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 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.
The U.S. attorney for the eastern district of North Carolina, George Holding,
and a spokeswoman for Blackwater did not return calls seeking comment Friday.
Pentagon and State Department spokesmen declined to comment.
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.
The officials could not say whether the investigation would result in indictments,
how many Blackwater employees are involved or if the company itself, which has
won hundreds of millions of dollars in government security contracts since the
2003 invasion of Iraq, is under scrutiny.
In Saturday's editions, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that two
former Blackwater employees — Kenneth Wayne Cashwell of Virginia Beach,
Va., and William Ellsworth "Max" Grumiaux of Clemmons, N.C. —
are cooperating with federal investigators.
Cashwell and Grumiaux pleaded guilty in early 2007 to possession of stolen firearms
that had been shipped in interstate or foreign commerce, and aided and abetted
another in doing so, according to court papers viewed by The Associated Press.
In their plea agreements, which call for a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison
and a $250,000 fine, the men agreed to testify in any future proceedings.
Calls to defense attorneys were not immediately returned Friday evening, and
calls to the telephone listings for both men also were not returned.
The News & Observer, citing unidentified sources, reported that the probe
was looking at whether Blackwater had shipped unlicensed automatic weapons and
military goods to Iraq without a license.
The paper's report that the company itself was under investigation could not
be confirmed by the AP.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered a review of security
practices for U.S. diplomats in Iraq following a deadly incident involving Blackwater
USA guards protecting an embassy convoy.
Rice's announcement came as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad resumed limited diplomatic
convoys under the protection of Blackwater outside the heavily fortified Green
Zone after a suspension because of the weekend incident in that city.
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.
The North Carolina investigation was first brought to light by State Department
Inspector General Howard Krongard, who mentioned it, perhaps inadvertently,
this week while denying he had improperly blocked fraud and corruption probes
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Krongard was accused in a letter by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of
the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, of politically motivated
malfeasance, including refusing to cooperate with an investigation into alleged
weapons smuggling by a large, unidentified State Department contractor.
In response, Krongard said in a written statement that he "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."
His statement went further than Waxman's letter because it identified the state
in which the investigation was taking place. Blackwater is the biggest of the
State Department's three private security contractors.
The other two, Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, are based in Washington's northern
Virginias suburbs, outside the jurisdiction of the North Carolina's attorneys.