AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here in the U.S. there are guilty verdicts today in a case that came to symbolize the chaos of the war in Iraq. Back in 2007 security guards working for the group Blackwater shot and killed 14 Iraqi civilians at a traffic circle in Baghdad. Now, seven years later, a federal jury has convicted four of the guards involved in the incident that day. NPR national security editor Bruce Auster joins me now to talk about the case. And Bruce, as we mentioned, guilty verdicts against four former Blackwater guards - what other details can you tell us about this verdict?
BRUCE AUSTER, BYLINE: This is a very complicated case. This has been going on all summer. The jury has been deliberating since the beginning of September, so obviously a hard time reaching a verdict. So of the four people, one of them was convicted of first-degree murder. That was the most serious charge. The other three were convicted of a combination of charges - voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and some weapons charges.
And the reason for all of that is there were 33 counts in all, and when you tally it up, you're talking about four defendants and a number of people killed - a number of people wounded. Keep in mind, all of the people who were hurt that day were civilians.
CORNISH: And remind us of the back story here. As we mentioned, it stems from an incident in Baghdad in 2007. It got so much attention at that time. What exactly happened?
AUSTER: Sure, that's right. This was back in 2007, as you say. It was the height of the war. There was a traffic circle in Baghdad called Nisour Square. That's where this happened. Now, Blackwater was a company you may remember was founded by Erik Prince, and it was essentially bringing in all these people who served as security, in this case for State Department officials.
So there'd been a car bomb that had exploded nearby - about a mile away. And there was a delegation of State Department officials who needed to be escorted back to a safe area. So a separate team of Blackwater guards - these are the people involved in this case - moved to this traffic circle to block traffic and allow a safe route for the first team.
Soon after they arrived is when they started firing on the vehicles and hitting people. That's where all the confusion is. There's a lot of dispute about what exactly happened.
CORNISH: So what did the defense argue?
AUSTER: Lawyers basically argued self-defense. You know, they were saying that the men were taking fire - that it was essentially a firefight. There was much debate over whether the Blackwater team - you know, people had heard AK-47 fire - that sort of thing. There was also, for example, a white vehicle that got shot up and people killed. The question there was was that possibly a car bomb? Was it reasonable for the Blackwater team to essentially have fired on them to prevent an attack from that car?
CORNISH: Meanwhile, this incident, you know, became almost a symbol of American involvement there.
AUSTER: That's right. This was back, again, in 2007. That's the height of the surge, a very bad time in the war. It was also a time in which there weren't really enough troops to do everything. And so that's why you were using all these contractors including for things like security. And so in this case what happened - this became almost like the tipping point. This was the moment in which people started saying what are the rules that apply to these people? Why - you know, what are the situations in which they can use deadly force? Who oversees them? It was very controversial.
And the problem was that they essentially represented the U.S. government, but there was less control over them. And that's why this case was so important.
CORNISH: So what happens next? Does this verdict actually mark the end of the case?
AUSTER: Not quite. One of the defense lawyers today called the verdict incomprehensible - vowed to fight it. We also still have to have sentencing. In the case of the person convicted of first-degree murder, that person faces life in prison. The others face less time, but still substantial sentences.
CORNISH: That's NPR's national security editor Bruce Auster talking about the guilty verdicts in the case against four military contractors. Bruce, thanks so much.
AUSTER: You're welcome.