From the first days of the launch of the so-called “war on terror,” Blackwater has been at the epicenter of some of the most secretive operations conducted by US forces globally. It has worked on government assassination programs and drone bombings, operated covertly in Pakistan for both the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, assisted secret raids inside of Syria, trained foreign militaries and continues to bodyguard senior US officials in Afghanistan. The company also has a bloody track record of killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many seasoned observers believe that the extent of the dark acts committed by Blackwater have yet to come to light.
While Congressional committees, the IRS, the FBI and lawyers representing foreign victims of the company have fought for years to hold Blackwater and its forces accountable for their alleged crimes, the company has proved to be Teflon. Not a single case against the company has resulted in any significant action. Following last December’s dismissal of the high-profile criminal case against the Blackwater operatives allegedly responsible for the 2007 Nisour Square shootings that left seventeen Iraqis dead and more than twenty others wounded, federal prosecutors have now launched another salvo.
Last week, the Justice Department announced that a federal grand jury had returned a fifteen-count indictment against five current and former Blackwater officials, charging them with conspiracy to violate a series of federal gun laws, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Among those indicted were Blackwater owner Erik Prince’s longtime right-hand man, former company president Gary Jackson, Blackwater’s former legal counsel Andrew Howell and two former company vice presidents. Given Blackwater’s track record and the severity of other allegations against the company–including killing unarmed civilians–if the charges in this case stick, it would be somewhat akin to Al Capone going down for tax evasion. The one major difference being, the number-one man at Blackwater, Erik Prince, is evading prosecution and jail. Prince, who remains the Blackwater empire’s sole owner, was not indicted.
The weapons charges stem from Blackwater’s purchase of 227 “short barrels” for use with the company’s government-issued M4 rifles in Iraq and Afghanistan, a violation of State Department weapons guidelines for contractors. Former Blackwater employees have alleged in sworn affidavits that Prince had used his personal planes to smuggle banned weapons into Iraq, sometimes wrapping them in large shipments of dog food for the company’s K-9 teams in Iraq. Prince, however, is not named in the indictment.
The indictment also charges that the Blackwater officials “arranged straw purchases” of Romanian AK-47s and fully automatic M-4 rifles for use inside the United States. According to the indictment, the local sheriff’s department in Blackwater’s home base of Moyock, North Carolina, provided Blackwater with blank stationery that “was used to prepare letters claiming the sheriff’s office wanted” the weapons. “The weapons were paid for by Blackwater, were immediately delivered to Blackwater upon their arrival, and were locked in Blackwater’s armory to which the sheriff’s office had no direct access,” according to federal prosecutors.
In March 2009, the ATF informed Blackwater that it would be coming to the company’s compound for an inspection of the armory of Blackwater subsidiary XPG. Former Blackwater officials told The Nation that XPG was created in part as a successor to Blackwater SELECT and Blackwater PTC, the divisions of the company that did sensitive covert work for the CIA and JSOC.
When Blackwater was informed of the impending ATF investigation, according to the Justice Department:
Allegedly, [Blackwater lawyer Andrew] Howell did not want any more SBRs [Short Barrel Rifles] to be found and told a subordinate that disclosing the SBRs was “not an option.” He and [Blackwater vice president Ana] Bundy subsequently ordered the short-barreled guns in XPG’s armory to be moved to Blackwater’s armory where the barrels could be switched out. Only the long-barreled guns were returned to XPG. Howell then prepared a letter for the company president’s signature and attached it to an e-mail. The letter was intended to be back-dated and would have given a false impression that the President had ordered the alteration of the guns–which had already been accomplished by direction of Howell and Bundy.
The Justice Department also alleges that Blackwater officials, in an attempt to win a lucrative contract with the Kingdom of Jordan, presented several guns as gifts to Jordanian officials who came to tour Blackwater’s private military base in North Carolina. According to the indictment, “the officials were presented with one M4, three Glocks, and a Remington shotgun. Each was inscribed with the Blackwater logo and presented in a case. Subsequently, the company realized it could not account for the guns in its required records.” Blackwater president Gary Jackson, prosecutors allege, “then organized the false completion” of federal documents that “were designed to give the appearance that employees had bought the guns for their own use.”
Until recently, Blackwater had a partnership with Sig Sauer to manufacture a Blackwater-brand 9 millimeter pistol. For years the company has done a multimillion-dollar business with Jordan, training the company’s special-forces helicopter pilots and advising the kingdom on intelligence matters. Blackwater also has a headquarters in Jordan. Last year the New York Times reported that Gary Jackson was involved in a scheme to bribe Iraqi officials to stay quiet on the company’s alleged massacre of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007 and to allow Blackwater to continue operating in the country despite the public outrage in Iraq. That alleged plot, according to the Times, involved the transfer of $1 million into Jordan for ultimate use in Iraq.
Each of the charges against the Blackwater officials potentially carries a penalty of three to twenty years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Lawyers for the accused have said their clients are not guilty of the charges and will fight them. There are two other pending criminal cases against Blackwater. Prosecutors have apealed the dismissal of the Nisour Square case, and two Blackwater operatives have been indicted on charges they killed innocent Afghan civilians. In a recent interview, Prince estimated his monthly legal bills to be between $2-3 million.
Meanwhile, as Blackwater officials face another round of attempted criminal prosecutions, the company continues to fight off the remaining civil lawsuits stemming from the Nisour Square shooting. Last year Blackwater settled with most of the victims, reportedly for a total of $5 million. The only remaining suit against the company over Nisour Square was brought by a small group of Iraqis, most prominent among them Mohammed Kinani, the father of the youngest known victim of the shooting. His 9-year-old son, Ali, was shot in the head that day and died shortly after from his injuries. Kinani originally sued Blackwater in state court in North Carolina, but last week a federal judge sided with Blackwater and took control over the case. That judge, Terrence Boyle, was a former legislative aide to the late Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who urged President Ronald Reagan to appoint Boyle, which Reagan did. For more than a decade, Democrats blocked Boyle’s nomination to the appelate court, characterizing him as an ultraconservative who opposed civil rights and was often over-ruled on appeal. It is hard to imagine a better judge for Blackwater to draw in this case.
As it has done in other cases, Blackwater has asked the Obama Justice Department to intervene in Kinani’s case and to make the US government–not Blackwater and the individual shooters in the case–the defendant. Legal experts have told The Nation that if the Justice Department did that, the case would be dead in the water. The Justice Department has not responded to Blackwater’s request. Blackwater, however, is not wasting any time seeking out alternatives.
On April 7, lawyers for the six alleged shooters and Blackwater asked Judge Boyle to replace Blackwater and the shooters with the “United States” in the case, citing the Westfall Act, which was passed in 1988 “to protect federal employees from personal liability for common law torts committed within the scope of their employment, while providing persons injured by the common law torts of federal employees with an appropriate remedy against the United States.” If Boyle were to do this, the case would likely be immediately dismissed.
In its filing, Blackwater’s lawyers argued that the actions taken by the alleged Blackwater shooters at Nisour Square “indisputably fall within the scope” of their State Department employment. But Kinani’s lawyers and federal prosecutors have alleged that the men disobeyed orders from their superiors not to proceed to Nisour Square that day, leading to the shooting. One of the Blackwater guards, Jeremy Ridgeway, pled guilty to killing an unarmed Iraqi in the square. In his sworn proffer that accompanied his guilty plea, Ridgeway admitted that he and the other five accused shooters “opened fire with automatic weapons and grenade launchers on unarmed civilians…killing at least fourteen people” and wounding at least twenty others. “None of these victims was an insurgent, and many were shot while inside of civilian vehicles that were attempting to flee” the Blackwater forces, the proffer stated. Ridgeway also admitted that his team had “not been authorized” to leave the Green Zone and that after they departed, they “had been specifically ordered” by US Embassy officials to return. “In contravention of that order,” they proceeded to Nisour Square, according to Ridgeway.
The Justice Department could intervene in the Kinani case at any point and produce evidence showing that Blackwater does not equal the US government and therefore should not be allowed to shift the burden of responsibility for the shooting onto the US government. To date, that has not happened, and it is currently a decision for one man: Judge Terrence Boyle.
Jeremy Scahill, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the author of the bestselling Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, published by Nation Books. He is an award-winning investigative journalist and correspondent for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!.