- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Blackwater Worldwide repaired and repainted its trucks immediately after a deadly September shooting in Baghdad, making it difficult to determine whether enemy gunfire provoked the attack, according to people familiar with the government’s investigation of the incident.

Damage to the vehicles in the convoy has been held up by Blackwater as proof that its security guards were defending themselves against an insurgent ambush when they fired into a busy intersection, leaving 17 Iraqi civilians dead.

U.S. military investigators initially found “no enemy activity involved” and the Iraqi government concluded the shootings were unprovoked.


The repairs essentially destroyed evidence that Justice Department investigators hoped to examine in a criminal case that has drawn worldwide attention. The Sept. 16 shooting strained U.S. relations with the Iraqi government, which wants Blackwater expelled from the country. It also has become a flash point in the debate over whether contractors are immune from legal consequences for their actions in a war zone.

The damage and subsequent repairs were described to the Associated Press by five persons familiar with the case who discussed it in separate interviews over the past month. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

The repair work creates a hurdle for prosecutors as they consider building a case against any of the 19 guards in the convoy on the day of the incident. It also makes it harder for Blackwater to corroborate its innocence as it faces a grand jury investigation and multiple lawsuits over the shooting.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said any repairs “would have been done at the government’s direction.” Blackwater’s contract with the State Department requires that the company maintain its vehicles and keep them on the road.

The State Department would not comment on whether it ordered the repairs to the vehicles involved in the shooting.

Blackwater’s chief executive, Erik Prince, has pointed to the damaged trucks to counter accusations that his contractors acted improperly.

In interviews this fall, he said three of Blackwater’s armored vehicles were struck by gunfire and that the radiator from one was “shot out and disabled” during the shooting in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. An early two-page State Department report supports Mr. Prince’s statements. The report noted the Blackwater command vehicle was “disabled during the attack” and had to be towed.

Mr. Prince has indicated he expects the FBI investigation to clear his company.

The evidence gaps will force investigators to rely more heavily on testimony and other statements from witnesses. But even those efforts have been hampered by a State Department deal that gave Blackwater guards limited immunity for their statements after the incident. As a result, the Justice Department cannot use those interviews in its criminal investigation.

North Carolina-based Blackwater is the largest private security company protecting U.S. officials in Iraq. It has been paid more than $1 billion from federal contracts since 2001. Despite criticism, Blackwater notes that no official under its protection has been killed or seriously injured.