Four of the pardons extended by President Trump a couple of days ago were more important than the others. The headlines went to George Papadopoulos and one other man who had been caught up in the quasi-legal coup attempt perpetrated on the nation using the pliable and not terribly cognizant Robert Mueller (read In Surprise Move, President Trump Pardons George Papadopoulos, Among Others). However, the real injustice involved four young veterans who had hired on with the private military contractor (PMC) Blackwater USA.
On September 16, 2007, Blackwater dispatched an armed convoy in response to a car bomb exploding near a meeting being held by US and Iraqi officials. The convoy had to traverse a highly trafficked area in Baghdad called Nisour Square.
What happened next is rather confused. Blackwater says they were warned that there was another car bomb, a “white Kia,” in the area. I think “white Kia” in Iraq is about as useful a designator as “green tree” is in the Appalachians. One such car approached the convoy, driving on the wrong side of the road, and refused to stop in response to Iraqi police orders.
The Blackwater men lit up the approaching car. They killed the occupants and one Iraqi policeman, whose actions led them to believe that he was aiding the car. At this time, according to a State Department report, they communicated to headquarters that they were under attack. A US Army reaction force was dispatched to rescue them.
When the smoke cleared, there were 17 dead Iraqis, 20 wounded Iraqis, and an international incident.
The employment of armed Blackwater personnel in a quasi-military role was, to say the least, controversial. This was also at the height of the left’s frenzied opposition to the Iraq War. Just a few months earlier, Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha had mused about a “slow bleed” strategy using the clout of a House majority to choke off financial support for the war. This, he reasoned, would drive up casualties and force President Bush to come to terms with the Democrats.
A joint investigation was conducted by the Iraqi government and the US Embassy, but the blood was in the water. The Iraqis blamed Blackwater. The Democrats hated Bush and hated Blackwater, and the House Oversight Committee led by Henry “Nostrildamus” Waxman produced a report labeling Blackwater employees and irresponsible and trigger-happy. The military hated Blackwater and began leaking stories about the Blackwater men firing without provocation and that there was no hostile fire directed at them.
On October 4, the FBI announced it was investigating. By October 13, the FBI announced that at least 14 of the dead Iraqis were killed without justification. The only justifiable killings they found were the three people in the white Kia that set off the firefight.
Interestingly, it took less than two weeks for the FBI to spool up for a complex investigation in a combat zone, conduct the investigation, and hold a press conference about their findings.
This is the December 8, 2008, where the Justice Department breaks a couple of ribs patting itself on the back over the super special job it did and announcing that five Blackwater men with manslaughter and “weapons violations.”
The five men were Nicholas A. Slatten, Paul A. Slough, Evan S. Liberty, Dustin L. Heard, and Donald W. Ball.
To say that the entire process was a dog’s breakfast of misconduct is an understatement. The main liaison the FBI used in its whirlwind two-week investigation was known to have connections with the insurgents. None of the bullets recovered at the scene (from one Iraqi survivor and Blackwater vehicles) came from any of the weapons used by the Blackwater men. As far as I can tell, there were no autopsies, or at least any autopsies conducted to US standards. So, while Slatten was convicted of shooting a specific Iraqi “between the eyes,” there seems to be zero forensic evidence that would substantiate that actually took place. The projectiles recovered from Blackwater trucks had to come from somewhere, and if they didn’t come from wild shooting by Blackwater, then where, if, as the government claimed that there was no hostile fire?
In 2009, a federal judge dismissed the charges against all five men because the charges were based on statements the men were compelled to give. Without those compelled statements, there could be no prosecution, and they seem to have provided the compelled statements to the Iraqi witnesses who testified before the grand jury.
In 2011, after Vice President Joe Biden promised the Iraqis that the US would appeal the dismissal, a federal appeals court panel held a very unusual closed-door session. When it ended, they had decided that the dismissal was in error, and they reinstated the charges.
In 2013, prosecutors dropped the case against Donald Ball because there was no admissible evidence against him.
In 2014, the four remaining men were convicted. Slatten was sentenced to life without parole and the others to thirty years. How did they get 30-years for manslaughter? They were convicted of using automatic weapons…in a war zone…issued to them by the US military…in the commission of that crime.
In 2017, an appeals court threw out Slatten’s conviction and ordered a retrial. A new sentencing hearing was held for the other three.
In 2018, Slatten was again convicted and sentenced to life. And a couple of days ago, President Trump pardoned all four.
What happened in Nisour Square was a tragedy all around. But it was not a crime. The Department of Justice reacted to domestic and international pressure to indict and try these men. It is difficult to read the sequence of events and not come to the conclusion that these men were tried and convicted because some factions of the US government were gutless in the face of criticism (that’s a shocker, right) and because some were simply hostile to the policy decision to use PMCs in Iraq and decided to crucify four young men just to win a policy battle.
President Trump made the right call here. Just like he did for Lieutenant Clint Lorance. Just like he did for Major Mathew Golsteyn. Just like he did for Chief Eddie Gallagher. And Joe Biden showed, yet again, that he is part of the problem and not part of the solution.