Blackwater Shooting at Nisoor Square

Summary: 

On September 16, 2007, employees of military contractor Blackwater USA opened fire in a Baghdad traffic circle called Nisoor Square. They killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians and injured many more.  This bloody incident illustrates the lack of proper oversight by the government in many military contracts and the difficulties associated with holding the companies and their employees accountable when crimes or misdeeds occur. This case also involves corruption. In November 2009, reports surfaced that shortly after the shooting, Blackwater executives attempted to buy off Iraqi government officials to ensure that their license to operate in Iraq was not revoked. There have been many other allegations of abuses and illegal activities by Blackwater.  Several of these examples and links to additional information follow the description of the Nisoor Square shooting incident 

 

History: 

On September 16, 2007, employees of contractor Blackwater USA opened fire in a crowded Baghdad traffic circle at Nisoor Square. They killed 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including a 9-year-old boy who was riding with his father.  Many more were injured. 

The company, which derives much of its profits from government contracts, asserts that its guards did nothing wrong that September day.  But an FBI inquiry determined that Blackwater employees engaged in the firefight unprovoked, and no witnesses have disputed that.  Furthermore, investigations revealed a pattern of lawless behavior by Blackwater and no clear process of accountability.  The contractors had immunity from Iraqi law, and it was unclear which American laws applied to their behavior.  In response to the shooting, the Iraqi government demanded an end to immunity for private contractors.

Blackwater, which changed its name to Xe (pronounced "zee"), has not been charged in the case. The company has more than $1 billion worth of federal contracts and task orders, according to a May 2008 estimate by the US Department of State.  In 2009, Xe lost its security contract at the US Embassy in Baghdad, but the company still has CIA contracts, including one to load bombs and rockets on Predator drones at secret bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A month after the shooting, the estates of three deceased victims and one survivor filed a lawsuit against the company in US federal court, under the Alien Tort Claims Act.  The Plaintiffs' complaint (Complaint in Abtan, et al. v. Blackwater Security Consulting) makes several claims, including that Blackwater murdered and severely injured many innocent civilians on September 16, 2007, that the company used excessive and unnecessary deadly force, and that Blackwater destroyed important evidence after the shooting occurred. 

Additional charges were filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in July 2009 by Iraqi survivors of Nisoor Square. They accuse Blackwater and chairman Erik Prince of encouraging employees to engage in a series of illegal acts "in the company's financial interests," including murder, destruction of audio and videotaped evidence, distribution of controlled substances, tax evasion, child prostitution, and weapons smuggling.  The Virginia federal court consolidated this case with five similar lawsuits against Blackwater from other victims of the Nisoor Square shooting.  The case is pending and updates are available on the website of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization representing the plaintiffs: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2008/December/08-nsd-1068.html.

In December 2008, following an investigation by the FBI, the US Department of Justice filed criminal charges against five of the guards. The guards were subsequently indicted by a federal jury.  A sixth guard pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.  The criminal trial is set to begin in February 2010, and is expected to address important questions about the role of private military contractors in war zone environments.   

In November 2009, reports surfaced that shortly after the shooting, Blackwater sent bribes to government officials  in Iraq to protect the company's license to operate in the country.  Although it is unknown whether the bribes reached Iraqi officials, Iraq revoked Blackwater's license in Spring 2008.  As of this writing, the company still works on temporary projects in Iraq.  The company or its executives could face charges of obstruction of justice and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans bribes to foreign officials.  An investigation by the US Attorney's Office is pending.  

 

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Key Issues
Key Issues: 

As this case illustrates, the contracting out of military services presents a significant challenge when things go wrong.  Blackwater guards had orders from the US government to be in a different location than the Nisoor Square area the day of the shooting, but the government lacked an effective way to check up on the contractors' location or ensure that they were performing their assigned tasks.  According to a former company official "Blackwater had cultivated a cowboy culture that was contemptuous of government rules and regulations."  The lack of oversight of contractors' operations hampers the government's ability to manage the high risk situations that occur in wars. 

Working on foreign soil, private military companies do not have to adhere to the same accountability system that the military services do. The court cases initiated to hold responsible parties accountable for the Nisoor Square killings represent a much slower judicial process than military hearings, which have set policies and procedures in dealing with criminal activity in the military.  As of this writing more than two years after the shooting, there have been no final decisions in any of the Blackwater court cases. Part of the delay was caused by difficulty determining which American laws applied to crimes committed in the context of a government contract.  Many laws relevant to military personnel or war crimes were not written with private contractors in mind, adding another hurdle to holding companies or their employees accountable.  Both the oversight and accountability issues are increasingly important as companies are engaging in contracts that call for the performance of "core" military functions, such as the provision of security services. 

The allegations that Blackwater sent bribes to Iraqi officials shortly after the shooting illustrate a classic example of corruption by private contractors.  Because private military companies derive a large proportion of their revenues from government contracts, bribing and other corruptive behavior may become attractive options if the company fears losing government contracts.  

The shooting at Nisoor Square was not the first time Blackwater has come under scrutiny for alleged abuses.