The Blackwater security company took its name from the water of the North Carolina swamp where the company is headquartered. After its involvement in a deadly shooting rampage in downtown Baghdad in 2007, the company changed its name to the innocuous Xe last year. It has also set up a proliferation of "affiliates" under various names. But Blackwater/Xe's swamp muck just keeps on bubbling.
The Justice Department's criminal fraud section has launched an investigation into whether Blackwater officials paid bribes to Iraqi officials, a possible violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, The New York Times reported Jan. 31.
The investigation was opened late last year, after the Times reported that top Blackwater executives had approved around $1 million in secret payments to Iraqi officials in an effort to "buy their support" for the firm to continue operating in Iraq after the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting spree in Baghdad's crowded Nisour Square.
The incident, which killed 17 Iraqis and left many others injured, created a furor in Iraq and drew worldwide condemnation. The Blackwater guards claimed they had acted in self-defense, but witnesses and victims say the guards, escorting a heavily armed convoy through Baghdad traffic, unleashed an indiscriminate, unprovoked attack. Victims said the guards had blocked traffic at the intersection and randomly opened fire at everything and everyone around them.
Blackwater also reportedly paid about $800,000 to families of victims in the incident. "It's unclear how much of those payments were settlements versus bribes," notes a report at MainJustice, a site that covers the Justice Department.
Blackwater's bribery efforts were apparently unsuccessful, as the firm was subsequently barred from Iraq.
On Friday, the Justice Department appealed a court decision that dismissed criminal charges against five former Blackwater guards for the 2007 Nisour Square shooting.
A U.S. district court judge in December threw out manslaughter charges against the guards over procedural issues. The dismissal sparked outrage in Iraq. Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki said his government would sue Blackwater on behalf of the victims. Last month, Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Iraq, said the U.S. government would appeal the dismissal.
At the time of the incident, Blackwater and all other U.S. personnel in Iraq were immune from Iraqi laws under a controversial order issued by U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer in 2004.
That immunity was lifted in the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement signed in December 2008, in the last days of the Bush administration.
It was not until then, more than a year after the shooting spree, that the U.S. Justice Department issued criminal charges against the guards. The 35-count Justice Department indictment issued Dec. 8, 2008, charged five Blackwater guards with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one weapons violation count.
If convicted, the men would face 10 years in prison for each manslaughter charge, plus additional time for the other charges.
Meanwhile, two former Blackwater security guards were arrested last month and charged with murder for their role in the deaths of two Afghan civilians in Kabul in May 2009. Actually they were working for a Blackwater/Xe "affiliate" by the name of Paravant.
After Blackwater gained notoriety over the 2007 Baghdad incident, the State Department said it would stop doing business with the company, but a Feb. 1 ABC News report says that "several other agencies, including the CIA and the Pentagon, continue to employ the controversial company, under a myriad of names, often via secret, classified contracts."
The ABC report says Blackwater/Xe is "operating subdivisions under a variety of altered handles intended to lower its public profile. In some instances the flagship company has tried to distance itself from these offshoots, insisting they are merely ‘affiliates.'
"Public records and a source familiar with their ownership suggest, however, that the companies are nothing more than new names on the same old Blackwater." A total of 20 different entities, with names like Paravant, XPG, Greystone, Raven, Constellation, US Training Center, GSD Manufacturing, and Presidential Airlines, all are owned by Blackwater founder Erik Prince and registered to the same address as Blackwater-Xe, the ABC report says.
Although Xe was barred from Iraq after the Nisour Square incident, the report says, "Xe and its rebranded affiliates still work in Afghanistan, and continue to provide security and training," often as subcontractors to big name firms like Raytheon.
Another Blackwater/Xe "affiliate," Select PTC, later renamed XPG, has been involved in clandestine operations in countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Philippines, according to the ABC report.
XPG currently has a Pentagon contract paying it $17,000 per day, or more than $6 million a year, to provide security services along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, says ABC.
Last month Xe submitted a bid for another contract, worth about $1 billion, for training and security in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has not yet made a decision on that contract.
ABC quotes Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, questioning why Blackwater under any name still gets government contracts.
"After everything that has gone wrong ... with Blackwater, I cannot understand why the U.S. government has anything to do with them," she said. "I have yet to hear a convincing reason for their continued work for the government."
Photo: A helicopter operated by Blackwater Worldwide (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:OH-6_Cayuse,_LZ_Washington.jpg)