The murders of Steve Sotloff and James Foley remind us just how flawed the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq was. Not only did they lie us into that war, they violated the Geneva Conventions before the Bush Administration decided on the terms that Americans would leave.
On September 16, 2007, contractors for Blackwater (now named Academi, shot 30 people at Nisoor Square in Bagdad, killing 17 of them. The Iraqi government wanted the contractors prosecuted by Iraqi courts. Iraq repealed all laws granting immunity to foreign military contractors. The U.S. State Department granted immunity on October 29. The Department of Justice reversed it arguing that the State Department lacked authority to grant immunity.
The criminal trial of four Blackwater/Academi contractors on a range of charges was sent to the jury for deliberation on Tuesday. Their involvement in the shooting is not in dispute. Charges against a fifth contractor were dropped because of a lack of evidence.
The rest of the facts are in dispute.
According to Blackwater, the guards were trying to clear a path for a State Department convoy that was en route to the Green Zone. The defense claims a white Kia appeared to be carrying a possible car bomb. The Kia pulled out of traffic and it was approaching the convoy. The defense also claims the Kia was not provoked but fired on the convoy. That justified a response from the guards.
Prosecutors dispute the claim that the Kia fired on the State Department convoy. According to them, the team of contractors drove four armored trucks into the square. Prosecutors say the gunfire was so extensive that “bloody, bullet-riddled corpses were left strewn throughout the area.” One of the Iraqis who was killed was a 9-year-old boy whose brains “fell out at his father’s feet.” At the time, the international community was outraged.
The FBI investigated and found 14 of the deaths were unjustified and the contractors violated the deadly force rules for security contractors in Iraq.
As a result, Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty were charged with 14 deaths and 18 shootings that were not fatal. Slatten faces first-degree murder charges for killing the Kia driver. Slough, Heard and Liberty face voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and guns charges. If convicted, Slatten faces life in prison while the other three face mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years each.
The several co-workers who testified against them did so under immunity agreements. At this moment, the jury is deciding the fate of the four.
The timing of this trial makes the President’s job of deciding on the appropriate response to a bloody thirsty and barbaric group of psychotic terrorists more challenging. As usual, Republicans in Congress remain on vacation and Fox continues its anti-Obama propaganda campaign.
Aside from the murders of Sotloff and Foley, there is no word that accurately describes the degree of ISIS’ barbarity. Genocide, rape, killing religious minorities and anyone who gets in their way is a part of it. They want to terrorize the world. They used video of Sotloff and Foley’s beheadings and threats of killing more of their hostages as part of their terrorism campaign.
When looking at ISIS’ brutality one might be tempted to dismiss the significance of the Blackwater 4’s trial because their acts pale in comparison to the barbarity and savagery of ISIS.
The trial does matter because while rightly condemning ISIS for its brutality, that condemnation rings hollow if no one is held to account for criminal acts done in our name. The highest officials in the Bush Administration, including the President and Vice-President, committed war crimes with impunity. Too many of the people still being held at Guantanamo Bay either did nothing wrong or cannot be charged because the evidence against them was obtained through torture.
Blackwater’s controversies didn’t start or end with the September 2007 shooting. Weeks before, the State Department was investigating the company’s operations in Iraq.
The families of four contractors sued Xe (the name Blackwater took in 2009 before it was renamed again in 2011, as Academi) to learn the details of their loved ones deaths. The manager of Blackwater allegedly threatened to kill Jean Richter, a U.S. State Department investigator. According to a report by Jean Richter, Blackwater “created an environment full of liability and neglect” while under a $1 billion contract to protect our diplomats.
“The management structures in place to manage and monitor our contracts in Iraq have become subservient to the contractors themselves,” the investigator, Jean C. Richter, wrote in an Aug. 31, 2007, memo to State Department officials. “Blackwater contractors saw themselves as above the law,” he said, adding that the “hands off” management resulted in a situation in which “the contractors, instead of Department officials, are in command and in control.”
In 2012, Academi paid $7.5 million in fines without admitting guilt to settle various charges involving “pre-Academi” employees.
Regardless of the verdicts reached by the jury, the outcome of this trial has international implications. The history of Blackwater/Xe/Academi suggests that fear prevailed over holding the company and its contractors accountable for other acts.
This is not to say that these four should pay for Blackwater’s acts or management structure.
If the evidence is as stated by the prosecution, then anything less than guilty verdicts makes a mockery of the values we tell the world that we believe in. Some may dismiss this concern as an indulgence in idealism. However, the fallout is not limited to whether the world perceives us as staunch defenders of the rule of law or if this is another case of hypocrisy.
If we don’t punish our war criminals, who is going to punish theirs?
There are national security consequences as well. If we tell the world, our mercenaries can do whatever they want to anyone they want with impunity, we are in no position to talk about the rule of law and human rights. Losing that moral authority also means we lose the means to influence other countries like Syria or Russia. It means more barbarity, savagery and less international stability.
Last, it means that the lowest common denominator decides what kind of world we live in. In this case, ISIS, but if we go on what the world was like before human rights existed, it will look a lot like the world ISIS envisions.
Image: Final Call