Another Great Failure of the War...
By LARA JAKES JORDAN, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 7 minutes ago
WASHINGTON - Democrats criticized the Bush administration Tuesday for giving 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 that has since been taken over by the Justice Department and FBI.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, who sits on two Senate panels that oversee the State Department and the Justice Department, called the immunity deal 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 threatens to derail prosecution as investigators seek other evidence from the crime scene now six weeks cold.
"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."
Sen. 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 it. In a letter to Rice Tuesday, Obama asked whether the FBI and Justice Department were consulted before limited immunity was offered.
The White House had little to say about the matter Tuesday. President Bush ignored a question on the arrangement shouted after his meeting with the president of Uganda. And his spokeswoman dodged most questions about it at her daily briefing with reporters, referring them to the State Department.
"It is under review," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "Anyone who has engaged in criminal behavior will be prosecuted."
State Department Sean McCormack said Rice has steadfastly supported accountability for anyone involved in the Blackwater shootings found to have broken the law. Rice also asked that the FBI take over the investigation from her department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, McCormack said.
"Her attitude has been since the very beginning that we need to determine the facts and if there facts lead us to the conclusion that there are those who broke rules laws or regulations, they must be held to account," McCormack said. He declined further comment.
The immunity deal will not prevent the Blackwater guards from ever being prosecuted. However, it 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 that 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 condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, declined to elaborate.
A second senior U.S. official familiar with the investigation said Tuesday that the immunity deal stemmed from a waiver that Blackwater employees signed that banned their initial statements from being used in court. The official said it makes the job harder but does not make prosecution impossible.
It's not clear why the Diplomatic Security investigators agreed to give immunity to the bodyguards, or who authorized doing so.
The apparent misstep comes in the wake of already-strained relations between the United States and Iraq, which is demanding the right to launch its own prosecution of the Blackwater bodyguards. The Iraqi government on Tuesday approved draft legislation lifting immunity for foreign private security companies, sending the measure to parliament, a spokesman said.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined comment about the U.S. investigation. Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater USA is the largest private security firm protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
The company has said its Sept. 16 convoy was under attack before it opened fire in west Baghdad's Nisoor Square, killing 17 Iraqis. A follow-up investigation by the Iraqi government, however, concluded that Blackwater's men were unprovoked. No witnesses have been found to contradict that finding.
An initial incident report by U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, also indicated "no enemy activity involved" in the Sept. 16 incident. The report says Blackwater guards were traveling against the flow of traffic through a traffic circle when they "engaged five civilian vehicles with small arms fire" at a distance of 50 meters.
The FBI took over the case early this month, officials said, after prosecutors in the Justice Department's criminal division realized it could not bring charges against Blackwater guards based on their statements to the Diplomatic Security investigators.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and ****** C. Baldor contributed to this story.
Of course it figures that Blackwater would get an exemption. It's ok for US hired military to commit terrorist acts over there... Just makes me sick.