Why did it take the federal government so long to prosecute the Blackwater contractors who shot up a Baghdad square in 2007, killing and maiming scores of Iraqis? Because investigators were trying to wait out the Bush administration, which wanted to go easy on the killers, recently unearthed documents show.

Four contractors face sentencing today for turning crowded Nisour Square into a free-fire zone in September 2007. But yesterday, The New York Times published excerpts from investigators' internal emails showing how they were pressured from above to back off key charges—and almost lost the entire case as a result:

The F.B.I. had wanted to charge the American contractors with the type of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and weapons charges that could send them to prison for the rest of their lives for the shooting, which left more than a dozen Iraqis dead and many others wounded in September 2007.

But at the last minute, the Justice Department balked. In particular, senior officials were uncomfortable with bringing two machine-gun charges, each of which carried mandatory 30-year prison sentences.

"We are getting some serious resistance from our office to charging the defendants with mandatory minimum time," Kenneth Kohl, a federal prosecutor, told the lead F.B.I. agent on the case, John Patarini, as the Justice Department prepared to ask a grand jury to vote on an indictment in December 2008.

Mr. Patarini was incensed. "I would rather not present for a vote now and wait until the new administration takes office than to get an indictment that is an insult to the individual victims, the Iraqi people as a whole, and the American people who expect their Justice Department to act better than this," he replied.

The Times focuses on J. Patrick Rowan, a top prosecutor of national security cases in the Bush administration, as an official who expressed discomfort with the stiff charges. Rowan, now in the private sector, declined to discuss the case in detail with the paper. Patarini, however, told the paper he was troubled then and now by a pattern among political leaders in the Justice Department to go soft on Blackwater contractors, including refusals to charge the Nisour attackers with second-degree murder or to punish their coworkers for lying to investigators.

Patarini's frustration was shared by several other investigators, who preferred to wait until Bush left office rather than bring up the Blackwater guards on lesser charges, emails show:

"I think of Mohammad and his son every time they pull the rug a bit further out from under us," one agent, Thomas O'Connor, wrote. He was referring to an Iraqi man, Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani, whose 9-year-old son, Ali, was killed.

Andrew McCabe, an F.B.I. supervisor, took the grievances to his boss, John Perren, saying the Justice Department was "delaying and reducing" the indictment. "This is the latest in what has become a troubling habit by D.O.J.," he wrote...

"I would rather wait for a new administration than go forward without those charges," Carolyn Murphy, an F.B.I. agent, wrote.

And Michael Posillico, a State Department investigator assigned to the case, said, "It's hard for me to say we should wait for the Democrats, but this is one such time I have to."

By the time a new president had come in, however, the prosecution was mired in missed deadlines and defense motions that almost sunk the entire endeavor.

Beyond the death and mayhem caused that autumn day in Baghdad, Blackwater's Nisour Square incident became a rallying cry for opponents to U.S. presence in Iraq and was a public relations debacle from which the American-led coalition never fully recovered. The convicted security contractors face maximum sentences ranging from 47 years to life in prison.

[Photo credit: AP Images]

Contact the author at adam@gawker.com.
Public PGP key
PGP fingerprint: FD97 D50A DE57 3943 4534 1A49 FA8B 74B4 A7A0 07BE