Blackwater Case Raised Many New Legal Issues

RENEE MONTAGNE: And for more background on the Blackwater killings, we’re joined now by The New York Times‘ Matt Apuzzo, who’s covered this story for years. Good morning.

MATT APUZZO: Good to be here.

MONTAGNE: Take us back to that day. Blackwater and other American contractors as well were already known to be heavily armed forces – forces unto themselves.

APUZZO: Sure. In 2007, in Baghdad – was about as bad as it got during the war. This started with a car bombing in Baghdad. And Blackwater was there to guard American diplomats. And this convoy, Raven 23, this Blackwater convoy of armored trucks, left the green zone to go out and secure Nisour Square, the traffic circle, so another convoy could come back. And when they got there, they locked down the square, and shooting began almost immediately. Witnesses just described, you know, just a scene of absolute horror – people being shot in the back, people being pummeled with bullets in the street, people being shot with their hands up. It really was – it’s one of those signature low points in the Iraq war.

MONTAGNE: And Iraqis saw it as such. Its – generally speaking as an atrocity at the level of anything that had happened through the whole war.

APUZZO: Sure. Yesterday, testifying, as Carrie spoke of just a moment ago, the father of that little boy said Blackwater had power like Saddam Hussein – the power to kill anybody it wanted with no repercussions.

MONTAGNE: Now these four men, the accused or those who have been convicted, say they were provoked. Not necessarily everybody agreed with them. Other Blackwater contractors were on the scene and testified to a different story.

APUZZO: That’s right. All along, Blackwater maintained that they were ambushed in the square. But witness after witness testified that they never saw anybody shooting at the convoy, and that was a big deal for the judge yesterday. The judge said nobody, nobody saw incoming fire except for these men who were convicted. Witnesses said that this was an atrocity, that this was just a massacre. And though some witnesses conflicted with other witnesses – and piecing together an exact story of what happened from the trial testimony was difficult because there was conflicting eyewitness report, but, in the end, every Iraqi witness and most of the Blackwater witnesses agreed that nobody was firing on the convoy that day.

MONTAGNE: And it took some seven years to come to trial. Why so long?

APUZZO: Well, it was – this case was beset by many, many setbacks, most of which were of the government’s own making. Right off the bat, the State Department – its diplomatic security guys – cleaned up the scene, which made evidence recovery difficult. They gave limited immunity to some of the guards. Prosecutors made a series of mistakes. The case was dismissed at one point for prosecutorial misconduct. The case was resurrected on appeal. There was some very smart lawyering by the defense. And all through it, both the Bush administration, the Obama administration kept asking the Iraqis to be patient and let the American criminal justice system work, and that patience was tried over those seven years, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, we just have a few seconds, but how have the victims’ families been reacting?

APUZZO: Well, in court yesterday, I think they were very thankful to the Justice Department, and they were very appreciative of the long road that was taken. I think it remains to be seen how Iraqis in Iraq right now will take the news.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

APUZZO: Always great to be here.

MONTAGNE: That’s New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo.

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