WASHINGTON --Federal prosecutors are investigating whether employees of the private security firm Blackwater USA illegally smuggled into Iraq weapons that may have been sold on the black market and ended up in the hands of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, officials said Friday.The News-Observer story doesn't mention the PKK angle, but does have some more details about what's going on in this country:
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh, N.C., is handling the investigation with help from Pentagon and State Department auditors, who have concluded there is enough evidence to file charges, the officials told The Associated Press. Blackwater is based in Moyock, N.C.
A spokeswoman for Blackwater did not return calls seeking comment Friday. The U.S. attorney for the eastern district of North Carolina, George Holding, declined to comment, as did Pentagon and State Department spokesmen.
Officials with knowledge of the case said it is active, although at an early stage. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, which has heightened since 11 Iraqis were killed Sunday in a shooting involving Blackwater contractors protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Baghdad.
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In the United States, officials in Washington said the smuggling investigation grew from internal Pentagon and State Department inquiries into U.S. weapons that had gone missing in Iraq. It gained steam after Turkish authorities protested to the U.S. in July that they had seized American arms from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, rebels.
The Turks provided serial numbers of the weapons to U.S. investigators, said a Turkish official.
The Pentagon said in late July it was looking into the Turkish complaints and a U.S. official said FBI agents had traveled to Turkey in recent months to look into cases of missing U.S. weapons in Iraq.
Investigators are determining whether the alleged Blackwater weapons match those taken from the PKK.
It was not clear if Blackwater employees suspected of selling to the black market knew the weapons they allegedly sold to middlemen might wind up with the PKK. If they did, possible charges against them could be more serious than theft or illegal weapons sales, officials said.
The PKK, which is fighting for an independent Kurdistan, is banned in Turkey, which has a restive Kurdish population and is considered a "foreign terrorist organization" by the State Department. That designation bars U.S. citizens or those in U.S. jurisdictions from supporting the group in any way.
Blackwater declined a request for an interview Friday.Quite the impressive set of allegations bubbling up here - illegal arms in the USA, arms smuggling overseas, material support to terrorist organizations - and the State Department Inspector General impeding the investigation.
But this morning, Blackwater issued a statement about the weapons investigation. It reads: "Allegations that Blackwater was in any way associated or complicit in unlawful arms activities are baseless. The company has no knowledge of any employee improperly exporting weapons. When it was uncovered internally that two employees were stealing from the company, Blackwater immediately fired them and invited the ATF to conduct a thorough investigation. The employees, who were former marines and law enforcement, have been convicted and are currently negotiating sentencing in Raleigh with federal prosecutors."
"This issue is completely unrelated to Blackwater U.S. Government programs in Iraq."
The investigation into Blackwater's weapons is noteworthy because Congress and the Iraqi government have criticized the company and accused it of acting with impunity. One of its contractors, for example, shot and killed an Iraqi vice president's security guard on Christmas Eve in Baghdad. Blackwater sent the man back to the United States and fired him. He has not been charged in the U.S. or Iraq.
Two sources familiar with the investigation said that prosecutors are looking at whether Blackwater lacked permits for dozens of automatic weapons used at its training grounds in Moyock. The investigation is also looking into whether Blackwater was shipping weapons, night-vision scopes, armor, gun kits and other military goods to Iraq without the required permits.
U.S. law demands close attention to who ships weapons -- and to whom they are shipped. The weapons-smuggling investigation was mentioned in a letter sent Tuesday to State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard by Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who for years has been investigating wrongdoing by private contractors in Iraq.
Waxman charged that Krongard, the State Department's top watchdog, was impeding the investigation "into whether a large private security contractor working for the State Department was illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq."
When Krongard heard about the investigation, he sent an e-mail message ordering his investigative staff to stop work until the federal prosecutors in North Carolina could brief him. Krongard delayed the briefing for weeks, Waxman said.
Krongard did not assign an investigator to the case, but rather a member of his congressional and media staff, Waxman wrote.
Krongard disputed the charges in a statement.
"I made one of my best investigators available to help Assistant U.S. Attorneys in North Carolina in their investigation into alleged smuggling of weapons into Iraq by a contractor," he said. Blackwater is the only State Department security contractor based in North Carolina.
Of course, this is the Bush Administration, and one of its favorite outsourcing firms, we're talking about here. The Administration has developed well-deserved reputations for both generic incompetence and politically-motivated meddling in law-enforcement activities. Blackwater, meanwhile, is gathering a rep of its own for being trigger-happy and ignoring local laws; according to this Washington Post article, the "sovereign" Iraqi government can't actually kick them out, even though their people are accused of at least six other lethal incidents:
Iraq's probe into a deadly shooting by Blackwater USA in Baghdad last weekend has expanded to include allegations about the security firm's involvement in six other violent episodes this year that left at least 10 Iraqis dead.Like Inspector Renault in the movie Casablanca, I'm shocked. Shocked, I tell you.
The incidents include the killing of three guards at a state-run media complex and the shooting death of an Iraqi journalist outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
Iraqi officials say these violent encounters have made them increasingly frustrated with Blackwater's conduct in Iraq, but the government backed away Friday from its attempt to expel the company. Blackwater has said its guards acted appropriately in the weekend incident, but it did not respond to requests for comment Friday on the other episodes cited by Khalaf.
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Bassam Ridha, a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, conceded that the Iraqi government, at least for now, cannot follow through on a ban on Blackwater, even though the firm has been operating without a license for more than a year. "The reality of the matter is we can't do that," Ridha said.