- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The State Department promised Blackwater USA bodyguards immunity from prosecution in its investigation of last month’s deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians, the Associated Press has learned.

As a result, it will likely be months before the United States can — if ever — bring criminal charges in the case that has infuriated the Iraqi government.

“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.”

Both Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd and FBI spokesman Rich Kolko declined comment.

FBI agents were returning to Washington late yesterday from Baghdad, where they have been trying to collect evidence in the Sept. 16 embassy-convoy shooting without using statements from Blackwater employees who were given immunity.

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 protections as investigators from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security sought to find out what happened. The bureau is an arm of the State Department.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company was alerted Oct. 2 that the FBI would be taking over the investigation from the State Department. She declined further comment.

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

An investigation by the Iraqi government, however, concluded that Blackwater’s men acted without provocation. No witnesses have been found to contradict that finding.

Officials said the FBI took over the case early this month, after prosecutors in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division realized that they could not bring charges against Blackwater guards based on their statements to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security investigators.

Officials said the Blackwater bodyguards spoke only after receiving so-called “Garrity” protections, requiring that their statements be used only internally — and not for criminal prosecutions.

At that point, the Justice Department shifted the investigation to prosecutors in its National Security Division, sealing the guards’ statements and attempting to build a case based on other evidence from a crime scene that was two weeks old at the time.

The FBI has reinterviewed some of the Blackwater employees, and one official said yesterday that at least several of them have refused to answer questions, citing their constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination. Any statements that the guards give to the FBI could be used to bring criminal charges.

A second official, however, said that not all the guards have cited their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination — leaving open the possibility for future charges. The official declined to elaborate.

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