Headlines too hot for the bureaucrats? That's what the federal government's indictment of five decorated military veterans looks like. The vets were guarding a US diplomat on contract for Blackwater last year when they got into a firefight at Nisoor Square in Baghdad.
Seventeen Iraqi civilians died, and it has not been established who killed them. Blackwater provided evidence that its armored vehicles had been hit by gunfire; one was disabled from hostile shots during the September 16, 2007 incident.
The Iraqi Ministry of Interior publicly accused the Blackwater men of murder, even though it presented no evidence. Most reporting and commentary is based on the ministry's unsubstantiated allegations.
The military veterans can't speak for themselves, so their defense lawyers are fighting back on their behalf.
"The indictment is an effort by bureaucrats in Washington to second-guess split-second decisions made by honorable men during a firefight in the most dangerous neighborhood in the world," says Tom Connolly, who represents Nick Slatten, a former sergeant in the Army's 82nd Airborne who served two combat tours in Iraq prior to working for Blackwater to protect US diplomats.
"Once the jury understands the events of Sept. 16, they are not going to do what the Department of Justice is doing - which is second-guessing honorable men in a firefight," Connolly adds in a Washington Post report. "Even if they have jurisdiction, we will prevail when we meet them on the facts."
The US Attorney's office and the Justice Department won't comment. A year ago, a former US Attorney said the government would have to "shoehorn the facts" in order to make a case against the men.
A lawyer for Dustin Heard, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq prior to joining Blackwater, says the men committed no crime but "were defending themselves and their comrades who were . . . receiving fire from Iraqis they believed to be enemy insurgents."
The US is prosecuting the veterans as individuals. Blackwater is not a defendant in the case, but has been standing by its men. (In cases of clear wrongdoing Blackwater has not hesitated to hand over its personnel to federal authorities and to assist prosecutors.)