WASHINGTON – Nearly a year and a half after a contractor for Blackwater USA shot an Iraqi guard for the Iraqi vice president in Baghdad's Green Zone, a Justice Department team traveled to Iraq this month to investigate the killing.
The team included two federal prosecutors and an FBI agent from Seattle, as well as a prosecutor from the DOJ's domestic security section in Washington, D.C. They were scheduled to leave Baghdad on Friday after spending a week in Iraq, said U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan in Seattle, where the now-former contractor, Andrew Moonen, lives.
The trip followed a lengthy analysis of whether federal prosecutors here have jurisdiction to bring charges if there is evidence of a crime, as well as months of logistical planning, and it represents a significant step in determining whether Moonen will be charged. Sullivan said he expects to make a decision by summer's end.
"I believe at this point we have jurisdiction, but if we charge this case, that will be one of the issues that has to be litigated," Sullivan said Thursday. "I have a preliminary report in the form of a voice mail that says everything went very well. I think they were able to interview most of the witnesses they needed to talk to, and that should put me in a position to make a knowledgeable decision."
The case, like the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater guards last September, highlights the murky issue of whether security contractors can be held liable for actions in the war zone. By U.S. order, the contractors are immune from Iraqi law, but the U.S. Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 provides that any member of the military, Department of Defense worker or contractor, or anyone "supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas" can be prosecuted in the U.S. for crimes committed abroad.
Blackwater has a State Department contract to provide security for diplomats; prosecutors could argue that that constitutes support of the Defense Department's mission.
Moonen's lawyer, Stewart Riley, declined to comment except to say that he was aware the Justice Department team was traveling to Iraq and that he hoped to meet with prosecutors soon. His client is not giving interviews, he said.
Moonen, 27, was wandering drunk around the Green Zone after a party on Christmas Eve 2006 when he encountered — and fatally shot — a 32-year-old guard to Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi, according to a congressional report on the case. He reported the shooting at a nearby post for another contractor, Triple Canopy, saying he had been in a gunfight with Iraqis.
Blackwater arranged to have the State Department fly him back to the United States, fired him and fined him, and paid the slain guard's family $15,000.
Iraqis were furious. They questioned how an American could kill someone in those circumstances and return to the U.S. a free man.
Two months later, Moonen got another job: in Kuwait, with Defense Department contractor Combat Support Associates. Because Blackwater and State Department officials had kept the shooting quiet, CSA said, it was unaware of Moonen's history when it hired him. He stopped working for CSA in August 2007.
Among the issues the DOJ team — Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mike Lang and Annette Hayes, FBI Special Agent Larry Carr and Ivana Nizich, a criminal prosecutor at department headquarters — could face is the integrity of evidence collected in the war zone, as well as documenting who has had possession of such evidence in the past 16 months.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney expressed frustration at how long the investigation has taken.
"I'm glad someone is finally trying to get to the bottom of things," she said. "It shouldn't have taken this long, but hopefully we'll soon see some closure."
Sullivan agreed that the potential murder case had taken longer than he would like, but said,
"That's what's necessary in this kind of a case" due to its legal, factual and logistical complexity.
Ron Slye, director of the international comparative law program at Seattle University Law School, called the progress in the investigation "interesting and significant."
"They obviously think there's a legal basis for bringing a charge, assuming he engaged in some criminal activity," Slye said. "It would be a very good thing internationally for the U.S. to be seen as vigorously enforcing these kinds of cases."
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company is cooperating with the investigation.
"If it is determined that he acted unlawfully, we would strongly support holding him accountable," she said.