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Murky Legal Issues Cloud Blackwater Case

Somewhere in western Washington state is a former Blackwater contractor who might, under normal circumstances, be on trial in Baghdad.

He was wandering drunk around the Green Zone after a party last Christmas Eve when he encountered - and fatally shot - a 32-year-old guard to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, according to a congressional report released this week.

Blackwater immediately arranged to have the U.S. State Department fly the 26-year-old contractor back to the United States, fired him and fined him, and paid the slain guard's family $15,000.

But federal officials say he is not in custody. They barely acknowledge his existence, let alone release his name or discuss the status of the investigation.

The shadowy case highlights the murky legal issues surrounding the controversial security firm's Iraq-based employees, who may be exempt from both U.S. and Iraqi law.

Since founding Blackwater USA a decade ago, Erik Prince, 38, has gone to great lengths to avoid attention, trying to prevent photographers from taking his picture and demanding that his contractors never speak with reporters.

The veil of secrecy was lifted Tuesday as the former Navy Seal was called to Congress to defend his security company against allegations it covered up the killings of Iraqi civilians.

Pentagon officials say the 10,000 private security contractors working for the United States in Iraq are so indispensable that as long as they were getting the job done, no one questioned their tactics, even though senior military officers personally witnessed them overreact, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.

"I can certainly say I've seen them do some tactics that I thought were over the top," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson.

At Blackwater, contractors earn about $90,000 for six months' work, significantly more than they earned as U.S. soldiers.

"What normally would be a major option would be to have [the former contractor] prosecuted in Iraq," said Ron Slye, director of the international comparative law program at Seattle University Law School. "The problem is of course, under Iraqi law as put into place by the U.S., there's no jurisdiction over these people."

Amid an outcry from Iraqis who questioned how an American could kill someone in those circumstances and return to the U.S. a free man, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would investigate.

The case has been turned over to the U.S. attorney's office for western Washington state, where the man lives, Bush administration officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation.

Mark Bartlett, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, said Tuesday he had no comment, joining a long list of federal officials here who would not confirm or deny anything about the former contractor's case. Robbie Burroughs, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said she could say only that the man is not in custody.

Prince was questioned Tuesday on Capitol Hill by lawmakers looking into the role his company's personnel played in a Sept. 16 shootout that left 11 Iraqis dead and the slaying of the Iraqi vice president's guard.

The State Department has asked the FBI investigate the Sept. 16 shootings. Eight FBI agents, all trained in evidence response, departed Tuesday for Iraq and hope to wrap up their on-site investigation within days.

On Sept. 16, a bullet, apparently fired by a Blackwater guard, killed an Iraqi man who had been driving in Baghdad's Nisour Square. The car continued to roll toward a Blackwater convoy, which responded with an intense barrage of gunfire in several directions, striking Iraqis who were desperately trying to flee, according to The New York Times.

As the gunfire continued, at least one of the Blackwater guards screamed, "No! No! No!" and gesturing to his colleagues to stop shooting, according to an Iraqi lawyer who was stuck in traffic and was shot in the back as he tried to flee. The account of the struggle among the Blackwater guards corroborates preliminary findings of the American investigation, reported the Times.

When testifying before Congress, Prince made one point over and over again, that not a single U.S. Official under the protection of Blackwater has been killed or seriously injured, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid.

"It's been 10 months and the Justice Department has not done anything to him," lawmaker Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York democrat, said in questioning Prince about the Christmas Eve shooting. "If you work for Blackwater, you get packed up and you leave within two days and you face a $1,000 fine."

Federal prosecutors and legal experts interviewed by The Associated Press noted the incredible complexity in trying to determine who has jurisdiction over crimes committed by U.S. citizens in Iraq, let alone the logistical difficulties of actually building a case, accumulating evidence and deposing witnesses.

If prosecutors were to take the former Blackwater contractor's case to a grand jury, it would likely be under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which provides that any member of the military, Department of Defense worker or contractor, or anyone "supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas" can be prosecuted in the U.S. for crimes committed abroad.

However, that poses a hurdle: Blackwater was hired to provide security to the State Department in the Green Zone; prosecutors would have to show that the arrangement supported the Defense Department's mission in Iraq.

Another option would be to take the case to a military court. The U.S. Code of Military Justice was amended in 2006 to address crimes committed by those serving with the armed forces in the field, said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

The Supreme Court has held that civilians cannot be tried in military court - most famously in the 1950s, in the cases of women accused of killing their enlisted husbands.

Slye said one other avenue exists, however unlikely it may be: trying the former Blackwater employee under the 1996 War Crimes Act, which covers any U.S. national who commits a war crime. To do so, prosecutors would first have to prove that the war in Iraq is an armed conflict under the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration has been hostile to the notion that the conventions apply in Iraq and the war on terror.

The company first drew public attention in 2004, after four Blackwater contractors were killed while escorting a convoy through the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Photographs of the men's mutilated bodies hanging from a bridge remain an indelible image of the war. The killings set the stage for a bloody and largely unsuccessful attack on the city by U.S. Marines.

Prince started Blackwater with a few commando buddies from the Navy, using millions of dollars he inherited from his family's auto-parts fortune. For its headquarters, he chose a tiny community called Moyock, on a remote, empty stretch of North Carolina swampland.

A year after leaving the Navy in 1996, he founded Blackwater primarily as a training center for law enforcement, and colleagues speak privately about his well-intentioned eagerness to improve the nation's security.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Blackwater expanded to become the largest of the State Department's three private security contractors. Since 2001, it has earned more than $1 billion in federal contracts.

When the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigated the 2004 Fallujah incident earlier this year, Prince sent Blackwater's attorney to represent his company. A few months later, he grew visibly uncomfortable on stage as photographers snapped his photo at a technology conference in suburban Raleigh. Conference officials later asked the photographers not to publish the photos.

When in public, Prince often uses his hand to shield his face from cameras. Former and current colleagues demur when asked about him, not willing to betray Prince's loyalty or annoy the secretive leader of the nation's best-known private security company.

"He's trying to run a business and run it professionally under strenuous conditions," said Scott Traudt, operations manager for Cohort International, a Lebanon, New Hampshire-based competitor. "Realistically, there's ongoing projects by (terrorist groups) to collect data on private contractors.

"I appreciate and understand his efforts to protect his family. The guy needs his privacy."

Prince's family has long-standing ties to the Republican Party in Michigan, where his sister, Betsy DeVos, once served as chair of the state Republican Party, and her husband, Dick DeVos, unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2006.

Prince, who currently lives outside Washington, himself has given more than $200,000 to Republican causes since 1998.

On Tuesday, Prince sat alone at a long witness table before the House committee, at times turning to consult with an attorney seated behind him during nearly four hours of testimony.

"We strive to perfection," Prince said, noting that 30 contractors have died working for Blackwater. "We drive to the highest standards. But the ... bad guys just have to get lucky once."

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