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FBI to lead Blackwater probe Print
October 4, 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI will take the lead in the U.S. government investigation into a deadly Sept. 16 shoot-out in Iraq involving private security contractors protecting an American diplomatic convoy, the State Department said Thursday.

FBI agents will take control of the probe from the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security as soon as a full team has been assembled in the Iraqi capital, said spokesman Sean McCormack.
RELATED: 'We acted appropriately,' says Blackwater founder

"They are going to take the lead with the arrival of the FBI team in Baghdad," he told reporters, adding that the move had been under consideration for some time. "It makes sense."

McCormack stressed that the step did not necessarily imply that the investigation would result in criminal charges being brought against the contractors, employees of Blackwater USA, who were involved in the incident that left 11 Iraqis dead.
 
The decision was announced as Congress, despite White House doubts, weighs amendments to an existing law that has protected Blackwater USA and other private security contractors in Iraq from criminal prosecution.

The House was expected to pass legislation on Thursday that would extend the criminal jurisdiction of U.S. courts to any federal contractor working alongside military operations.

Senate Democratic leaders planned to follow suit quickly and send the measure to President Bush.

The legislation by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., comes amid a string of allegations involving Blackwater employees hired by the State Department to protect diplomatic personnel in Iraq.

In one case, a drunk Blackwater employee left a Christmas Eve party in Baghdad and fatally shot the guard of one of Iraq's vice presidents. The contractor was fired, fined and returned home to the United States; no charges have been filed. More recently, Blackwater guards were involved in the Sept. 16 shootout.

It is unclear whether charges can be brought against any of the contractors. Federal officials cite murky laws governing the conduct of U.S. personnel abroad not hired directly by the military. The current law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, covers personnel supporting the mission of Defense Department operations overseas.

Because Blackwater's primary mission is to protect State Department officials, defense lawyers probably would argue that the current law does not apply.

At the same time, U.S. contractors are immune from prosecution by Iraqi courts.

White House officials say they support increasing accountability of contractors abroad but worry that the House bill is too vague and may go too far. The White House also cited concerns with stretching FBI resources by mandating that the agency conduct investigations overseas.

Also, officials said they feared the military could be overtaxed if required to support criminal investigations led by the Justice Department.
 
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