RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
There's a new twist on the question of whether Blackwater USA security guards will be held responsible for a shooting in Baghdad. That shooting last month left 17 Iraqi civilians dead and it put a spotlight on an issue Iraqis have been long complained about, the aggressive use of firepower by American contractors. Here's the latest. State Department investigators in Baghdad offered immunity to Blackwater security guards when they questioned them about the incident in Iraq. Problem was, that offer could jeopardize any efforts to prosecute employees involved in the shooting.
To explain, here's NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam. Good morning, Jackie.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: How exactly could this immunity offer jeopardize any prosecution of Blackwater employees?
NORTHAM: Well, this all stems, actually, from the incident in September. There were several investigations launched into that, and one of them was done by the State Department. From what we know, officials with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security - now, this is the unit which oversees contracts such as Blackwater's - told Blackwater employees that they had immunity from prosecution for their statements that they made. In other words, they would not be prosecuted for giving State Department investigators information.
The problem is, the State Department doesn't have the authority to do that - offer immunity. And yesterday State Department officials here in Washington agreed with that. They said they didn't have the authority; only the Justice Department can do that. They said that investigators on the ground did make, you know, this decision in Iraq, that Washington wasn't consulted.
Now, as this has rolled on, from what we understand, the investigation has been moved from the State Department to the FBI. And what's happening now is that the FBI is having to re-interview all of these witnesses, all of these Blackwater employees without a promise of immunity this time. So this is where it gets tricky. Investigators are unlikely to be able to use any of the information gathered earlier under this offer and all that they can do now is hope that the Blackwater employees are going to be as open as they were the first time around.
MONTAGNE: Step back for a moment and just briefly remind us what happened in that shooting incident.
NORTHAM: Well, as you said, it happened in mid-September and it happened in downtown Baghdad. And Blackwater maintains that its employees open fired at a traffic circle only after being attacked by what they called snipers or offensive methods. However, Iraqi witnesses say the attack by the armed contractors was unprovoked. But at the end of the day, 17 Iraqi civilians were left dead.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, just another thing: Ever since this shooting became publicly known and has made headlines, we've been hearing that under Iraqi law the contractors are immune. How does that figure into this effort to prosecute them, if it does at all?
NORTHAM: Well, the problem is at the end of the day they do not have a legal immunity. They can be prosecuted, but it's going to be much more difficult because they made these statements under the false impression that they had immunity. Now, the Justice Department is trying to put some steps into place to try to patch all these holes together in case they do want to move ahead with the prosecution. The bigger problem here is this whole legal gray zone under which these contractors fall, and it's not really clear yet. It hasn't been fully decided whether they should be tried under U.S. military law or U.S. criminal law. But certainly they do - they can't be tried under Iraqi law. So right now there's a lot of confusion. And just the fact that the State Department offered them immunity has not helped the situation at all.
MONTAGNE: Jackie, thanks very much.
NORTHAM: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Jackie Northam is NPR national security correspondent.
Today, Baghdad took a step towards revoking the immunity that foreign contractors now enjoy. Iraq's cabinet approved a law that would subject firms like Blackwater to Iraqi law.