It took far too long, but four former gunslingers with the Black water Worldwide security firm have at last been held accountable for the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad in September 2007. It was one of the darkest episodes of America’s long war.
The verdict on Wednesday brings a measure of justice for the innocent victims and their families and offers some assurance that private contractors will not be allowed to operate with impunity in war zones. What it does not do is solve the problem of an American government that is still too dependent on private firms to supplement its military forces during overseas conflicts and is still unable to manage them effectively.
The Federal District Court in Washington found one defendant, Nicholas Slatten, guilty of murder and three others — Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough — guilty of manslaughter and weapons charges. The men said they were ambushed by insurgents and that the civilian deaths were the unintended results of urban warfare. The jury concluded that the killings, which occurred when the contractors fired into the crowd using machine guns and grenade launchers, were criminal. One former Blackwater colleague told the court he saw “people completely unarmed, people doing nothing wrong, get shot.”
The killings inflamed tensions with Iraqis, who had good reason to doubt that anyone would be punished. The State Department, which used Blackwater to guard its diplomats, gave the contractors limited immunity at one point and there was evidence it gathered shell casings after the shooting to try to protect the firm, which has since been sold and renamed.
Seven months after the killings, the department even renewed the Blackwater contract. The case was bogged down in legal battles for years. A judge threw out the charges in 2009, but the case was reinstated on appeal.
The problem goes far beyond the four men who were convicted. Over more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the Balkans before that, contractors accounted for 50 percent or more of the American military force, according to a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service. Many played noncombat support roles (transportation, construction, intelligence-gathering), but thousands were used to protect convoys, diplomats and others. The security guards, in particular, operated with no real legal accountability and were often viewed as reckless.
As the Nisour Square incident and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison showed, contractors who feel they are outside of the law damage American credibility and strategic goals, cost billions of dollars in waste and fraud and create more anti-American insurgents.
Following the Blackwater debacle, there has been a sensible international response to the problem. More than 600 private security contractors have pledged to abide by a code of conduct that in theory should encourage more professional, ethical behavior.
In the meantime, the Pentagon and the State Department, under pressure from Congress, have improved their use and oversight of contractors but not nearly enough. The C.R.S. report said defense officials expect it will take at least until 2018 to put in place fully a better system of managing contractors on the battlefield. That date should certainly be moved up.
Although there had been talk of reducing reliance on private contractors, they seem likely to continue to play a central role in new American military missions. With the Blackwater verdict, the United States must fully commit itself to making sure that modern-day mercenaries are strictly managed and held accountable for their actions.