October 31, 2007
The Growing Furor Over the Blackwater Immunity Grants
The grant of immunity by State Department investigators to the Blackwater guards involved in a firefight in Iraq on September 16 that killed a number of civilians is raising a furor on Capitol Hill about who authorized the immunity and whether it was cleared through the Department of Justice. ABC News reports (here) the language of the immunity grant to each guard who made a statement: "I understand this statement is being given in furtherance of an official administrative inquiry . . . I further understand that neither my statements nor any information or evidence gained by reason of my statements can be used against me in a criminal proceeding, except that if I knowingly and willfully provide false statements or information, I may be criminally prosecuted for that action under 18 United States Code, Section 1001." This appears to be the common "use/fruits" immunity (see earlier post here) given to a person to obtain testimony over an assertion of the Fifth Amendment privilege. Department of Justice approval is required before any authorized grant of immunity can be made, which appears to be missing here. That does not mean the immunity is invalid, however, and the guards are protected regardless of whether the legal requirements were followed.
Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator Joseph Biden and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Representative Henry Waxman sent letters to Secretary of State Rice asking for further information about the immunity grants. Senator Biden's letter (here) asks, "Press reports today indicate that DS agents offered grants of immunity to Blackwater employees after the September 16 shooting incident in Baghdad. Are these reports accurate? If so, who authorized these grants of immunity? Was there consultation with the Department of Justice prior to such grants of immunity?" Representative Waxman's letter (here) states, "This rash grant of immunity was an egregious misjudgment. It raises serious questions about who conferred the immunity, who approved it at the State Department, and what their motives were."
One justification offered for giving this type of immunity is that it does not preclude a subsequent criminal prosecution of the immunized witness, unlike "transactional immunity" that prohibits prosecution for any crime discussed by the witness. Of course, arguing that an even greater protection could have been given is a bit like claiming "I could have caused a lot more damage than I did to the investigation" -- small comfort at best. Nevertheless, government spokespersons have asserted that criminal prosecutions will still be pursued. For example, Dana Perino at the White House stated (here) that "Secretary Rice has made it very clear that she takes the situation very seriously. It is under review. She said that anyone who has engaged in criminal behavior will be prosecuted." A State Department spokesman took the same approach, stating (here) "[t]he kinds of, quote, 'immunity' that I've seen reported in the press would not preclude a successful criminal prosecution." Perhaps there was a Dr. Evil moment in putting quotation marks around "immunity" because the term is quite clear.
Can the government still pursue a criminal prosecution of any of the guards? Leaving aside thorny issues regarding jurisdiction, the grant of use/fruits immunity makes a subsequent criminal prosecution very difficult, at best. Under the Supreme Court's decision in Kastigar v. United States, 406 U.S. 441 (1972), the government has the "heavy burden" in any prosecution of an immunized witness of meeting "the affirmative duty to prove that the evidence it proposes to use is derived from a legitimate source wholly independent of the compelled testimony." (Italics added) Perhaps the most chilling term a prosecutor ever hears is "Kastigar hearing" because the proof requirements -- especially when immunity is granted early in an investigation -- are so onerous.
What is more striking about the immunity given to the Blackwater guards is the manner of granting the protection appears to violate two of the basic precepts in securing testimony in the face of a Fifth Amendment claim. First, it does not appear that the investigators had any idea what the guards would say, not even a proffer from them, so it was a blind grant of immunity. The common adage is that prosecutors should not buy a "pig in a poke" (see earlier post here on the meaning of that phrase), i.e. check the value of the goods before the transaction is completed. Indeed, it is not clear whether any of the guards ever asserted the Fifth Amendment, so it's possible the immunity grant was unnecessary for some. Second, even if you do have to buy a pig in a poke, you don't buy it from everyone. Immunity grants are usually given parsimoniously, and only to those on the lower level or on the outside ring of the investigation. A blanket grant of immunity to all participants likely means that no one can be prosecuted because separating out the information in a Kastigar hearing would be impossible -- remember Col. Oliver North. Handing out immunity like Halloween candy is not the way to pursue an investigation if a criminal prosecution is viewed as a possibility, although if the expectation was that no charges would be filed then this would be the best means to ensure that result. (ph)
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