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Why four Blackwater contractors were just now convicted of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007

Witnesses look into a car after Blackwater agents killed 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2007.
Witnesses look into a car after Blackwater agents killed 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2007.
Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty

On October 22, a jury convicted four former employees of the private security firm Blackwater for the deaths of 17 people in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad. The massacre marked a low point for American contractors in Iraq and raised important questions about how much the government was really in control of Blackwater and other security contractors — questions that have only grown more urgent as more details have come out about how those firms operated.

But why did it take over seven years to convict the Blackwater employees? Part of the answer is that the federal government got in its own way — the State Department tried to protect Blackwater in the days after the massacre, which ended up making it much harder for the Justice Department to prosecute it in federal court.

Here's what happened, from the Nisour Square shooting to the federal convictions.

What was Blackwater doing in Iraq?

By 2007, there were 100,000 private security contractors in Iraq. 1,000 of them were Blackwater guards on a $1 billion contract to protect US diplomats.

In August 2007, State Department investigators traveled to Iraq to review Blackwater's contract. They uncovered substantial evidence of misconduct, but Blackwater turned on them, with Blackwater's project manager in the country all but threatening to kill one of the investigators. An embassy staffer kicked the investigators out of the country so Blackwater didn't get even angrier.

What happened in Nisour Square on September 16, 2007?

A convoy of four Blackwater trucks was on its way to the site of an earlier car bomb explosion, which had happened during the visit of a US official. The convoy traveled through the affluent Baghdad neighborhood of Nisour Square. At an intersection, Blackwater guards fanned out and tried to stop traffic to allow the trucks to pass.

One car did not slow as it approached the convoy, despite repeated signals to do so. A Blackwater guard, later identified as sniper Nicholas Slatten, fired at the car — eyewitness reports indicated that guards also launched a grenade at the car. It burst into flame.

Blackwater maintained that its contractors were ambushed at the intersection by Iraqi insurgents dressed as civilians and Iraqi officers, and that they returned fire.

But several other eyewitness accounts, from both Iraqi bystanders and other Blackwater employees, said otherwise. According to those eyewitnesses, guards began to "fire recklessly on innocent people" who were attempting to flee the square — and who did not return fire. According to one account, one Blackwater guard continued to shoot after his colleagues told him to stop; he did not stop shooting until another guard drew a gun on him.

Initial reports said that at least 11 Iraqis were killed in the massacre. A later investigation by the Iraqi government brought that number up to 17 deaths and an additional 20 injuries.

What did the State Department do?

Blackwater guards protecting diplomat

Blackwater guards protecting the US Ambassador to Iraq in 2006. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty)

The State Department's initial instinct was to find out what happened — and to protect Blackwater. A later Congressional investigation found that when Blackwater employees engaged in misconduct, the State Department tended to urge Blackwater to pay off the victims, rather than holding the firm accountable.

According to some reports, the State Department helped Blackwater clean up evidence of the Nisour Square massacre by collecting shell casings from the intersection. In the few days after the massacre, the State Department collected testimony from the Blackwater guards involved to find out what happened. It told the guards they had "limited-use immunity" — which meant they wouldn't be prosecuted for anything they told the State Department in that interview.

The problem was that the State Department didn't have that authority. Only a prosecutor can grant immunity — and no one at the Justice Department, which would be prosecuting the case, knew anything about the State Department's offer. But the fact that the first interviews given by the Nisour Square shooters were given with the promise of immunity from prosecution ended up being a big problem for the rest of the case.

How did the federal government investigate the massacre?

The US military conducted an initial investigation, interviewing eyewitnesses and reviewing video footage. The military's report, which was completed within a month of the Nisour Square incident, concluded that Blackwater was to blame for the massacre.A senior official involved in the investigation told the Washington Post, "It was obviously excessive. It was obviously wrong."

Meanwhile, the FBI was tasked with investigating the Nisour Square incident on behalf of the State Department. The FBI arrived in Iraq and started interviewing Blackwater employees. (This investigation is covered in Jeremy Scahill's book Blackwater.) The employees said they couldn't tell the FBI anything, because they'd already been granted immunity by the State Department — something the State Department didn't have the authority to do.

In October, the Associated Pressconfirmed that the State Department had tried to give limited immunity to the guards before interviewing them. The Justice Department's prosecutors had seen the testimony that the State Department had gathered — so they had to be taken off the case, and replaced with a new set of prosecutors.

Blackwater also claimed that its account could be proven by looking at damage done to a couple of Blackwater vehicles. The FBI tracked the vehicles down, only to find that Blackwater had already repaired and repainted them, destroying the evidence it claimed was important. The State Department had done nothing to intervene and preserve the evidence.

However, the FBI was still able to go through with the investigation. Its final report didn't come out until April 2010. But as early as November 2007, FBI officials were telling the press that their report indicated Blackwater was to blame. The final report found that 14 of the 17 deaths were unjustified.

Nisour square civilian injured

A victim of the Nisour Square massacre holds up a picture when testifying to federal investigators. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty)

How were the guards responsible prosecuted?

The Iraqi Ministry of the Interior actually attempted to prosecute the Blackwater guards responsible for the massacre in Iraq. This turned out to be impossible, since the agreement under which American military and contractors were serving in Iraq at the time explicitly said that the Iraqi government didn't have jurisdiction over them.

The US federal government, meanwhile, is allowed to prosecute defense contractors for crimes committed abroad. But since the Blackwater employees in question were under contract by the State Department, rather than the Department of Defense, it wasn't clear that they were included in that law. The Department of Justice decided to go ahead and try.

In December 2008, the federal government filed manslaughter charges in US District Court against five Blackwater employees for their actions at Nisour Square: Slatten, Donald Ball, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, and Paul Slough.

A sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, agreed to take a plea bargain — he pled guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a shorter sentence and agreed to testify against his former colleagues. The others pled not guilty.

However, in December 2009 — before the case went to trial — the district court judge, Ricardo Urbina, abruptly dismissed all charges against the five defendants. Judge Urbina felt the federal government had built its case against the guards on the testimony they gave the State Department in the days after the shooting — testimony that was given because of the State Department's promise of immunity. That testimony couldn't be introduced in court because it violated their Fifth Amendment rights. Judge Urbina claimed that the government's case rested so heavily on the tainted testimony that it would be impossible to separate valid evidence from invalid evidence, so the only answer would be to dismiss the case.

But in 2011, the Court of Appeals ruled that Judge Urbina was wrong to throw out the charges completely, and accused him of an "erroneous" reading of the law. Theyordered Urbina to go through the prosecutors' submissions and sort out the permissible evidence from the invalid evidence. This set up the government to be able to recharge the guards.

Blackwater Paul Slough

Former Blackwater guard Paul Slough surrenders to authorities in 2008. (Scott Winston/Deseret Morning News/Getty)

So how did this most recent trial happen?

In October 2013, after a grand jury hearing, a new set of charges were brought against Slatten, Heard, Liberty, and Slough. (Charges against Ball were dropped.)

The last three were all charged with manslaughter and with "using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime." However, the federal government had missed the statute of limitations for filing a new manslaughter charge against Slatten — they had missed the legal deadline to file charges on an old crime. So Slatten was charged with murder, which doesn't have a deadline, while the others were merely charged with manslaughter.

How did the trial go?

The trial started in June 2014. Because there was no ballistic evidence in the trial, it focused on the testimony of eyewitnesses.

Prosecutors called over 60 witnesses, dozens of whom had been flown in from Iraq to testify. Many of the witnesses at trial were injured in the attack; one man lifted up his shirt to show his scars to the jury. Other witnesses were inside the Blackwater convoy and testified that the guards weren't provoked. However, the witness' stories often contradicted each other — forcing prosecutors to emphasize some parts of their testimony to the jury, and urge them to ignore other parts.

The defense only called a few witnesses, none of whom saw what happened at the scene (but who heard gunfire or saw radio logs). But defense lawyers claimed that between both sides' witnesses, several testified that the Iraqis shot first.

The jury deliberated for 28 days. It finally concluded its deliberation on October 22nd, and announced its verdict. Slatten was convicted of murder. The other three were convicted of manslaughter and of using a machine gun in a violent crime.

What happens to the guards now?

A sentencing date hasn't been set yet. Slatten could face life in prison on the murder conviction. Heard, Liberty and Slough are nearly certain to serve 30 years in prison apiece; machine-gun convictions carry a 30-year mandatory minimum prison term, which is longer than what they'd be getting for manslaughter anyway.

Lawyers for the guards are expected to appeal the convictions. For one thing, they believe that the jury ignored the distinction between defense contractors and State Department contractors — and since the law's still unclear on this point, they think it's going to take a higher court ruling to settle the question.

What happened to Blackwater itself?

Blackwater helicopter

A Blackwater helicopter in Iraq. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty)

It actually took much more time for the guards who shot in the Nisour Square massacre to be convicted than it did for Blackwater itself to fall from grace. The massacre cemented the Iraqi government's resistance to defense contractors, and as of the beginning of 2009, a new Status of Forces Agreement said that military contractors can in fact be prosecuted in Iraq. Iraq also refused to renew Blackwater's license to operate in the country. (In 2012, Blackwater settled a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the families of six of the victims at Nisour Square, for an unspecified amount.)

The company began to lose contracts from the government and has changed its name twice since 2007 in attempts to rebrand. However, its subsidiaries, as Foreign Policy reported this summer, are still doing big business with the federal government — especially with the State Department. As Foreign Policy wrote:

With fewer contracts coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, consolidation across the security business means that the State Department -- which remains heavily dependent on private-sector guards for its embassies and consulates -- has a smaller and smaller number of companies from which to choose. That, in turn, means big profits for the remaining heavyweights, including those that own what had once been Blackwater.