my father to life, but we will have peace in our minds and hearts."

Defense attorneys accused the Justice Department of bowing to Iraqi pressure .

"We are confident that any jury will see this for what it is: a politically motivated prosecution to appease the Iraqi government," said defense attorney Steven McCool, who represents Ball.