THE EVIDENT overreliance on private companies by the US military for security, intelligence, and logistical support is one of the dark legacies of the Iraq war — and has raised important questions about the accountability of contractors hired to help US forces in combat zones. That concern was thrown into stark relief on Sept. 16, 2007, when employees of the private security firm Blackwater murdered 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 18. But the sentencing on Monday of four former Blackwater guards convicted of the killings sent a clear message — that America doesn’t protect war criminals, even when the criminals in question are Americans.
That day, a convoy of Blackwater guards armed with assault rifles and explosive weapons opened fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, a busy thoroughfare in the heart of Baghdad. The killings represented one of the low points of the Iraq war, and, along with the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the killing of civilians by United States Marines in the town of Haditha, severely strained relations with Iraq. The Nisour Square massacre was especially troubling to Iraqis because it seemed to prove one of their worst suspicions — that Blackwater could operate in their country with total impunity and disregard for the law.
The Iraqi government was skeptical when Washington decided to try the Blackwater guards in America. The lengthy investigation and trial process, which became bogged down in internal Justice Department politics, didn’t do much to instill confidence in the system. But the conviction of the four guards — Paul Slough, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, and Nicholas Slatten — last October, and the sentences handed down this week, sent a strong message that the Iraqis could trust the American justice system. Slatten, a former army sniper who fired the first shot, was sentenced to life in prison. The other three were sentenced to 30 years in jail.
The case raises important legal questions, such as whether contractors hired by the government can be tried under US criminal law while serving overseas. (The four men were acting as security guards for the State Department at the time of the shooting.) Their convictions will probably be appealed for that reason. But the sentences should signal to both the US military and the private companies it hires that those serving the United States must hold themselves to a high standard — and that regardless of where they are, they are not above the law.