Saturday, December 1, 2007

Witnesses testify in Blackwater lawsuit

Witnesses testify in Blackwater lawsuit
By LARA JAKES JORDAN, Associated Press Writer
Wed Nov 28, 2007

A federal grand jury investigating Blackwater Worldwide heard witnesses Tuesday as a private lawsuit accused the government contractor's bodyguards of ignoring orders and abandoning their posts shortly before taking part in a Baghdad shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.

Filed this week in U.S. District Court in Washington, the civil complaint also accuses North Carolina-based Blackwater of failing to give drug tests to its guards in Baghdad — even though an estimated one in four of them was using steroids or other "judgment altering substances."

A Blackwater spokeswoman said Tuesday its employees are banned from using steroids or other enhancement drugs but declined to comment on the other charges detailed in the 18-page lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of five Iraqis who were killed and two who were injured during the Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square. The shootings enraged the Iraqi government, and the Justice Department is investigating whether it can bring criminal charges in the case, even though the State Department promised limited immunity to the Blackwater guards.

Justice Department national security prosecutors Kenneth Kohl and Stephen Ponticiello, both of whom are handling the Blackwater case, spent much of Tuesday afternoon in the grand jury room, which is off limits to the public. Two witnesses also spent hours behind closed doors in the District of Columbia's federal courthouse. One of them emerged sporadically to speak with an attorney, who refused to identify himself, his law firm or his client.

When the grand jury was dismissed for the day, the men left without commenting, as did Kohl.

Before the shootings in Baghdad last September, the three teams of an estimated dozen Blackwater bodyguards had already dropped off the State Department official they were tasked with protecting when they headed to Nisoor Square, according to the lawsuit filed by lawyers working with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Blackwater and State Department personnel staffing a tactical operations center "expressly directed the Blackwater shooters to stay with the official and refrain from leaving the secure area," the complaint says. "Reasonable discovery will establish that the Blackwater shooters ignored those directives."

Additionally, the lawsuit notes: "One of Blackwater's own shooters tried to stop his colleagues from indiscriminately firing upon the crowd of innocent civilians but he was unsuccessful in his efforts."

The civil complaint offers new details of the incident that has strained relations between the United States and Iraq, which is demanding the right to launch its own prosecution of the Blackwater bodyguards.

The Justice Department says it likely will be months before it decides whether it can prosecute the guards, and it is trying now to pinpoint how many shooters in the Blackwater convoy could face charges. A senior U.S. law enforcement official confirmed Tuesday that government investigators are looking at whether the Blackwater guards were authorized to be in the square at the time of the shooting. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

In an interview, lead plaintiff attorney Susan L. Burke said private investigators turned up the new evidence through interviews with people in Iraq and the United States "who would have reason to know." Those people do not include government officials, Burke said, and she declined to comment when asked if they include Blackwater employees.

The civil lawsuit does not specify how much money the victims and their families are seeking from Blackwater, its 11 subsidiaries and founder, Erik Prince, all of whom are named as defendants.

"We're looking for compensatory (damages) because the people who were killed were the breadwinners in their families," Burke said. "And we're looking for punitive in a manner that suffices to change the corporation's conduct. We have a real interest in holding them accountable for what were completely avoidable deaths."

The lawsuit also accuses Blackwater of routinely sending its guards into Baghdad despite knowing that at least 25 percent of them were using steroids or other "judgment-altering substances." Attorneys estimated that Blackwater employs about 600 guards in Iraq. The company "did not conduct drug-testing of any of its shooters before sending them equipped with heavy weapons into the streets of Baghdad," the lawsuit states.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said Blackwater employees are tested for drug use before they are hired and later given random quarterly tests. She said use of steroids and other performance enhancement drugs "are absolutely in violation of our policy."

"Blackwater has very strict policies concerning drug use, and if anyone were known to be in violation of them they would be immediately fired," Tyrrell said.

She declined comment on whether the bodyguards ignored their orders and abandoned their posts, or on other details outlined in the lawsuit.

Blackwater's contract with the State Department to protect diplomats in Iraq expires in May, and there are questions whether it will remain as the primary contractor for diplomatic bodyguards. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said his Cabinet is drafting legislation that would force the State Department to replace Blackwater with another security company.

The State Department declined to comment on the case Tuesday, citing standard policy on pending legal matters. Deputy spokesman Tom Casey referred questions on the matter "to those involved in the lawsuit."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.

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