Interference Seen in Blackwater Inquiry
By JAMES RISEN
Published: March 2, 2010
WASHINGTON — An official at the United States Embassy in Iraq has told federal prosecutors that he believes that State Department officials sought to block any serious investigation of the 2007 shooting episode in which Blackwater Worldwide security guards were accused of murdering 17 Iraqi civilians, according to court testimony made public on Tuesday.
David Farrington, a State Department security agent in the American Embassy at the time of the shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, told prosecutors that some of his colleagues were handling evidence in a way they hoped would help the Blackwater guards avoid punishment for a crime that drew headlines and raised tensions between American and Iraqi officials.
The description of Mr. Farrington’s account came in closed-door testimony last October from Kenneth Kohl, the lead prosecutor in the case against the Blackwater guards.
“I talked to David Farrington, who was concerned, who expressed concern about the integrity of the work being done by his fellow officers,” Mr. Kohl recalled. He said that Mr. Farrington had said he was in meetings where diplomatic security agents said that after they had gone to the scene and picked up casings and other evidence, “They said we’ve got enough to get these guys off now.”
Mr. Farrington, who also testified in a closed-door pretrial hearing in the Nisour Square shooting case, declined to comment. His own testimony has not yet been unsealed by the court.
Blackwater became a multimillion-dollar contractor as the United States escalated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing protection for State Department officials and covert work for the Central Intelligence Agency.
The company, dominated by former American officials, has been described by critics as being too close to the intelligence and diplomatic agencies for which it worked.
The New York Times has reported that the Justice Department was investigating allegations that Blackwater had tried to bribe Iraqi government officials in hopes of retaining their security business after the deadly shooting.
In December, a federal judge dismissed the criminal charges against five former Blackwater guards in the Nisour Square shooting, and criticized the Justice Department’s handling of the case, chiding prosecutors for trying to use statements from defendants who had been offered immunity and testimony from witnesses tainted by news media leaks.
The documents made public on Tuesday show that before the December dismissal, prosecutors and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents working on the Nisour Square case took the stand in October to argue that they had plenty of untainted evidence. In a closed-door hearing, they also contended that they had evidence that, in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, there had been a concerted effort to make the case go away, both by Blackwater and by at least some embassy officials.
In fact, prosecutors were told that the embassy had never conducted any significant investigation of any of the numerous shooting episodes in Iraq involving Blackwater before the Nisour Square case, according to the documents.
In his October testimony, Mr. Kohl described how the Justice Department had “serious concerns” about obstruction of justice in the case. He also said prosecutors briefed Kenneth Wainstein, then an assistant attorney general, on evidence of obstruction by Blackwater management.
Mr. Kohl disclosed that prosecutors had discovered that five Blackwater guards who were on the convoy involved in the Nisour Square shootings reported to Blackwater management what they had seen. One guard, he said, described it as “murder in cold blood.” Mr. Kohl said that Blackwater management never reported these statements by the guards to the State Department.
He said that prosecutors informed senior Justice Department officials as early as 2007 that they were investigating whether Blackwater managers “manipulated” the official statements made by the guards to the State Department.
But he testified that prosecutors also had evidence of embassy officials thwarting the inquiry. In addition to the testimony of Mr. Farrington, Mr. Kohl said that United States military officials had told prosecutors that they witnessed State Department investigators “badgering” Iraqi witnesses.
He also testified that diplomatic security agents, who conducted the embassy’s initial investigation before the F.B.I. and Justice Department began a criminal inquiry, left out important facts from their report relating to a witness’s account.
Philip J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, defended the department’s handling of the Nisour Square case. He said: “Seventeen people died in broad daylight. We took the case seriously from the outset. We invited the F.B.I. to join the investigation, and more than two years later, we continue to pursue the case and seek justice.”
Officials from Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Kohl described what he believed was “an undercurrent of obstruction in this case.”
He said that a Blackwater official had told him that the whole criminal investigation could have been avoided if the State Department had given Blackwater officials more time to prepare the official statements by the guards involved in the shooting.
“He said, do you know why this all happened, why we’re here?” Mr. Kohl recalled. “Because the State Department didn’t give us enough time to work on these statements with these guys. We only had a couple hours, and we needed to get these over to the embassy.”
The dismissal of the criminal case against the guards for Blackwater in the Nisour Square shooting prompted bitter protests by Iraqis against the United States, and it led the Iraqi government to threaten to bring a lawsuit of its own in the case.
The Justice Department has now appealed the dismissal. Blackwater has settled one series of civil lawsuits brought by victims of the Nisour Square shooting, but another lawsuit brought by another group of victims is still pending.