Blackwater got immunity deal

WASHINGTON — The State Department promised Blackwater USA bodyguards immunity from prosecution in its investigation of last month’s deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians, U.S. officials said.

FBI agents called in to take over the State Department’s investigation two weeks after the Sept. 16 shootings cannot use any information gleaned during questioning of the guards by the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which is charged with supervising security contractors.

Some of the Blackwater guards have subsequently refused to be interviewed by the FBI, citing promises of immunity from the State Department, one law enforcement official said.

The restrictions on the FBI’s use of their initial statements do not preclude prosecution by the Justice Department using other evidence, the official said, but “they make things a lot more complicated and difficult.”

It is unclear when or by whom the grant of immunity was explained to the guards.

Under federal case law applying to government workers, only voluntary answers to questions posed by the employing agency can be used against them in a criminal prosecution. If an employee is ordered to answer under threat of disciplinary action, the resulting statements cannot be used.

“Once you give immunity, you can’t take it away,” said a senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.

State Department officials declined to confirm or deny that immunity had been granted. One official — who refused to be quoted by name— said: “If, in fact, such a decision was made, it was done without any input or authorization from any senior State Department official in Washington.”

The Justice Department and FBI also declined comment.

Three senior law enforcement officials said all the Blackwater bodyguards involved — both in the vehicle convoy and in at least two helicopters above — were given the legal protection as investigators from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security sought to find out what happened. The bureau is an arm of the State Department.

Iraq is demanding the right to launch its own prosecution of the Blackwater bodyguards.

The company has said its Sept. 16 convoy was under attack before it opened fire in west Baghdad’s Nisoor Square, killing 17 Iraqis.

A follow-up investigation by the Iraqi government, however, concluded that Blackwater’s men were unprovoked.

No witnesses have been found to contradict that finding.

An initial incident report by U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, also indicated “no enemy activity involved” in the Sept. 16 incident. The report says Blackwater guards were traveling against the flow of traffic through a traffic circle when they “engaged five civilian vehicles with small arms fire” at a distance of 50 meters.

Monday in Iraq

n A suicide bomber rode his bicycle into a crowd of police recruits in Baqouba, killing at least 29 people.

n A group of seven Shiite and Sunni clerics were freed one day after they were kidnapped in Baghdad after meeting with the government to discuss how to coordinate efforts against al-Qaida in Iraq. An eighth sheik, a Sunni, was found shot to death Sunday.

n Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Dorko was wounded in a roadside bombing in northern Baghdad, the military reported, adding that his injuries were not life-threatening and he was in stable condition. He is the highest-ranking American officer to be hurt since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

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