House Probes Blackwater Immunity

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The State Department may have offered some form of legal immunity to Blackwater contractors targeted in an investigation into the Sept. 16 shootings that killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad. The discovery comes at a time when the Department is already under fire for not providing proper oversight for the security contractors protecting its diplomats in Iraq. In response, a congressional committee is now raising troubling questions about a pattern of State Department mismanagement.

In the wake of the revelations about the possible immunity offer, which were first reported Monday by the Associated Press, Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that is investigating Blackwater, fired off a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raising a series of issues. As Waxman puts it: "This rash grant of immunity was an egregious misjudgment. It raises serious questions about who conferred the immunity, who approved it at the State Department, and what their motives were." Waxman requests written responses to his queries by no later than noon on Friday, November 2.

Among the uncomfortable questions that Waxman addresses to Secretary of State Rice is: "When did you, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Griffin, Ambassador David Satterfield [senior advisor on Iraq], and Ambassador [to Iraq] Ryan Crocker learn of the grant of immunity?" and "What consultation, if any, was conducted with the Justice Department prior to the offers of immunity?" Waxman also seeks to determine whether the State Department has conferred immunity during any other investigations of contractors in Iraq.

Senior State Department officials have testified publicly about the Sept. 16 incident and never mentioned the supposed grants of immunity. By the same token, the issue appears to have gone unaddressed in multiple internal Department reports.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that if a grant of immunity was issued, it was done without consulting the Secretary of State or other senior officials in Washington. On Tuesday McCormack elaborated on the issue, telling reporters that if any immunity was offered, it would only be very limited in nature. "The Department of State cannot immunize an individual from federal criminal prosecution," he told reporters in the daily briefing. So far unaddressed, however, is when or if those senior officials found out about the supposed grant of immunity and what, if anything, they did about it.

Spokespersons for the FBI and Blackwater had no comment on the matter. FBI investigators could be unable to use information and leads generated by a State Department investigation if, indeed, a promise of immunity was extended. But if that promise only involved limited protection — whereby a witness is not prosecuted for his statements, provided they are truthful — the FBI could still bring charges based on information it developed independently.

The investigation into the Sept. 16 shooting is being closely watched as a barometer of how much accountability there actually is for security contractors operating in Iraq. So far, the answer is very little. Justice Department lawyers are still unsure what U.S. law, if any, could be used to bring charges in the case. A previous incident on Christmas Eve where an intoxicated security contractor allegedly shot and killed an Iraqi guard was referred to the Department of Justice months ago, and no charges have yet been filed.

Secretary of State Rice earlier this month ordered changes in the way the Department oversees security contractors. Video cameras will photograph all diplomatic convoys in Iraq, including those guarded by contractors, and each convoy will be accompanied by a diplomatic security officer reporting directly to the Department. Following a scathing internal report that found serious lapses in the department's oversight, the head of Diplomatic Security, Richard Griffin, resigned under pressure last week.

The Iraqi government has been working since the Sept. 16 shootings to close the loopholes in the law. At issue is Order 17, a law signed by L. Paul Bremer in 2004, that places contractors effectively beyond the reach of Iraqi courts. A draft law which would reverse that order was handed to the Iraqi parliament for consideration on Tuesday, said Iraqi spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh.