US officials supported Blackwater despite warnings

July 1, 2014 

Blackwater Trial

An Iraqi traffic police officer inspects a car destroyed by a Blackwater security detail in al-Nisoor Square in Baghdad, Iraq. After years of delays, four former guards from the security firm Blackwater Worldwide are facing trial.

KHALID MOHAMMED — AP

The 2007 episode in which Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded about 20 others stands as one of the Iraq War’s worst moments, but new documents obtained by The New York Times cast it in an even darker light. The documents show that U.S. Embassy officials were warned by State Department investigators about Blackwater’s rogue behavior, but dismissed the investigators, setting the stage for the shooting in Baghdad.

James Risen of the Times reported this week that State Department records show that embassy officials sided with the North Carolina-based security contractor after tensions rose between Blackwater and the investigators. At one point, Risen reported, Blackwater’s top manager in Iraq threatened “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq.” Embassy officials ordered the two investigators to leave Iraq, saying they were disrupting the embassy’s relationship with Blackwater.

Upon returning to the United States, the chief investigator, Jean C. Richter, wrote a blistering memo to his superiors about Blackwater’s flouting of laws and contract requirements and the embassy’s “hands-off” management of the heavily armed contractor. Just over two weeks later, Blackwater guards opened fire near a busy traffic circle in Nisour Square. The guards said they feared they were under attack, but an investigation found that they had indiscriminately fired on unarmed civilians.

Washington trial

Today, with Iraq again torn by war, four Blackwater guards are on trial in Washington on charges related to the shootings. It is the government’s second attempt to prosecute. Previous charges against five guards were dismissed in 2009 after a judge ruled that the guards’ early statements were improperly used by investigators and prosecutors. The guards could not be tried under Iraqi law because of an immunity agreement.

The government has done well to persist in this prosecution. It provides the survivors of the shooting and the relatives of the dead a sense of justice and resolution. And, as the State Department records show, legal proceedings are bringing forth a clearer picture not only of Blackwater’s reckless behavior, but also of the Bush administration’s wanton mismanagement in Iraq.

Failure to review

The case also illustrates President Obama’s error in failing to call for hearings about what occurred in Iraq during the Bush administration and during the war on terror overall. Indeed, Risen, the Times reporter who obtained the State Department documents in the Blackwater case, may be sent to jail by Obama’s Justice Department for refusing to disclose a source he used in his book “State of War,” a book that reveals the abuse of power of the Bush administration.

The lack of a full and official record of actions by Bush administration officials in Iraq and in anti-terror programs allows for the spectacle of authors of the war and former U.S. leaders in Iraq criticizing Obama’s handling of Iraq. Those neocons, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, argue that Obama failed to preserve the peace in Iraq because he ended the United States’ military presence there. But the reason for the total withdrawal was the unwillingness of Iraq to agree to a U.S. presence beyond 2011.

The Iraqis wanted the United States out in part because of bitterness over the Nisour Square shootings. And responsibility for that episode, it turns out, rests heavily on Bush administration officials who failed to rein in Blackwater.

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