Nation & World

Air Force looks into fight with contractor

Two U.S. Air Force reserve officers are being accused of ramming an SUV driven by an employee of the North Carolina-based Blackwater Security Consulting in Kabul, Afghanistan, and then holding the security contractor at gunpoint just outside the U.S. Embassy and threatening to kill him.

The Air Force has scheduled a hearing Friday in Kabul on whether Lt. Col. Gary W. Brown and Lt. Col. Christopher R. Hall should be court- martialed for their roles in the incident.

Brown's civilian attorney, Charles Gittins of Virginia, said that the accusations are backward and that the Blackwater worker rammed the officers' truck, then got out of his SUV and began acting strangely. In a war zone, the two officers had no choice but to pull their weapons, Gittins said.

A military spokeswoman in Afghanistan said by e-mail Tuesday that she was gathering information to release on the incident. A Blackwater spokeswoman declined to comment.

According to documents filed by prosecutors, the officers were driving through Kabul the afternoon of Sept. 19, 2006, when they encountered an unmarked SUV driven by Jimmy Bergeron of Blackwater. Brown intentionally rammed Bergeron, according to the documents. Then, after the three men got out of their vehicles near a gate to the U.S. Embassy, the officers confronted Bergeron with guns drawn.

According to the documents, Brown pushed Bergeron, tried to trip him and threatened to kill him. Brown poked Bergeron in the chest with a loaded gun and pointed it at Bergeron's head.

"I don't care if you are a U.S. citizen, get on the ground," he said, according to the documents, and "You're about to be a dead U.S. citizen."

Gittins said the Air Force officers had no way to tell that Bergeron -- who has dark skin and was wearing an Afghan-style long beard and civilian clothes -- was American. He said they were worried because just days earlier another officer had been involved in an attack by a suicide bomber while driving through Kabul.

"They did exactly what they were supposed to do, which is use the normal 'shout, shove, shoot' escalation of force to get the man under control," Gittins said.

It's unlikely, he said, that two men who in civilian life are airline pilots -- a profession built around calm, rational behavior -- would behave as Brown and Hall are accused.

Brown's wife, Stacey, has started a Web site -- www.wrongedbyblackwater.com -- to publicize the case and seek donations to pay for his defense.

If the two men are court-martialed and convicted, it could end their military careers. Brown's choice of civilian attorney is a measure of how hard he intends to fight: Gittins is regarded as one of the nation's toughest military defense attorneys.

Gittins is known for defending Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano at Camp Lejeune in 2005 during a hearing into whether Pantano should be tried on charges of murdering two Iraqi detainees. Pantano had been accused of ordering the pair's handcuffs removed then pumped nearly 60 bullets into them.

Once Gittins was done, Pantano not only avoided court-martial, but the prosecution's main witness was read his rights while still on the stand.

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