Emails show discord in Blackwater investigation
FBI agents thought some in Justice Dept. were undermining Iraqi civilian-deaths case
As prosecutors put the finishing touches on the 2008 indictment of Blackwater security contractors for a deadly shooting in Iraq, the FBI agents leading the investigation became convinced that political appointees in the Justice Department were intentionally undermining the case, internal emails show.
The FBI had wanted to charge the U.S. contractors with the type of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and weapons charges that could send them to prison for the rest of their lives for a September 2007 shooting that left more than a dozen Iraqis dead and many others wounded.
But at the last minute, the Justice Department balked. In particular, senior officials were uncomfortable with bringing two machine-gun charges, each of which carried mandatory 30-year prison sentences.
“We are getting some serious resistance from our office to charging the defendants with mandatory minimum time,” Kenneth Kohl, a federal prosecutor, told the lead FBI agent on the case, John Patarini, as the Justice Department prepared to ask a grand jury to vote on an indictment in December 2008.
Patarini was incensed. “I would rather not present for a vote now and wait until the new administration takes office than to get an indictment that is an insult to the individual victims, the Iraqi people as a whole, and the American people who expect their Justice Department to act better than this,” he replied.
The disagreement foreshadowed an argument that will play out in a federal court on Monday, when four former Blackwater contractors are scheduled to be sentenced.
Federal prosecutors ultimately agreed to bring one machine-gun charge, but not two. Now it is the Justice Department, despite initial reservations, that is arguing strenuously for sentences that amount to life in prison. Four men – Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty, Nicholas A. Slatten and Paul A. Slough – were convicted at trial in October.
“The crimes here were so horrendous – the massacre and maiming of innocents so heinous – that they outweigh any factors that the defendants may argue form a basis for leniency,” federal prosecutors wrote in court documents last week.
The emails obtained by The New York Times offer a look behind the scenes of the Blackwater case, offering a glimpse of the pitched arguments and distrust that troubled one of the highest-profile international investigations in recent memory.
Seventeen people were killed and many others were wounded when Blackwater security contractors opened fire with machine guns and grenade launchers into Baghdad’s crowded Nisour Square. The shooting was a nadir in the Iraq war, strained relations between the U.S. and the new government in Baghdad, and brought to global attention the trend toward privatizing some U.S. security operations in combat zones.
The machine-gun charge was contentious because it was written during the crack cocaine epidemic as a way to curb the use of automatic weapons. Defense lawyers argued at the time – and continue to argue today – that the law was intended to deter gang members from carrying machine guns, not to be used against U.S. contractors who were required by the State Department to carry them in a war zone.
It is not clear what ultimately persuaded the Justice Department to proceed with the machine-gun charge.
Until the Nisour Square shooting, Blackwater was America’s most prominent and politically powerful security contractor, with more than $1 billion in government contracts. The company was a major donor to the Republican party, and its founder, Erik Prince, was a favorite target for Democratic criticism.
The Justice Department is seeking a 57-year prison sentence for Slough, 51 years for Liberty, 47 years for Heard, and life in prison without parole for Slatten.