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The State Department said yesterday that it had provided "limited protections" to Blackwater Worldwide security guards under investigation in the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians but insisted that its actions would not preclude successful prosecution of the contractors. Signed statements the guards provided to State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 16 shooting deaths included what law enforcement officials said was a standard disclaimer used in "official administrative inquiries" involving government employees. It said that the statements were being offered with the understanding that nothing in them could be used "in a criminal proceeding."

New details about the "protections" given Blackwater contractors allegedly involved in the shootings sparked outrage from congressional Democrats yesterday, along with a flood of letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from committee chairmen demanding more information.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who heads the Judiciary Committee as well as the appropriations subcommittee overseeing State's budget, called the contractor issue the latest example of the Bush administration's refusal to hold anyone from "their team" accountable for misconduct or incompetence. "If you get caught," Leahy said in a statement, "they will get you immunity. If you get convicted, they will commute your sentence."

Most of the questions centered on who had authorized what many critics interpreted as a form of immunity from prosecution and why such protections -- designed for government employees -- were extended to private contractors.

Meanwhile, Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have reached agreement that the U.S. military command in Iraq will exert tighter controls over security contractors in Iraq, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said yesterday.

Preliminary guidelines established by a State-Defense working group include common training standards and rules for the use of force for contractors as well as coordination of all contractor "movements" with the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq. The new guidelines will be presented to the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker for review before Gates and Rice make a final decision in the matter, Morrell said.

Military officers have complained that contractors guarding U.S. diplomatic convoys interfere with military operations and that their aggressive behavior undermines efforts to win "hearts and minds" in Iraq.

One major concern for Gates involves keeping the military abreast of the movement of contractors through the combat zone, Morrell said. "If it is unsafe or deemed not advisable to go there, someone is going to have the control to say: 'No, not at this time.' It would be MNF-I [Multi-National Force-Iraq] that would have that authority. Ultimately, the military has to sign off, in the battle zone, of movements into particularly dangerous areas." The decision to offer Blackwater guards protection from any use of their statements was made by State Department personnel in Baghdad without approval from Washington, sources said. Department lawyers subsequently determined that decades-old federal court rulings required such guarantees against self-incrimination for all government employees during internal investigations; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the protections also applied to federal contractors.

But the inability of State's own law enforcement branch to pursue a possible criminal case based on the Blackwater statements, as well growing controversy over the Sept. 16 shootings here and in Baghdad, led Rice early this month to ask the FBI to take over the investigation.

To avoid compromising their own investigation, a team of FBI agents sent to Baghdad was not allowed to speak to the original investigators about the case or see the statements. Some of the dozen or so Blackwater personnel involved, at least two of whom have returned to the United States, declined FBI interviews.

In a statement yesterday, the Justice Department confirmed that no broad immunity from prosecution had been granted. But in a reflection of law enforcement dismay over what are considered impediments to a criminal case, Justice added that it would proceed "knowing that this investigation involves a number of complex issues."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that State has no power to immunize anyone from federal criminal prosecution. "We would not have asked the FBI and the Department of Justice to get involved in a case that we did not think that they could potentially prosecute."

But several law enforcement officials, none of whom would speak on the record about an ongoing investigation, said it remained uncertain -- even without the protections -- whether the contractors could be prosecuted under U.S. law.

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