Four former employees of Blackwater, the since-rebranded private security giant that won huge government contracts to protect Americans during the Iraq War, were sentenced to decades in prison on Monday for their participation in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad's Nisour Square.
Nicholas A. Slatten, who before jumping in the mercenary game was an Army sniper from Tennessee, got life for murder. He was the one who fired the initial, unprovoked shots that set off a bloodbath and caused some 14 civilian deaths in a crowded traffic circle.
"In criminal justice, there are moments where people get caught in a kind of proverbial vortex—a perfect storm," said Geoffrey S. Corn, a former Army officer, lawyer, and professor at the South Texas College of Law who specializes in international jurisdiction issues. "And these guys—whether good, bad, or indifferent—were deeply involved in the incident that became symbolic for the impunity of armed security contractors."
The slaughter was a massive public relations and foreign policy disaster for the Bush administration, one career prosecutors at the Justice Department were determined to correct. But as Matt Apuzzo reported for the New York Times, internal squabbling over just how hard to push for lengthy prison sentences—not to mention allegations of prosecutorial misconduct—nearly derailed the whole thing.
The 30-year sentences slapped on the other men, Paul A. Slough, Dustin L. Heard, and Evan S. Liberty, leaned on a Reagan-era law intended to discourage machine gun use in crack-plagued cities. The defense and some legal observers argued that was inappropriate for security types working in a Middle Eastern war zone, but Federal Judge Royce C. Lamberth apparently decided the crime was egregious enough to throw the book at them.
"These guys would be a lot better off in a military court, because first of all there wouldn't be any mandatory minimums," Corn, who supported the prosecution but had reservations about the massive sentences, told me.
Related: Watch "In Saddam's Shadow," a look at Baghdad ten years after the invasion.
Though the sentences officially close the book on one of the more egregious incidents of the Iraq War, it's ultimately a footnote to the larger tragedy of an invasion that became one of the greatest foreign policy errors in modern US history. The legal system took eight years to convict the men, during which time Iraq became engulfed by sectarianism, corruption, and the rise of the Islamic State. And the officials and corporate executives responsible for the chaos in the country got off scot-free.
All four men maintained their innocence to the end, and can be expected to appeal in the months and years ahead. The only thing we know for sure at this point is that the guys responsible for one of the Bush era's signature national security excesses are going to prison for a while.
"It's clear these fine young men just panicked," Judge Lamberth said. "But the overall wild thing that went on just cannot be condoned by this court."
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