After more than five years of rampant violence and misconduct carried out by the massive army of private corporate contractors in Iraq–actions that have gone totally unpunished under any system of law–the US Justice Department appears to be on the verge of handing down the first indictments against armed private forces for crimes committed in Iraq. The reported targets of the “draft” indictments: six Blackwater operatives involved in the September 16, 2007, killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
The Associated Press reports, “The draft is being reviewed by senior Justice Department officials but no charging decisions have been made. A decision is not expected until at least later this month.” The AP, citing sources close to the case, reports that the department has not determined if the Blackwater operatives would be charged with manslaughter or assault. Simply drafting the indictments does not mean that the Blackwater forces are certain to face charges. The department could indict as few as three of the operatives, who potentially face sentences of five to twenty years, depending on the charges.
If the Justice Department pursues a criminal prosecution, it would be the first time armed private contractors from the United States face justice.
But that is a very big “if.”
“The Justice Department has had this matter for fourteen months and has done almost everything imaginable to walk away from it–including delivering a briefing to Congress in which they suggested that they lacked legal authority to press charges,” says Scott Horton, distinguished visiting professor of law at Hofstra University and author of a recent study of legal accountability for private security contractors. “They did this notwithstanding evidence collected by the first teams on the scene that suggested an ample basis to prosecute. The ultimate proof here will be in the details, namely, what charges are brought exactly and what evidence has Justice assembled to make its case. Still, it’s hard to miss Justice’s lack of enthusiasm about this case, and that’s troubling.”
Even if some Blackwater operatives face charges, critics allege it is the company that must be held responsible. “I am encouraged that the Justice Department is finally making progress in the investigation, but I am disappointed that it took over a year and a lot of pressure for the department to take any action,” says Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who introduced legislation that seeks to ban using Blackwater and other armed security companies in US war zones. (She was also the national campaign co-chair of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and is a top candidate to replace him in the US Senate.)
“While it is important to hold these individual contractors accountable for their actions, we must also hold Blackwater accountable for creating a culture that allows this type of reckless behavior,” adds Schakowsky. “The indictments do nothing to solve the underlying problem of private security contractors performing critical government functions. The indictments will likely get rid of a few bad apples, but there will be no real consequences for Blackwater. This company is going to continue to do business as usual–the solution is to get them out of this business.”
News of potential indictments over the Nisour Square shootings comes as the State Department is reportedly preparing to hit Blackwater with a multimillion-dollar fine for allegedly shipping as many as 900 automatic weapons to Iraq without the required permits. Some of the guns may have made their way to the black market.
Blackwater has served as the official bodyguard service for senior US occupation officials since August 2003, when the company was awarded a $27 million no-bid contract to guard L. Paul Bremer, the original head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. To date, the company has raked in more than $1 billion in “security” contracts under its arrangement with the State Department.
Despite widespread accusations of killings of civilians and other crimes, not a single armed contractor from Blackwater–or from any other armed war corporation–has faced charges under any legal system. Instead, they have operated in a climate where immunity and impunity have gone hand in hand. At present, private contractors–most of them unarmed–outnumber US troops in Iraq by roughly 50,000 personnel.