In the secretive world of Blackwater Worldwide, nothing is what it seems. The security company's heavily armed employees, for example, were only doing their job - protecting U.S. diplomats - when in 2007 they shot up a Baghdad square, killing 17 civilians. No matter that Iraqi officials called it murder.
Now, "just doing a job for the government" is shaping up as a key component in the defense offered by five former Blackwater executives to federal firearms charges. Supposedly a government agency - unspecified, but Blackwater worked with the CIA - knew about and approved the firearms-related goings-on that government prosecutors now call illegal. So said a lawyer for Blackwater's former president, Gary Jackson, in a federal courtroom in Raleigh on Wednesday.
It's a provocative claim that could ensnare the legal case, brought by the area's U.S. Attorney's Office, in complex security and secrecy issues. For just that reason, and with all due respect to defense counsel, it could be a smokescreen. Conversely, if accurate, the claim could open new vistas on the collaboration between agencies such as the CIA and contractors like Blackwater (now called Xe) in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether that line of argument will ever be elaborated on in open court is an open question. The Baghdad shooting case was tossed out by a federal judge. The firearms charges here might be resolved short of a full-scale trial. For the record, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bowler indicated in court that the defense claim of government-agency knowledge and involvement in the alleged firearms violations was not correct.
What seems undisputed is that Blackwater, at its Moyock headquarters in northeastern North Carolina, came to possess a stock of automatic weapons, apparently 34 in all - too many to be legal. These guns, prosecutors allege, were acquired through a subterfuge involving a "straw purchase" by the Camden County Sheriff's Office. It's also alleged that Blackwater officials presented gift guns to visiting officials from Jordan, in the hope of landing a lucrative training contract, without properly recording the exchange.
Those and other charges will play out - or not - in court. Meantime, a federal magistrate judge on Wednesday allowed Jackson and the other defendants to go free, without bond. But the judge ordered them to refrain from possessing firearms.