Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a new group of critics: former officials at Blackwater, the military contracting firm that was sold and renamed after its connection to the killings of more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in 2007.
That’s because in the ten years since those deaths in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, the Justice Department has taken an aggressive and sometimes unorthodox approach to prosecuting four former Blackwater contractors for those killings. And that aggressive stance is continuing under Sessions.
The founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is set testify before the House intelligence committee on Nov. 30 as part of its Russia probe. And that gives the dispute an additional dimension. Two key players in the unfolding Trump-Russia drama are now at odds: Sessions, who keeps remembering more and more discussions about—and meetings with—Kremlin officials; and Prince, who reportedly had a secret meeting with a Putin crony earlier this year in an attempt to open a back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump White House.
Three Blackwater contractors were convicted in 2014 under a firearm statute that is generally used to go after violent criminals connected to drug trafficking. They were each sentenced to 30 years in prison under that charge. But in August—a few months after Sessions became attorney general—the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit found those lengthy sentences to be cruel and unusual punishment, noting that the Justice Department had never before used the law that way.
A fourth contractor, Nick Slatten, got a life sentence for murder. But, in a defeat for the Justice Department, that same D.C. circuit appellate panel vacated the conviction and tossed that sentence and ordered that Slatten be tried again. He is still incarcerated, and Sessions’ prosecutors at the Justice Department are getting ready to retry him. The Justice Department admitted that it withheld—for years—photos showing spent casings that appeared to be from an AK-47. Slatten’s lawyers say these photos show insurgents shot at him before he opened fire, and demonstrate that he didn’t commit murder. And a federal judge who ruled in Slatten’s favor also found the Justice Department intentionally withheld testimony from a police officer who was a key government witness—testimony which may have helped exonerate Slatten.
That’s made many in the still politically potent Blackwater family furious. Multiple people formerly affiliated with the company had expected Sessions to take a different approach to the case, potentially ordering a review of the prosecution. But that hasn’t happened.
“Jeff Sessions is a big, giant wussy and never has there been a more spineless, worthless guy holding that chair than him,” said one former Blackwater official, who spoke anonymously because he said he feared retaliation. “I look at what Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch used to do to carry water for Obama, and holy moly, that’s an attorney general that you want on your side. He is—with the whole Russia thing—he’s worthless.”
The animosity from Blackwater world comes as Erik Prince and Sessions continue to grapple with the Trump-Russia investigations. Prince is the younger brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and one of his associates told The Daily Beast he speaks regularly with Trump. Before Steve Bannon was unceremoniously booted from the White House, he was an enthusiastic advocate for Prince’s proposal to essentially privatize the Afghanistan War. Prince has also been a frequent guest on the radio programs of Bannon’s Breitbart News. (On one episode, he claimed that “a Romanian hacker” was behind the theft of Clinton campaign emails, not the Russians.)
What’s more, Prince gave $100,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC helmed by Robert and Rebekah Mercer—a hedge fund billionaire father/daughter duo who have generously backed both Trump’s political ambitions and Breitbart News.
And then there’s the secret meeting Prince held in the Seychelles with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund.
A former Blackwater contractor told The Daily Beast he thought Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have opted not to intervene because they are concerned about potential political consequences.
“What is so frustrating is that it seems that we have a department leadership that’s scared of the rank and file,” the former contractor said.
That ire isn’t an anomaly; among Blackwater formers, frustration with Sessions runs deep. Another former legacy senior Blackwater official said he hoped Sessions will still reassess the case.
“There’s one of two problems: He isn’t hearing these issues, or if he’s hearing them, he isn’t acting on them,” the former official said. “If it’s the latter, that’s just bullshit.”
Former Blackwater officials aren’t the only people who are frustrated with how the Justice Department handled the prosecution of the contractors. The nonpartisan National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief arguing that the Justice Department shouldn’t have had the contractors’ trial in Washington, D.C. And the U.S. attorney overseeing the case admitted in 2014 that “a series of innocent oversights” kept the defendants from receiving evidence that they could have used to argue that insurgents shot at them before they opened fire.
Robert Young Pelton, who wrote Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, told The Daily Beast he found the prosecution troubling.
“I personally feel that it is a travesty of justice, that it is a kangaroo court, and that they’re bending a lot of rules to get a conviction,” he said.
Pelton is currently engaged in a legal battle with Prince over book royalties.
But the Justice Department isn’t without impassioned defenders. Peter Singer, a New America fellow who wrote a book on private military contractors called Corporate Warriors, said prosecutors’ aggressive approach was justified because it could deter future wrongdoing.
“Why it’s an important case is that it sets a precedent for some kind—some minimal kind—of accountability for when bad actions are committed by private military contractors in a war zone,” he said.
“The idea that there would be no accountability for that incident that left so many civilians hurt and wounded—that’s pretty shocking, that’s pretty crazy,” he added.
The Nisour Square deaths, and subsequent prosecutions, had a major impact on Blackwater as a company; Prince sold it, and its name was changed twice—first to Xe Services, and then to Academi.
But the Nisour Square fallout didn’t take down the company. And Prince himself retained considerable influence—so much so that he’s reportedly on the radar of congressional investigators. The Washington Post reported in April that the United Arab Emirates brokered that meeting between Prince and a close Putin ally, just a week or so before Trump’s inauguration.
It will undoubtedly be a discussion topic on Thursday when Prince speaks behind closed doors to the House intelligence committee.
Sessions, meanwhile, has faced numerous questions in public from the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. His explanation of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russian officials has evolved over a series of congressional appearances.
Sessions recused himself from oversight of the Justice Department’s Russia investigations, a decision that irreversibly damaged his relationship with Trump. The president has reportedly concluded that his attorney general is weak, and unwilling to make politically unpopular decisions to defend him.
Erik Prince’s allies are coming to the same conclusion: that Sessions won’t go to the mat for people who are loyal to the president.
One of the former officials told The Daily Beast that people like Nick Slatten—the former contractor whose murder conviction was vacated, and who is in prison awaiting his retrial—voted for the president so things would change for them. And with Sessions at the helm, and the Blackwater prosecution continuing unabated, things haven’t changed enough.
“This guy that’s in jail right now is exactly who voted for this administration, to get some fucking common sense,” the former official said. “This is what people voted for—not to have this kind of bullshit.”