Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.01.25

I beg your 'pardon,' Mr. Trump

the japan times on January 2 , 2021

Donald Trump, the incumbent lame duck U.S. president, recently pardoned more than 40 convicted criminals in a span of some 40 hours. The total number could rise by Jan. 20 since there remain so many people much closer to him who are more eligible for pardons, including the president himself.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Weissmann wrote on Twitter, “The pardons from this President are what you would expect to get if you gave the pardon power to a mob boss.” He hit the nail on the head. No wonder, Mr. Weissmann was a member of Robert Mueller’s 2017 special counsel team that investigated Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Here in Tokyo, however, few people seem to have cared much about the massive number of pardons being granted by Trump. Most of the curiosity is on whether the U.S. president will dare to preemptively pardon himself and close family members before he leaves the White House, whether voluntarily or is forced.

With that said, I am not particularly interested in this kind of grotesque nepotism or the institutional corruption that Mr. Trump demonstrated recently. What concerns me most are the pardons for four former Blackwater employees convicted of shooting indiscriminately into a crowd of ordinary citizens in Baghdad in September 2007.

I know exactly where the massacre took place because I used to live in the area in 2004. It occurred at Nisour Square, about one mile away from the U.S. Embassy. The four Blackwater guards used machine guns and hand grenades in the incident, killing 17 innocent bystanders — including two boys — and injuring 20 others.

Was the pardon appropriate? I will try to answer this question by discussing the Statement from the Press Secretary Regarding Executive Grants of Clemency released on Dec. 22. Below are excerpts from the statement followed by my thoughts on the situation.

Who asked for the pardons?

The statement begins with this sentence. “Today, President Trump granted full pardons to Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard. The pardon of these four veterans is broadly supported by the public, including Pete Hegseth, and elected officials such as … .”

Who is Pete Hegseth? He is a former U.S. Army National Guard officer and conservative television host who requested the pardons for the four men because, as he stated, they were “veterans who were there defending diplomats put in an impossible situation.” He also said the pardons send a signal to our war fighters “whether you’re a contractor in uniform, we’re going to have your back when you make tough calls on the battlefield.”

No, they were not “war fighters.” Legally, the Blackwater guards were nonmilitary individuals under contract with the U.S. government. It was ironic, however, that those private contractors were more likely to use deadly force than ordinary U.S. military personnel whose job it was to defend command posts and other such facilities in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Reasons for the pardons

U.S. presidents have the constitutional right to pardon individuals for federal crimes. They often grant pardons at the end of their tenure. Traditionally, they are not answerable for their pardons nor do they have to provide a reason for issuing them. The Trump administration is no exception to the rule.

The statement, however, tries to explain the reason. It said the four “have a long history of service to the Nation,” noting that one served “two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division,” and another served in the “Marine Corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom.” So, what? In 2007, they were only private security guards tasked with protecting U.S. personnel in Iraq.

By the time I was embedded with the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) in Baghdad in 2004 as Japan’s representative, Blackwater units already had a notorious reputation for using excessive force. I was always concerned when they were around that someone, including my colleagues, could get shot because their operators seemed ready to shoot just about anyone at any time — particularly during convoy movements.

What happened at the Nisour Square?

The statement also explains that “When the convoy attempted to establish a blockade outside the ‘Green Zone,’ the situation turned violent, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians.” Yes, the situation in Baghdad was always violent. Still, that did not justify such excessive use of force against unarmed civilians.

The statement continues: “They were eventually tried and convicted on charges ranging from first degree murder to voluntary manslaughter” and “prosecutors recently disclosed that the lead Iraqi investigator, who prosecutors relied heavily on to verify that there were no insurgent victims and to collect evidence, may have had ties to insurgent groups himself.”

This is not a valid reason for the pardons, either. Iraq has a very tribal society and everyone is bound to have family members loyal to different sides in the conflict, including in insurgent groups. The process may also puzzle many people in Japan since such pardons strictly require due process under relevant laws. This kind of pardon is not legal in Japan or any other such democracy, with the United States being the exception.

Are they heroes or victims?

The answer is yes and no. Despite all I said above, I have some sympathy for the four Blackwater guards. The biggest surprise I had in 2004 Baghdad was that the U.S. government hired thousands of private armed guards to protect high-level active-duty military officers and officials operating in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

After the Iraq War ended in 2003, Baghdad and the rest of the country was very chaotic. Nobody could be trusted there because the insurgents would not hesitate to utilize women and children as human bombs to kill American or other coalition troops. Commanders were greatly concerned about protecting the lives of their men and women at the time.

That is where private security firms like Blackwater came in. Their operators were willing to do the more dirty, dangerous and difficult kinds of urban security missions, including facing off against the most cunning, cruel and controversial adversaries challenging U.S. and coalition forces.

This was the reality of Baghdad in 2004 and probably in 2007 as well. It is easy to condemn these private armed security guards over allegations of first-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. They are, however, also victims of the war in Iraq where private militias were placed in dangerous situations to protect officials and others who should have been defended by active-duty personnel. Was Mr. Trump fully informed of this surreal situation?