Blackwater executive blames feds

Firm's former president says an unnamed U.S. agency OK'd its actions.

Staff WritersApril 22, 2010 

  • Blackwater renamed itself Xe Services in 2009 in an attempt to repair a public image tarnished after several high-profile incidents in Iraq.

    In 2004, four of its contractors were massacred in Fallujah. In September 2007, Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians in a Baghdad square, outraging the Iraqi government. Several Blackwater guards were charged, but a federal judge threw out the indictments because of misconduct by federal prosecutors.

— The U.S. government approved both the storage of automatic weapons at Blackwater's North Carolina compound and a gift of firearms to the king of Jordan, a lawyer for the former head of the security firm said in federal court Wednesday.

"All of this was with the knowledge of, the request of, for the convenience of, an agency of the U.S. government," said Ken Bell, a Charlotte attorney representing Gary Jackson, the former president of Blackwater, who faces charges of breaking firearms laws.

Bell's comments came during a bond hearing Wednesday; a Raleigh-based grand jury indicted Jackson and four other former Blackwater employees last week. Bell said the accusations amount to mishandled paperwork, at most.

"These are not serious offenses," he said. "I don't think they're offenses at all."

Bell did not say in court which agency approved the storage of automatic weapons, and he left the courthouse without taking questions.

Blackwater, a military security company based in Moyock, provided contractors for several agencies in U.S. war zones. The company has close ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. The company has provided security to CIA stations and officers in Afghanistan and other countries, and several Blackwater officials were once high ranking CIA officials.

The five people indicted last week are accused of breaking laws to give the company an advantage over rivals in the military contracting and training business. The 22-page indictment includes accusations of falsifying paperwork to give a firearms gift to the king of Jordan and using the Camden County Sheriff's Office, which had less than a dozen uniformed officers at the time, as a front to buy AK-47s for Blackwater's training facility in Moyock.

The company, founded by former Navy Seal Erik Prince, is also accused of illegally possessing short-barreled rifles, which are restricted for civilian use. Bell said in court that Blackwater would send the disassembled weapons overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan for use in urban war zones where Blackwater contractors were working with the blessing of U.S. officials.

Prince and the company are not facing criminal charges.

Hurdle for prosecutors

Last year, press reports detailed how Blackwater had a CIA contract to track and kill terrorists. Other reports said that Blackwater contractors assembled and loaded missiles and laser-guided bombs on Predator aircraft in Afghanistan, work that used to be done by CIA employees.

Prince confirmed the reports in a Vanity Fair interview.

Virtually all CIA activities are classified; bringing the CIA into a federal trial would greatly complicate the prosecution.

Lawyers and court personnel need security clearances, and special evidence rooms are required. Special computers are needed to draft motions, according to Richard Myers, a UNC law professor who has worked with classified materials both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney.

"It certainly makes your prosecution more complex," Myers said.

Defendants often try to introduce classified material in an effort to make prosecution more difficult.

"It is certainly a way of creating headaches for the government," said Samuel Buell, a Duke law professor and former federal prosecutor. "Tactically, the defense wants to force the government to decide whether to turn over something they don't want to turn over or drop the case."

Profit first

In court Wednesday, assistant U.S. Attorney John Bowler said Jackson, also a former Navy Seal, was a scofflaw and purposely ignored federal firearms rules. He contradicted Bell's statement that the government approved of Backwater's actions and said that Jackson behaved as if he were above the law.

"His interest was doing whatever he deemed was necessary to increase the profit line of the private company he was working for," Bowler said.

Also in court Wednesday were the four other Blackwater defendants, former vice president William W. Mathews Jr., former general counsel Andrew Howell, former vice president Ana Bundy, and Ronald Slezak, who handled Blackwater's federal paperwork for firearms. Jackson was indicted on 13 counts in the 15-count indictment.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Gates turned down a request by Bowler, the federal prosecutor, to set monetary bonds for the five to ensure they would show up in court for their trials.

Gates said that the five had no criminal record and that there was no reason to think they would flee. He did ask the five to turn in their passports. Slezak was the only who didn't do that Wednesday; he told the judge he hadn't left the country in 30 years but would look for his expired passport to turn in.

"It appears that each of the defendants is prepared to present a very spirited defense," Gates said.

No further court hearing dates have been set.

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4622

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