Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Incompetence? Or Obstruction?

Justice Department officials grappling with bringing to account the Blackwater mercenaries involved in the murderous rampage in Nissour Square on September 16 got a nasty surprise. Investigators from the State Department - who lacked the authority to do so - offered Blackwater USA security guards immunity in exchange for their statements. State Department protocols require that Diplomatic Security agents investigate and report all incidents in which force is used. Last week, the chief of the Diplomatic Security Bureau, Richard J. Griffin, resigned abruptly. Presumably, his inability to control Blackwater was at the root of his sudden departure, but now it looks like he may have left in advance of this information becoming public.

FBI agents took over the State Department's investigation two weeks after the Sept. 16 killing spree, but the damage was already done. None of the information obtained during questioning of the guards by the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the division of the State Department that oversees security contractors, will be admissible. (I believe that defense attorneys call this "fruit of the poisoned tree.")

Subsequently, some Blackwater guards have cited promises of immunity from State, and refused to even be interviewed by the FBI. The Justice Department is not precluded from bringing charges using other evidence, but the inadmissibility of their initial statements complicates matters significantly.

From the New York Times:

Most of the guards who took part in the Sept. 16 shooting were offered what officials described as limited-use immunity, which means that they were promised that they would not be prosecuted for anything they said in their interviews with the authorities as long as their statements were true. The immunity offers were first reported Monday by The Associated Press.

The officials who spoke of the immunity deals have been briefed on the matter, but agreed to talk about the arrangement only on the condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to discuss a continuing criminal investigation.

The precise legal status of the immunity offer is unclear. Those who have been offered immunity would seem likely to assert that their statements are legally protected, even as some government officials say that immunity was never officially sanctioned by the Justice Department.

Spokesmen for the State and Justice Departments would not comment on the matter. A State Department official said, “If there’s any truth to this story, then the decision was made without consultation with senior officials in Washington.”

This complicates an already-dicey legal situation. Blackwater and other mercenary outfits are immune from prosecution under Iraqi law under Order 17, signed by Paul Bremmer on his way out of town. The order still stands, the Iraqi parliament has not repealed it. They can't be tried in military courts (at least not yet.) And it is unclear what American criminal statutes apply to armed Americans operating in a war zone.

A review panel sent by State to investigate the incident determined that the legal standing to hold the Blackwater mercenaries to account under U.S. federal statute was lacking, and urged Congress to address this gaping loophole in accountability and oversight authority. To date, the House has passed a bill with an overwhelming majority that would hold all security contractors* liable under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act; the Senate is considering similar legislation. Some legal experts have suggested that the Nissour Square killings be the first cases prosecuted through the act once it is extended.

But...(Isn't there always a great big But...?)

For a case to be tried in federal court, evidence is only admissible when it meets a very high chain-of-custody bar, designed to put in place guarantees that evidence has not been tampered with. Evidence gathered by foreign investigators and turned over to U.S. investigators is reflexively seen as suspect on it's face, and the admissibility of the evidence would be contested by any first year law student. Additionally, the Constitutional guarantee of the accused to cross-examine witnesses is problematic in these instances, requiring foreign witnesses be transported to the United States to appear in court.

What was from the outset a brutally difficult case to bring was complicated further by the actions of the State Department investigators.

So was it incompetence? Could the Keystone Kops run a better State Department?

Or was it obstruction? Yet another instance of sand in the umpires eyes?

*security contractors = mercenaries

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