Former CIA Agent: “What the Agency Was Doing With Blackwater Scares the Hell Out of Me”

The Westfall Act was passed in 1988 as an amendment to the Federal Torts Claim Act “to protect federal employees from personal liability for common law torts committed within the scope of their employment, while providing persons injured by the common law torts of federal employees with an appropriate remedy against the United States.” After Westfall, the government assumed legal responsibility for suits filed against federal employees and made the sole remedy for victims suits against the government.

Blackwater has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to intervene in the case and to assume liability for the allegations against Blackwater. If that were to happen, legal experts say, the case would be dead in the water. “It’s clear that if they win this motion and the government is substituted, since the wrongs occurred in a foreign country, the government is absolutely immune and the case will be dismissed,” says Alan Morrison, a former federal prosecutor who is now the associate dean for public interest at George Washington Law School. “This is an effort [by Blackwater and Prince] to absolve themselves…of any liability for the alleged wrongs to the plaintiffs.” He adds: “A gigantic, for-profit corporation is seeking to use this statute, designed to protect government employees, to shield themselves from any responsibility for the deaths and injuries” of Iraqis.

“When Blackwater chooses to interpose itself in the middle and to make profit off these individual employees in the relationship with the government, the notion that Blackwater itself, a corporation, could be an employee is unusual to say the least,” says Morrison. “Why would Congress want to, in effect, transfer liability from a large, well-heeled corporation like Blackwater to the United States taxpayers for this kind of conduct? What they’d be saying [if Blackwater’s interpretation of the Westfall Act is accepted] is they would have wanted to assume liability for that which they didn’t have any liability in the first place.”

The Justice Department has not yet issued a position in this case. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can provide in regard to your inquiry at this time,” an official wrote in an e-mail. Earlier, in response to questions from The Nation, a Justice Department spokesperson sent a memo filed by the department earlier this year in a similar case against Blackwater in federal court in Florida, in which the department had rejected the company’s attempt to make the government responsible. “Defendants’ request for Westfall Act certification should be denied because only natural persons can be considered ’employee[s] of the government,'” Assistant Attorney General Tony West wrote on June 8 in a thirty-five-page filing opposing Blackwater’s motion.

Several legal experts interviewed by The Nation said they could not foresee the Justice Department intervening on Blackwater’s behalf. But the Westfall Act has been used by attorneys general in both the Bush and Obama administrations to attempt to absolve senior Bush officials of liability for their alleged role in crimes and to make the government liable. On June 26 Holder’s office intervened in a lawsuit filed by CCR against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and twenty-three other military and medical officials “for their role in the illegal detention, torture, inhumane conditions and ultimate deaths” of two Guantánamo prisoners.

Citing the Westfall Act, Tony West wrote that “the type of activities alleged against the individual defendants were ‘foreseeable’ and were ‘a direct outgrowth’ of their responsibility to detain and gather intelligence from suspected enemy combatants.” In defending the government’s position, West cited case law stating that “genocide, torture, forced relocation, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by individual defendants employed by Department of Defense and State Department were within scope of employment” and similar cases justifying CIA torture as part of official duty.

“It is essentially saying torture is all in a day’s work when it comes to holding people in military detention,” says Shane Kadidal, who heads the Guantánamo project at CCR. In that case, the issue was not whether Rumsfeld and the others were “employees” but whether they were doing official business. Blackwater’s argument is a tougher sell, says Morrison. “Does it hold water?” he asks. “It holds Blackwater.”

Meanwhile, in another development, Prince’s lawyers have responded to explosive allegations made against Prince by two former employees. In sworn affidavits submitted by lawyers representing the Iraqis suing Blackwater, the two alleged that Prince may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. One of the former employees alleges that Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.” They also charge that Prince was profiting from illegal weapons smuggling. In a motion filed August 10, Prince’s lawyers asked Judge Ellis to strike from the record the sworn statements of the two former employees, saying that “the conclusory allegations they contain are inadmissible on multiple grounds, including lack of foundation, hearsay, irrelevance, and unfair prejudice.” They charge that the lawyers suing Blackwater are attempting to “use this litigation as a ‘megaphone’ to increase their ability to influence the public’s perceptions regarding the use of contractors in military battlefield situations, the Iraq War, and most particularly about Erik Prince and the other defendants. Unsubstantiated statements made in filings in this Court become ‘newsworthy’ simply because they appear in those filings.” The lawyers characterize the allegations as “scandalous, baseless, inadmissible, and highly prejudicial.” Interestingly, nowhere do Prince’s lawyers say flatly that the allegations are untrue.

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