WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s decision on Tuesday to pardon four former Blackwater security guards – convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left more than a dozen Iraqi civilians dead – has unleashed a torrent of criticism and anger from lawmakers, former prosecutors and ex-military officials.
Some warned that Trump’s decision would carry severe consequences – jeopardizing the safety of American military personnel, inflaming U.S.-Iraqi tensions and tarnishing the U.S. justice system in the eyes of the world.
“Trump’s move is corrosive to the U.S. military,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who worked on Iraq policy in the George W. Bush administration.
“It’s one thing when justice is served under the law. It’s another when the president in effect blesses state-sanctioned murder,” said Rubin, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
Ronald Machen. the former U.S. attorney whose office oversaw the Blackwater prosecution, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s action.
“I was dismayed that all of that work to achieve justice was thrown away with the stroke of a pen,” said Machen. “The prosecution meant a lot to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. This was a massacre.”
The four Blackwater security guards – Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard – have consistently professed their innocence. And their defenders cheered Trump’s announcement on Tuesday.
“Paul Slough and his colleagues didn’t deserve to spend one minute in prison,” said Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for one of the four pardoned defendants. “I am overwhelmed with emotion at this fantastic news.”
But others expressed shock and dismay at the president’s move.
“I’ll never forget how upsetting it was – especially for those of us who served in Iraq – when news broke about this brazen act of hostility on innocent Iraqi civilians,” Olivia Troye, a former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, wrote on Twitter. (She left the Trump administration over the summer and has since become an outspoken critic of the president.)
Trump’s pardon of the Blackwater contractors “sends an awful message to the world about the U.S. & undermines our military,” wrote Troye, who also served at the Pentagon during the Bush administration.
Mark Hertling, a former U.S. Army commander, called the pardons “egregious and disgusting.” The 2007 shooting in Nisour Square was a craven “war crime,” he tweeted. “Shame on you Mr President.”
After years of investigation and legal wrangling, the four Blackwater security guards were convicted in the 2007 massacre, which left 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians dead and sparked an international furor over America’s use of private contractors in war zones.
At the time of the incident, all four men were military veterans working as private security guards for Blackwater, now known as Academi, when their convoy traveled to a crowded traffic circle in downtown Baghdad as part of an effort to evacuate a U.S. diplomat on Sept. 16, 2007. Their Raven 23 security team was under contract by the State Department.
Prosecutors said members of the Blackwater convoy launched an unprovoked attack using sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers in the square.
Defense attorneys said the men were returning fire after being ambushed by Iraqi insurgents. They said the shooting started only after a white Kia sedan lurched out of stopped traffic and approached their four armored vehicles. The men had received intelligence reports that a white Kia might be used as a car bomb. No evidence of a bomb was ever found.
Witnesses at the time described a horrifying scene as civilians tried to flee the square. Among those killed were Ali Kinani, a 9-year-old boy who was shot in the head, and Abraham Al Mafrage, a 70-year-old farmer, who was riding a public bus.
At the time of the four men’s initial guilty verdicts in 2014, prosecutors hailed the outcome as a sign that America was committed to the rule of law, even in wartime.
“There is no question the victims were innocent civilians,” said Paul Dickinson, a trial lawyer who represented several of the victims’ families in a civil lawsuit. He said the Blackwater employees blocked traffic in the square and began firing into the cars of innocent civilians.
“Blackwater paid these men – and Erik Prince made millions selling their services to the US government,” Dickinson wrote in a Twitter thread expressing outrage at Trump’s move.
Prince, the former head of Blackwater, is a Trump ally, and his sister is Betsy DeVos, the president’s education secretary.
In his statement on the pardons, Trump said his decision was “broadly supported by the public,” naming Pete Hegseth, a Fox & Friends co-host, and several Republican members of Congress, as among those urging clemency for the men.
“Mr. Slatten, Mr. Slough, Mr. Liberty, and Mr. Heard have a long history of service to the nation,” Trump said.
In an interview, Dickinson said the four men had a fair trial and were rightly convicted of murder and manslaughter. He said Trump’s decision will cause people around the world to question the fairness of the U.S. justice system.
“I can safely say, knowing my clients, that they would feel that they have been horribly let down by the U.S. government today,” he said.
He noted that the investigation and trial took immense time, effort and expense. Trump has “wiped it all away” even though he claims to be a law and order president, he said.
Rep. Seth Moulton, a former Marine who served four tours in Iraq, said the 2007 shooting “put a target on the back of every American on the ground at the time” and expressed fear that would happen all over again now with Trump’s pardon.
“It signals that the conventions that protect our service members and innocent civilians do not matter,” he wrote on Twitter.
Rubin echoed that concern, and he said Trump’s decision will further complicate America’s military presence in Iraq.
“Among the biggest challenges Iraq faces at present are militias acting outside the law,” he said. “When U.S. contractors do the same, U.S. credibility hemorrhages. It also plays into the hands of militias and terrorists who might falsely wrap themselves in the flag of nationalism when they seek to kill Americans to avenge Iraqi honor.”