WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge is calling for an investigation of the State Department over years of delays in prosecuting Blackwater security guards in the shootings of dozens of Iraqi citizens in 2007.
Four Blackwater guards are scheduled to go on trial June 11 in Washington for the deaths of 14 Iraqi civilians and the wounding of 18 others.
In an opinion, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said the State Department caused the delays by allowing the Diplomatic Security Service to grant legal immunity to the guards in exchange for their statements, which were subsequently leaked to the news media.
In 2009, a judge dismissed the charges over the immunity issue, saying government lawyers ignored the advice of senior Justice Department officials by building the criminal case on sworn statements that had been given under a promise of immunity from prosecution. An appeals court ruling later revived the case.
In his opinion released Tuesday on the current charges, Lamberth said that neither the government nor its witnesses made use of the immunized statements of the Blackwater guards.
The judge asked U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen to request that the State Department's inspector general look into how the decision was made to grant immunity to the guards back in 2007.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the immunity issue was examined extensively and resulted in increased cooperation with the Justice Department. Machen referred the matter to the State Department IG and "we are carefully considering it," said Douglas Welty, congressional and public affairs officer at the IG's office.
"If the Department of State and the Diplomatic Security Service had tried deliberately to sabotage this prosecution, they could hardly have done a better job," said Lamberth. "It is incredible the way these defendants were coerced into making statements" under threat of losing their jobs.
"Even more egregious, though, was the leaking to the news media of all the statements given," said the judge. "Yet it appears there has been no investigation of these circumstances and no one has been held accountable. Nor is there any reason to think anyone learned a lesson from this fiasco or that any steps have been taken to avoid a repetition."
Lamberth pointed out that in the Iran-Contra controversy in the 1980s, Congress made a deliberate choice to immunize Oliver North, one of the key figures in the scandal, knowing that it might make a prosecution of North impossible. As a result, North's convictions were dismissed.
In the Blackwater case, Lamberth wrote, "It does not appear that any such analysis was performed" as in North's case. "It is unclear ... whether the DSS or the State Department even had the authority to grant immunity to the defendants in exchange for their testimony absent approval from the attorney general."
He added: "Nor is the court aware if the State Department sought any legal advice regarding the decision to grant immunity — a decision that was questionable at best."
The company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide is under new ownership and is now based in Virginia under the name Academi. Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who ran the company at the time of the Iraq shooting, is not affiliated with Academi, the company says.