Blackwater Worldwide guards involved in the deadly 2007 Baghdad shooting of Iraqi civilians could face mandatory 30-year prison sentences under an aggressive anti-drug law being considered as the Justice Department readies indictments, people close to the case said.
Blackwater Worldwide has a controversial counter-terrorism training facility in Otay Mesa.
Charges could be announced as early as Monday for the shooting, which left 17 civilians dead and strained U.S. relations with the fledgling Iraqi government. Prosecutors have been reviewing a draft indictment and considering manslaughter and assault charges for weeks. A team of prosecutors returned to the grand jury room Thursday and called no witnesses.
Though drugs were not involved in the Blackwater shooting, the Justice Department is pondering the use of a law, passed at the height of the nation's crack epidemic, to prosecute the guards. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 law calls for 30-year prison terms for using machine guns to commit violent crimes of any kind, whether drug-related or not.
The people who discussed the case did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose matters that are not yet public.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment on the report.
Blackwater, the largest security contractor in Iraq, was thrust into the national spotlight after the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting. Its guards, all decorated military veterans hired to protect U.S. diplomats overseas, were responding to a car bombing when a shooting erupted in a crowded intersection.
The guards carried government-issued machine guns and drove heavily armored trucks equipped with turret guns.
Blackwater insists its convoy was ambushed by insurgents. Witnesses said the guards were unprovoked. When the shooting subsided, Nisoor Square was littered with dead bodies and blown-out cars. Weeks later, amid a growing furor over the shooting, the Justice Department dispatched FBI agents to Iraq to investigate.
The company is not a target in the case and Blackwater has cooperated with investigators.
"The company has consistently said that we do not believe the individuals acted unlawfully," company spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said Thursday. "If it is determined that an individual acted improperly, Blackwater would support holding that person accountable."
Prosecutors questioned dozens of witnesses in the case, including the father of a young boy killed in the shooting. The investigation has focused on between three and six guards who could face charges.
The 30-year minimum sentence was passed as part of a broad law passed in the final days of the Reagan administration. It created the position of drug czar and boosted penalties for violence and drug crimes.
"Our ultimate destination: a drug-free America," President Reagan said in signing the law. "And now in the eleventh hour of this presidency, we give a new sword and shield to those whose daily business it is to eliminate from America's streets and towns the scourge of illicit drugs."
Regardless of the charges they bring, prosecutors will have a tough fight. The law is unclear on whether contractors can be charged in the U.S., or anywhere, for crimes committed overseas. An indictment would send the message that the Justice Department believes contractors do not operate with legal impunity in war zones.
To prosecute, authorities must argue that the guards can be charged under a law meant to cover soldiers and military contractors. Since Blackwater works for the State Department, not the military, it's unclear whether that law applies to its guards.
It would be the first such case of its kind. The Justice Department recently lost a similar case against former Marine Jose Luis Nazario Jr., who was charged in Riverside, Calif., with killing four unarmed Iraqi detainees.
Further complicating the case, the State Department promised several Blackwater guards limited immunity in exchange for their sworn statements shortly after the shooting. Prosecutors will need to show that they did not rely on those statements in building their case.