Monday, December 8, 2008

Blackwater Guards Surrender to U.S. Authorities

The U.S. Department of Justice has announced that five former Blackwater security guards will be charged for their involvement in a 2007 incident in Nisoor Square in Baghdad. Today the five guards, Donald Ball, 26, of West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, 27, of Knoxville, Tennessee; Evan Liberty, 26, of Rochester, New Hampshire; Nick Slatten, 25, of Sparta, Tennessee; and Paul Slough, 29, of Keller, Texas, turned themselves in in Salt Lake City, Utah. They face charges of manslaughter and using a machine gun in a crime of violence and face a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison if convicted.

Obviously this case brings up many legal issues, considering that the murders were committed in Iraq and the defendants are going to be tried in U.S. courts. Secondly comes the venue. By turning themselves in Utah - a decidedly conservative and pro-gun bastion of the country - some have speculated that the lawyers for the defense hope to have the case tried there and not in DC, where the case has been assigned. The defense lawyers argue that none of the men ever lived in DC and should not be tried there, yet they were employed by the State Department (via Blackwater) and committed the crimes while under the State Department's employ. Needless to say, the State Department is headquartered in DC. Why Utah is a more logical place than DC is beyond me.

But first comes the largest question (in my mind): does the US even have criminal jurisdiction in this case? The events occurred in Iraq, and thus my initial thought was that if the U.S. really wants to punish these guys, they should extradite them to Iraq to face charges there, considering the victims are Iraqi civilians. But, in the infinite wisdom that continues to guide Iraqi policy, all Blackwater employees were given immunity at the start of their business overseas. Therefore, the Iraqi government is powerless to prosecute anyone employed by Blackwater for doing anything in Iraq (until January 1, 2009). This seems to have led to some misbehavior on the part of Blackwater employees, including a Christmas Eve murder in which a drunken Blackwater firearms technician murdered an Iraqi guard of Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi of Iraq. Instead of facing charges, the killer was allowed to sober up and fly back to the states (courtesy of Blackwater) while Blackwater paid the dead man's family $15,000.

Now in my opinion, these Blackwater guards involved in the Nisoor Square shooting should face charges, because in life there are consequences for your actions (hell, even OJ's going to prison). But the problem is, as John Adams pointed out long ago, we are a nation of laws, not of men. Because of a severe lack of foresight (this is becoming a theme in American blunders), these Blackwater guards may have a case that the Department of Justice cannot charge them with crimes committed overseas in a sovereign nation that they were granted immunity from. Now, the argument could be made that Iraq ceased to be sovereign when America forced its leader into hiding and set up its own government, but there is no way that Washington would admit that just to convict five guys of murdering innocent Iraqi civilians. While I would assume that the government has many avenues of civil repercussions it could pursue (to begin with, firing Blackwater entirely), including suing the company, it probably will not do this, either.

All of this brings up other issues with Blackwater. An average Blackwater employee makes about $600 per day, according to the Washington Post. According to the same article, an unmarried seargent in the armed forces given Iraq pay and relief from taxes makes $83-$85 a day. A married seargent with kids makes about $170 a day. The top US commander in Baghdad makes $493 a day. So the average Blackwater employee makes more than Army General Petraeus did. This is insulting to the troops. You want to talk about supporting the troops and being patriotic; paying private contractors more than 6 times what you pay the troops who (for the most part) volunteered to join the armed services is utterly ridiculous.

What happened in Nisoor Square was criminal; there seems to be little doubt about that. The defense of "They shot first" is weak when applied to women and children (at least one infant was killed), especially when U.S. soliders who arrived first at the scene denied that the Blackwater employees had been fired upon. The real question is: does the U.S. have jurisdiction to try the case on American soil in American courts? The accused were employees of a private firm, not U.S. troops, and had immunity from the Iraqi legal system, but not the United States'. I hope that the DoJ has an airtight case and has properly researched the jurisdictional issues and that the five guards are brought to justice in the proper way. If a foreign private contractor had security forces here shoot innocent American civilians, I highly doubt that the American population would be pleased if the killers got away with it. It's time we set an example of American exceptionalism in a moral sense and not an extra-legal sense. And while we're at it, maybe we can rely on the best army in the world to do our security in Iraq and not private contractors who see Iraqis as $15,000 targets.

Photos - Blackwater logo (Progress Illinois), A car destroyed in a September 2007 Nisoor Square shooting involving Blackwater (MSNBC), Timeline of Blackwater shooting in Nisoor Square (Washington Post)

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