Conflicts of interest are bad. Private conflicts of interest that damage the national interest are inexcusable. And the news that State Department investigators -- apparently acting without authority -- promised immunity from prosecution to Blackwater USA contractors being interviewed about their role in the killings of 17 Iraqi civilians is nothing short of scandalous.
The Blackwater case is rightly viewed in Iraq as a test of national sovereignty. Either Iraq is a sovereign state that has the right to see that murders committed on its territory are prosecuted -- no matter who the suspects work for -- or it is an occupied nation subject to "victor's justice."
Washington has promised Baghdad a full and fair investigation of the September shootings, followed by prosecution, if warranted, of the contractors who opened fire. The contractors must be presumed innocent unless proved otherwise. But the appearance of fairness and the objectivity of the U.S. investigation have been badly compromised by the rogue grant of immunity to potential suspects by an arm of the State Department, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. That bureau appears to have such a close relationship with the politically well-connected Blackwater firm that it should never have been allowed to conduct an investigation in the first place. Now FBI investigators, who were called in to take over from Diplomatic Security two weeks after the shootings, complain that promises of immunity offered to at least four Blackwater employees will make prosecutions more difficult.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, demanded Tuesday that State Department officials appear on Friday to answer questions about the immunity grants. Congress should also begin investigating growing evidence of an overly cozy relationship between the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Blackwater. It appears that the bureau hired the contractors, supervised their activities, allowed them to use deadly force, began to investigate the long-simmering allegations of excessive use of force only after the outcry over the September shootings, and then promised some contractors immunity without asking permission from the Justice Department. This behavior is more disturbing given reports that Blackwater has hired former State Department officials at high salaries, raising questions about whether the "revolving door" presented a conflict of interest for investigators. Certainly Blackwater seems to have unwarranted influence in Washington, as evidenced by the letter it procured from the State Department ordering it not to disclose information to Waxman's committee. Who's in charge here, the U.S. government or Blackwater?
The United States has held up its legal system as a model for the Iraqis to emulate. If the ill-conceived intertwining of public and private security functions in a war zone means that the U.S. cannot conduct a proper investigation or prosecution of contractors it licensed to kill, America's vaunted justice will ring shamefully hollow.