Indictments Unsealed In Blackwater Shooting Case
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. First this hour, the Justice Department has announced charges against five Blackwater security contractors. In September of last year, contractors opened fire on civilians in a busy square in Baghdad. Assistant Attorney General Patrick Rowan announced the charges today, which include manslaughter.
Mr. PATRICK ROWAN (Assistant Attorney General, National Security Division, Justice Department): The government alleges today that at least 34 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed or injured without justification or provocation by these security guards in the shooting at Nisoor Square.
SIEGEL: The shootings raised questions about the role of private contractors in the Iraq war. And today's indictments raised questions about how the Justice Department can prosecute Americans for crimes committed in another country. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following the case, and she joins me now. And Dina, what did the Justice Department claim today in these indictments?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the Justice Department charged five Blackwater employees with 14 counts each of voluntary manslaughter and 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and using automatic weapons in committing a violent crime. The men actually turned themselves in to U.S. Marshals in Utah this morning.
SIEGEL: Now, what about this question of jurisdiction, whether the Justice Department has jurisdiction in a case given that the alleged crimes were committed in Iraq?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I think this is going to end up being the central issue in this case. This is the first case to be filed under a new version of MEJA, which is the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which allows the U.S. Justice Department - and I'm going to quote here - quote, "to have jurisdiction over non-military contractors who provide service in support of the mission of the Department of Defense overseas," unquote.
Now, the important part of that is the phrase "in support of the mission of the Department of Defense overseas." This is where there's some question whether the Blackwater employees really fall under that rubric because the Blackwater security contractors were working for the State Department, not the Department of Defense. And here's where the difficulty lies. The specific question has never been litigated before. And the language isn't very defined in the statute. And there's never been a prosecution where the issue has been a subject of an opinion. So this is all new ground that the Justice Department is going to have to be covering.
SIEGEL: Now another - what strikes me at least as - jurisdictional peculiarity are the indictments were announced in Washington, D.C., but the guards turned themselves in in Utah. Why?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this could be part of a defense strategy. Only one of the men is actually from Utah. And he might be trying to get the venue for the case changed to Utah where a jury might be more sympathetic. But the ploy's pretty unlikely to work. It's hard to change venue like that. And the other four men have no real Utah connection. And it appears at the moment that they're going to be tried as a group, although that's something that their lawyers are going to have to discuss and work out.
SIEGEL: Now, I understand there was a sixth guard who pleaded guilty. What do we know about his situation?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we know he pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter and one count of voluntary manslaughter. And the indication is that he might well be testifying against the other men. He was negotiating his plea agreement through the weekend. And the fact that he's admitting to just one count of each of these charges and not 14 suggests he's trading something for the reduced charges.
SIEGEL: Any idea about what the contractor's defense strategy might be?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Blackwater has been saying for more than a year that their employees began firing into this oncoming traffic in the circle in self-defense. They say a car rolled forward, and they ordered the car to stop, and they were worried that the car was a suicide bomber. So they were defending themselves. Blackwater came out with a statement today that said they weren't privy to the results of independent investigations by the FBI and the DOD and the Iraqi government, but as far as they knew, the men had acted properly.
So I don't really think that's going to be where the crux of the defense will be. I think it's going to be this jurisdiction issue. That defense attorneys I've spoken to have said they're going to focus on whether or not the Justice Department could even bring these charges against the men.
SIEGEL: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who's been following the news that the Justice Department has indicted five Blackwater security guards in the deaths of civilians in Iraq. Dina, thanks.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
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