By Eugene Robinson
The federal manslaughter indictment of five Blackwater Worldwide security guards for the horrific massacre of more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad may look like an exercise in accountability, but it’s probably the exact opposite—a whitewash that absolves the governmental and corporate officials who should bear ultimate responsibility.
If what Justice Department prosecutors allege is true, the five guards—Donald Ball, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nick Slatten and Paul Slough—should have to answer for what they did on Sept. 16, 2007. The men, working under Blackwater’s contract to protect State Department personnel in Iraq, are charged with spraying a busy intersection with machine-gun fire and grenades, killing at least 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 20 others. One man, prosecutors said Monday, was shot in the chest with his hands raised in submission.
The indictment, charging voluntary manslaughter and weapons violations, demonstrates that those who engage “in unprovoked attacks will be held accountable,” Assistant Attorney General Patrick Rowan claimed.
But it demonstrates nothing of the sort. As with the torture and humiliation of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, our government is deflecting all scrutiny from the corporate higher-ups who employed the guards—to say nothing of the policymakers whose decisions made the shootings possible, if not inevitable.
Prosecutors did not file charges against the North Carolina-based Blackwater firm—the biggest U.S. security contractor in Iraq—or any of the company’s executives. The whole tragic incident is being blamed on the guards who, prosecutors say, made Baghdad’s Nisoor Square a virtual free-fire zone.
The Blackwater guards were nervous because of a car bombing elsewhere in the city earlier that day. The company says the Blackwater convoy came under attack by insurgents, prompting the guards to fire in self-defense. “Tragically, people did die,” defense attorney Paul Cassell told reporters.
There is a huge difference between self-defense and the kind of indiscriminate fusillade that the Blackwater team allegedly unleashed. Proper training and supervision—which was the Blackwater firm’s responsibility—would have made it more likely for the guards to make the right split-second decisions amid the chaos of Nisoor Square. Rather than give Blackwater a free pass, the Justice Department ought to investigate the preparation these men were given before being sent onto Baghdad’s dangerous streets.
Blackwater no doubt has rules and regulations about when and where its people can discharge their weapons. But were those rules enforced? Did the guards who were indicted Monday have any reason to believe they would be punished for their rampage? Or were the shootings considered acceptable inside the Blackwater bunker? Company executives should have to answer these and other questions—under oath.
But a real attempt to establish blame for this massacre should go beyond Blackwater. It was the Bush administration that decided to police the occupation of Iraq largely with private rather than regular troops.
There are an estimated 30,000 security “contractors” in Iraq, many of them there to protect U.S. State Department personnel. The presence of these heavily armed private soldiers has become a sore point between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Until now, the mercenaries—they object to that label, but it fits—have been immune from prosecution by the Iraqi courts for any alleged crimes. This will change on Jan. 1, when the new U.S.-Iraqi security pact places them under the jurisdiction of Iraqi law. Blackwater and other firms likely will have a harder time retaining and recruiting personnel, given the prospect of spending time in an Iraqi prison. Yet it is presumed that more private soldiers will be needed, rather than fewer, as the United States reduces troop levels.
Barack Obama has criticized the Bush administration’s decision to outsource so many essentially military tasks in Iraq and elsewhere. The officials who made that decision, however, are not being held accountable—not yet, at least. We deserve, at a minimum, a thorough investigation of what security contractors have done in the name of the United States.
Putting national security in the hands of private companies and private soldiers was bad practice from the start, and incidents such as what happened at Nisoor Square are the foreseeable result. The five Blackwater guards may have fired the weapons, but they were locked and loaded in Washington.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group