Handling of security firm case criticized
Democrats decry limited immunity
WASHINGTON - Democrats criticized the Bush administration yesterday for offering limited immunity to Blackwater USA bodyguards, calling the move a failure to hold the security contractors responsible for the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians.
The State Department, whose investigators initially promised to shield the bodyguards' statements in the criminal inquiry of the Sept. 16 shootings, maintained that any lawbreakers "must be held to account" as a result of the inquiry, which has been taken over by the Justice Department and FBI.
Patrick Leahy, Senate Judiciary committee chairman, who sits on two Senate panels that oversee the State Department and the Justice Department, called the offer an example of "the amnesty administration."
The offer for limited immunity has delayed the government's criminal inquiry of the shootings that enraged the Iraqi government, and it threatens to derail prosecution as investigators seek other evidence from the crime scene now six weeks later.
"In this administration, accountability goes by the boards," said Leahy. "That goes equally for misconduct and for incompetence. If you get caught, they will get you immunity. If you get convicted, they will commute your sentence."
Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat running for president, demanded to know whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was aware of the immunity offers and agreed with them. In a letter to Rice, Obama asked whether the FBI and Justice Department were consulted before limited immunity was offered.
Such immunity has been routinely offered to private security contractors involved in shootings in Iraq, State Department officials said yesterday, denying such actions jeopardized criminal prosecution of the Blackwater guards. "It's up to the investigators and prosecutors to determine what kind of case they have," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The White House had little to say about the matter yesterday. White House press secretary Dana Perino dodged most questions about it at her daily briefing with reporters, referring them to the State Department.
"It is under review," Perino said. "Anyone who has engaged in criminal behavior will be prosecuted."
McCormack said Rice has steadfastly supported accountability for anyone involved in the Blackwater shootings found to have broken the law. It was Rice who asked that the FBI take over the investigation from her department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, McCormack said.
The immunity offer forces prosecutors to prove that they did not use the information gleaned from the bodyguards' statements - or anything related to them - when seeking criminal charges. That means investigators will have to find other credible witnesses or evidence to make their case.
The FBI has re-interviewed some of the Blackwater employees, and officials have said that at least several of them have refused to answer questions, citing their constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.
One official, however, said not all the guards have cited their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination - leaving open the possibility for future charges. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, declined to elaborate.
A second senior US official familiar with the investigation said yesterday that the immunity offer stemmed from a waiver, which Blackwater employees signed, that banned their initial statements from being used in court.
It's not clear why the Diplomatic Security investigators agreed to give immunity to the bodyguards, or who authorized doing so.
The Iraqi government yesterday approved draft legislation lifting immunity for security companies, sending the measure to Parliament.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined to comment about the US investigation. Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater USA is the largest private security firm protecting US diplomats in Iraq.
An initial report by US Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, indicated "no enemy activity involved" in the Sept. 16 shootings.
Also yesterday, Pentagon and State Department officials said they have reached a general understanding that US military commanders in Baghdad should have more oversight of private security.