It became common practice during the Iraq occupation for the US State Department to work with private security companies like Blackwater to help facilitate giving what amounted to hush money to the families of Iraqis shot dead by private security contractors. In fact, Blackwater’s owner, Erik Prince, discussed this practice when he testified in front of Congress in October 2007 and admitted to paying $20,000 to a Blackwater victim’s family and $5,000 to another.
“We don’t determine that value,” Prince told Congress when asked how his company decides how much an Iraqi life is worth. “That’s kind of an Iraqi-wide policy. We don’t make that one.”
Now, Blackwater (which recently renamed itself “Xe”) is attempting to use other means to silence its victims. On July 20, the company’s high-powered lawyers from Mayer Brown, which boasts that it represents eighty-nine of the Fortune 100 companies and thirty-five of the fifty largest US banks, filed a motion in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to impose a gag order on Iraqi civilians suing the company. The motion also seeks to silence the lawyers representing the families of Iraqis allegedly killed or injured by Blackwater in a series of violent incidents spanning several years. Four cases in the Washington, DC, area were recently consolidated before Judge T.S. Ellis III of the Eastern District of Virginia for pretrial motions. After preliminary issues are resolved, each case is slated to be tried individually.
The July 20 motion, filed on behalf of Blackwater by Peter H. White of Mayer Brown, requests that Judge Ellis issue “an Order restraining extrajudicial statements relating to these cases by the parties and their counsel to ensure that all parties receive a fair trial and a decision from an impartial jury.” The motion specifically seeks to prohibit statements to “the national and local news media.”
At the same time, according to a court filing, Blackwater is also asking Judge Ellis to seal evidence that Blackwater claims is confidential or could impact national security. The company argues that if its contracts with the State Department and its “Tactical Standard Operating Procedure” guide are publicly revealed, it “could give valuable information to those who wish to plan more effective attacks against diplomatic personnel stationed in Iraq.” Susan Burke, the lead attorney on the civil lawsuits against Blackwater, is not contesting Blackwater’s request to seal these specific documents–primarily because they will still remain evidence. But, it does mean that the public will not be able to view them. “Blackwater is basically trying to keep from public view all of the evidence that shows their criminality,” says Burke. “They are trying to ensure that we cannot apprise the public of the progress of the lawsuit.”
Blackwater’s gag-order motion focuses at length on Burke. It cites her labeling of Erik Prince as “a modern-day merchant of death” whose “repeated illegal conduct…must be stopped” and then lists statements by Burke and other lawyers that Blackwater says “are merely the latest in a long line of inflammatory public utterances”:
• The death of plaintiff Sa’adoon was “part of a pattern of illegal Xe-Blackwater shootings around the globe known to company management,” and part of a “culture of lawlessness and unaccountability” fostered by the company.