A federal judge wants an explanation for the State Department’s conduct in the prosecution of Blackwater security guards accused of shooting dozens of unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad, in September 2007. Four guards are scheduled to go to trial in June over the incident, which left 14 Iraqis dead and 20 wounded.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued an opinion denying a motion by the guards to dismiss the indictments. At the end of the opinion, Lamberth blasted the State Department and its Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) for granting legal immunity to the guards shortly after the incident in exchange for their written sworn statements. The statements were subsequently leaked to the media. In 2009, the court found the government had improperly used the immunized testimony and dismissed the indictments. An appeals court later reversed that decision.
Lamberth could barely contain his displeasure with the State Department and DSS:
If the Department of State and the Diplomatic Security Service had tried deliberately to sabotage this prosecution, they could hardly have done a better job. It is incredible the way these defendants were coerced into making statements to DSS agents. The impropriety of this was well settled law at the time. Even more egregious, though, was the leaking to the news media of all the statements given. Yet it appears there has been no investigation of these circumstances and no one has been held accountable. Nor is there any reason to think anyone learned a lesson from this fiasco or that any steps have been taken to avoid a repetition.
It is unclear to the Court whether the DSS or the State Department even had the authority to grant immunity to the defendants in exchange for their testimony absent approval from the Attorney General….Nor is the Court aware if the State Department or DSS sought any legal advice regarding the decision to grant immunity—a decision that was questionable at best. The injustice done to the alleged victims of this incident by the last seven years of litigation has been totally unwarranted.
Lamberth asked U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen to request a State Department Inspector General (IG) investigation into the decision to grant immunity. According to the Associated Press, Machen referred the matter to the IG.
At a press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki had this to say about Judge Lamberth’s ruling:
Regarding the judge’s recommendation that the State Department IG should look into why the contractors were granted immunity, this issue was looked at extensively in the aftermath of the incident and addressed any improved investigative policies and procedures….There has been since that time increased interagency cooperation. There’s been a standard procedure, operating procedure put in place, including forms developed in conjunction with the Department of Justice, and training on how to use these forms as it relates to contractors. These steps, as I’ve said, were taken immediately. They continue to be implemented.
Having failed to satisfy the media’s curiosity, Psaki decided to “expand a little bit” at the next day’s briefing:
[W]e have worked to address immunity concerns that arose soon after Nisour Square, including by creating in conjunction with DOJ new warning forms for voluntary interviews and compelled interviews, and emphasizing procedures to follow when using the forms through improved training and notices to overseas posts. So certainly that was part of, among other, issues that we work to address in conjunction with the Department of Justice.
The four guards, who were escorting State Department personnel at the time, claim they were fighting off armed insurgents. Another guard involved in the shooting, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty in 2008 to voluntary manslaughter and attempted voluntary manslaughter. In 2010, Blackwater (which is now called Academi) settled a slew of civil lawsuits filed by Iraqis for the September 2007 shooting and other instances of Blackwater violence in Iraq.