blackwater agents being investigated as gun smugglers

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
September 22, 2007

Officials concerned weapons from firm were sold on black market

WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors are investigating whether employees of the private security firm Blackwater USA illegally smuggled weapons into Iraq 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, officials said.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 rebels with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

The PKK, which is fighting for an independent Kurdistan, is considered a “foreign terrorist organization” by the State Department.

The Pentagon said in late July it was looking into the 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. 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.

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