In the aftermath of the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad by operatives working for Blackwater, top company officials including then-president Gary Jackson “authorized secret payments of about $1 million to Iraqi officials that were intended to silence their criticism and buy their support,” according to the New York Times. Seventeen Iraqis were killed and more than twenty others wounded in the shooting, prompting the Iraqi government to announce it would ban the company from Iraq with officials vowing to prosecute the shooters. Blackwater, however, remains in Iraq to this day.
According to the Times, “Four former Blackwater executives said in interviews that Gary Jackson, who was then the company president, had approved the bribes, and the money was sent from Amman, Jordan, where Blackwater maintains an operations hub, to a top manager in Iraq. The executives, though, said they did not know whether the cash was delivered to Iraqi officials or the identities of the potential recipients.” The Times notes that the bribes “would have been illegal”:
[A] federal grand jury in North Carolina, where Blackwater has its headquarters, has been conducting a lengthy investigation into the company. One of the former executives said that he has told federal prosecutors there about the plan to pay Iraqi officials to drop their inquiries into the Nisour Square incident. If Blackwater followed through, the company or its officials could face charges of obstruction of justice, and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans bribes to foreign officials.
Ten days after the Nisour shootings an FBI team arrived in Baghdad to begin a criminal investigation. If Blackwater officials bribed or attempted to bribe Iraqi officials that would have amounted to tampering with the investigation. Blackwater and its owner, Erik Prince, are also being sued by the Iraqi victims of that shooting in civil court in the United States. On Tuesday, a settlement in that case fell through and its future course remains unclear.
While the Times reports that it is unclear if the bribes were paid and, if so, to whom, this much is clear: Blackwater continued to operate in Iraq for a full two years after the Iraqis announced the company would be banned–a fact that has baffled and angered Iraqis. While the company eventually lost its large State Department security contract to a competitor in May 2009, Blackwater remains in Iraq on a $200 million aviation contract, which authorizes its men to be armed. That contract was recently extended by the Obama administration.
At present, Blackwater works in Afghanistan for the State Department, the CIA and the Defense Department. It continues to protect US officials there and guards visiting Congressional delegations. Rep. Jan Schakowsky told The Nation she was guarded by Blackwater on a recent trip to Afghanistan and that the company is involved with the security details of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke when they visit the country.
Not long after the Iraqi government announced in September 2007 that Blackwater would be banned, top Iraqi officials swiftly changed their tune about the company and began to publicly state that without Blackwater there would be a security crisis for US officials. After the incident, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quickly found himself under heavy US pressure to back off his initial demands of expulsion and prosecution. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately called the Iraqi prime minister to apologize, she made a point of emphasizing publicly that “we need protection for our diplomats.” A few days later, Tahseen Sheikhly, a representative of Maliki’s government, stated, “If we drive out this company immediately, there will be a security vacuum…That would cause a big imbalance in the security situation.” In a telling 180 degree turn, Maliki swiftly agreed to withhold judgment on Blackwater’s status, pending the conclusion of a “joint” US-Iraqi investigation. Ultimately five Blackwater operatives were indicted in a US court on federal manslaughter charges stemming from the Nisour Square shootings, while a sixth pled guilty.