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Officials balked on '05 Blackwater inquiry

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended her department's oversight of private security contractors, new evidence surfaced Thursday that the U.S. sought to conceal details of Blackwater shootings of Iraqi civilians more than two years ago.

In one instance, internal e-mails show that State Department officials tried to deflect a 2005 Los Angeles Times inquiry into an alleged killing of an Iraqi civilian by Blackwater guards.

"Give [the Los Angeles Times] what we can and then dump the rest on Blackwater," one State Department official wrote to another in the e-mails, which were obtained by ABC News. "We can't win this one."

One department official taking part in a chain of e-mails noted that the "findings of the investigation are to remain off-limits to the reporter." Another recommended that there be no mention of the existence of a criminal investigation since such a reference would "raise questions and issues."

In the May 2005 incident, a Blackwater convoy was transporting a senior U.S. diplomat down a Baghdad thoroughfare when guards opened fire on an approaching taxi.

The taxi driver, Mohammed Nouri Hattab, told The Times that he was slowing to a stop when a burst of machine-gun fire cut into his taxi, wounding him and killing a passenger, 19-year-old newlywed Yas Ali Mohammed Yassiri.

The Times began making inquiries after receiving a tip in August 2005.

Peter Mitchell, then a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, told superiors that he planned to tell a reporter that the State Department had "thoroughly investigated" the incident and that "no criminal act occurred."

The e-mails indicate, however, that the only investigation done was "administrative." Two Blackwater employees were fired and sent back to the U.S. after they were found to have violated operating procedures. Blackwater has declined to comment on the incident.

"As for the legal jurisdiction under which a [private security contractor] operates, this is where things get hazy," Mitchell wrote to superiors. "If the [private security company] is found negligent, the only recourse is dismissal. In cases where there was clear criminal intent, a criminal case could hypothetically be pursued in U.S. federal court, but this has yet to happen out here."

Mitchell could not be reached for comment Thursday. His proposed response sparked a furious debate within the department.

It eventually reached David Satterfield, now Rice's senior advisor on Iraq. Satterfield, according to the e-mail chain, recommended that any response to the reporter be approved by Washington.

"This is a sensitive story that deals with sensitive contract issues," one official wrote.

In his e-mail to the Times reporter, Mitchell said that State officials were continuing to investigate the incident. In the end, the State Department declined to provide comment.

"I've been assured that the issue continues to be staffed back in Washington," Mitchell said.

In another e-mail obtained by the news channel, a regional State Department official complained of several incidents in which Blackwater guards had allegedly fired at innocent civilians.

The official complained that Iraqis had been frustrated in seeking justice for alleged wrongdoing by Blackwater.

"If we are unable or unwilling to address this issue, sooner or later those requesting compensation for their losses will lose patience with us and seek recourse through other means," the officer wrote. "In the worst-case scenario, some might seek revenge."

t.christian.miller@latimes.com

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