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Officials: Blackwater guards offered limited immunity

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  • NEW: Department wouldn't launch pointless probe, spokesman says
  • Investigators made offer to guards in incident, official says
  • Two senior State officials deny blanket immunity offered
  • Parliament weighs requiring foreign firms to obey Iraqi law
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From Terry Frieden
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- No blanket immunity deal was offered to Blackwater guards for their statements regarding a shootout in Iraq last month that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, two senior State Department officials told CNN Tuesday.

However, some kind of limited immunity was apparently offered by State Department investigators when they questioned the Blackwater personnel apparently involved in the shootings, the officials said.

CNN previously reported the guards were promised their statements would not be used against them in a criminal prosecution as long as the statements were true.

ABC News reported that it had obtained the text of the deal, which showed the guards were given "use immunity" in exchange for detailing what happened during the incident on September 16.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that while he could not talk about the specifics of the Blackwater case, the kind of immunity being reported in the media were limited protections.

"The Department of State cannot immunize an individual from federal criminal prosecution," he told reporters in the daily briefing, repeating the phrase several times.

He also said that those limited protections "would not preclude a successful criminal prosecution," and suggested that the State Department would not have asked the Justice Department and FBI to become involved "in a case that they could not potentially successfully prosecute."

One of the senior State Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to speak on the matter, said the department's Diplomatic Security branch does not have the right or ability to offer blanket immunity and did not do anything that would inhibit prosecutors if charges are to be pursued.

"We want to see anyone who violated laws or broke rules held accountable," the official said. "Nothing that was done prevents anyone from being prosecuted if they broke the law.

"It's a gross distortion of understanding of the situation to say that anyone at State attempted to shield any of these individuals," the official added.

One of the officials said the investigators were acting under authority of case law that allows government employees to make statements that will then not be used against them in criminal proceedings.

Monday, McCormack said whatever arrangements were made were not sanctioned by the senior management of the State Department.

Another spokesman said the working-level Diplomatic Security officials in Iraq followed orders and their actions would need to have been cleared by Washington.

The decision on whether to prosecute the guards involved in the shooting is in the hands of the Justice Department now because the FBI has taken over the investigation. Video Watch to see whether Blackwater is off the hook »

McCormack said he is not aware of any requirement that the State Department consult with the Justice Department before offering limited immunity to anyone.

Spokespeople for the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment, as did Blackwater.

Monday, the officials speaking on the matter said that even if some kind of limited immunity deal were made, it would not mean that charges would never be brought against those involved in the shooting.

North Carolina-based contractor Blackwater USA says its guards came under fire while protecting a State Department convoy and acted properly in self-defense, but Iraqi authorities have called the killings "premeditated murder."

The prospect of immunity had elicited angry reactions from Democrats.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, earlier on Tuesday accused the Bush "amnesty administration" of letting its allies, including security contractors in Iraq, shirk responsibility for their actions.

"In this administration, accountability goes by the boards," Leahy said. "That seems to be a central tenet in the Bush administration -- that no one from their team should be held accountable, if accountability can be avoided.

Meanwhile, Iraq's parliament is considering a draft bill that would require security companies operating in the country to obey Iraqi laws with no immunity, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Tuesday.

"All security companies operating in Iraq, those affiliated with them and non-Iraqi parties they have a contract with, are subject to Iraqi civil and penal laws," al-Dabbagh said. "There will be no immunity."

The draft bill would also subject security companies to Iraqi laws concerning visas, residency, taxes and customs, al-Dabbagh explained.

The law apparently would not be retroactive, but would address only violations that occur after its passage.

Until then, private contractors in Iraq apparently are still governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority's code for Iraq, set up in the early days of the U.S. occupation. The code stated that all non-Iraqi entities working in the country were subject to the jurisdiction of their sending countries and "immune from Iraqi legal process."


The U.S. House of Representatives approved a measure last month that would punish contractors working in a war zone if they committed an act that would be considered a crime under U.S. law.

The Senate is considering its own version of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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