MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen. Coming up, the White House says it's made progress with Congress in completing a rescue package for the auto industry. We'll have details coming up.
BRAND: First though, the mission was defensive. They were to protect American diplomats. But on a September day last year, guards with a private security firm, Blackwater, opened fire on civilians in a crowded public square in Baghdad.
COHEN: 17 people were killed. Many more were injured, none of them armed. That is the allegation in an indictment unsealed by the Justice Department today.
BRAND: The Blackwater case has raised questions about the role of private contractors, also about how the Justice Department can prosecute Americans accused of committing crimes in another country. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following this case, and she's here now. Dina, tell us more about the indictments, what's in them.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the Justice Department charged five men with 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, and also with the charge of using automatic weapons in committing a violent crime. And there's a sixth Blackwater guy who was there as well, and he apparently pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter and one count of attempted manslaughter.
BRAND: Is he cooperating with the prosecution?
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's a good question. That's what we think is going on.
BRAND: All right, there's a question, though, whether the Justice Department really has jurisdiction in this case, given that these crimes were allegedly committed - when they were committed, they were committed in Iraq.
TEMPLE-RASTON: We're not entirely sure that they've completely resolved that issue. We won't know that, actually, until this actually goes to trial. This is the first case to be filed under a new version of MEJA.
MEJA is the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. And that allows the U.S. Justice Department, and I'm just going to quote here, "to have jurisdiction over non-military contractors who provide service in support of the mission of the Department of Defense overseas," close quote.
The reason why I'm quoting that is because there's a real question as to whether or not the Blackwater employees fall under that kind of rubric because the Blackwater security contractors were working for the State Department, not the Department of Defense, and their defense attorneys are really likely to file a motion to dismiss the case based on the fact that their clients weren't working for the Department of Defense.
BRAND: Now, the indictments were announced in Washington, but the guards, I understand, turned themselves in in Utah. Why is that? Why Utah?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, only one of the men of the five is from Utah, and he might be trying to get the venue for the case changed to Utah, where a jury might be more sympathetic, instead of Washington D.C. But the ploy is unlikely to work. It's hard to change venue like that. And the other four men who are with him have no real Utah connection. Right now, at the moment, it appears that they're all going to be tried as a group, but that's something their lawyers are going to have to discuss, decide.
BRAND: Well, let's talk more about the defense strategy. What are they likely to argue?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Blackwater has said that their employees began firing into oncoming traffic in this Baghdad traffic circle in self defense. They said that a car rolled forward after they ordered the car to stop, and that they were worried that it was a suicide bomber. And they also are saying that insurgents were firing on them, so they fired back. But defense attorneys I've spoken to said that the defense that they're really likely to focus on is this idea that the Justice Department doesn't have jurisdiction.
BRAND: All right, and also, the company itself, Blackwater, was not charged in this, correct?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Also very important point. They came out with a statement that said, as far as they knew, while they were not privy to everything that the FBI and the Department of Defense and the Iraqi government found in their investigation of the incident, that as far as they knew, their people had followed all the instructions that they were supposed to follow.
BRAND: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. She's been following the news that the Justice Department has indicted five Blackwater security guards for the 2007 shooting down of civilians in Iraq. Dina, thank you very much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
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