U.S. reportedly gives immunity in Iraq incident
The State Department promised Blackwater USA bodyguards immunity from prosecution in its investigation of last month’s deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians, U.S. officials said.
The reported immunity deal has delayed a criminal inquiry into the killings and could undermine any effort to prosecute security contractors for their role in the incident.
“Once you give immunity, you can’t take it away,” said a senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.
State Department officials declined to confirm or deny that immunity had been granted. One official -- who refused to be quoted by name -- said: “If, in fact, such a decision was made, it was done without any input or authorization from any senior State Department official in Washington.”
FBI agents were returning to Washington late Monday from Baghdad, where they have been trying to collect evidence in the Sept. 16 embassy convoy shooting without using statements from Blackwater employees who reportedly were given immunity.
Three senior law enforcement officials said that all of the Blackwater bodyguards involved were given the legal protection as investigators from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security sought to find out what happened. The bureau is an arm of the State Department.
The law enforcement and State Department officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the inquiry.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined to comment about the U.S. investigation.
The company has said that on Sept. 16, its convoy was under attack before it opened fire in west Baghdad’s Nisoor Square, killing 17 Iraqis. A follow-up investigation by the Iraqi government, however, concluded that Blackwater’s men were unprovoked. Iraq has demanded the right to prosecute, but a rule imposed by U.S. authorities after the invasion of Iraq gave contractors immunity from Iraqi law.
An initial incident report by U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, also indicated there was “no enemy activity involved.”
The FBI took over the case early this month. It has reinterviewed some of the Blackwater employees, and one official said Monday that several had refused to answer questions, citing their constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination. Any statements to the FBI could be used to bring criminal charges.
A second official, however, said that not all of the guards had cited their right against self-incrimination -- leaving open the possibility for future charges.
It’s not clear why the Diplomatic Security investigators agreed to give immunity to the bodyguards, or who authorized doing so.
Bureau of Diplomatic Security chief Richard J. Griffin last week announced his resignation, effective Thursday. Senior State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said his departure was directly related to his oversight of Blackwater contractors.
Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered a series of measures to boost government oversight of the private guards who protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq. They include increased monitoring and explicit rules on when and how to use deadly force.