Blackwater defends embrace of Islamic law

Blackwater Worldwide CEO Erik Prince, President Gary Jackson, and spokesperson Anne Tyrrell traveled from the company's compound in Moyock, N.C. yesterday to the state capital, where they met with editorial board members, editors and reporters at the Raleigh News & Observer to challenge what they consider to be unfair media treatment, the paper reports.

The visit was part of a public-relations campaign the private security contractor launched last fall after Blackwater employees guarding a State Department convoy in Baghdad were involved in the shooting deaths of 17 civilians. That incident remains under federal investigation and is also the target of a lawsuit.

Also on the agenda was Blackwater's recent request that a U.S. federal court apply Islamic Shari'a law to a lawsuit brought by the widows of three U.S. soldiers who died in a crash of one of the company's planes in Afghanistan four years ago. Blackwater subsidiary Presidential Airways of Florida initially argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed since the company was acting as a government agent and soldiers can't sue the government, but the courts rejected that argument. Now it argues the suit should be dismissed because Shari'a law -- not U.S. law -- applies.

Here's my transcript of N&O Executive Editor John Drescher questioning Prince and Tyrrell about the Shari'a request. You can follow along with the audio recording online here, where there are also other audio recordings from yesterday's discussion:

JD: I've read your motion to dismiss in the McMahon v. Presidential Airways case. My question for you is why do you want Shari'a law to apply in this case?

EP: Ah, I couldn't comment as to the details of, ah, of that motion to dismiss. I mean, it was a choice of law venue. It was actually a question raised by, uh, by the judge in one of the original hearings, so this is responding to an inquiry from the judge -- from the, uh, from the federal judge himself.

JD: OK. But, but why -- OK. So you respond to the question, but your answer is not we want this heard in an American courtroom, you want it heard in Afghanistan under Shari'a law. Why would you want that?

AT: That may well be a question for our lawyers.

EP: Yeah, I'm not able to render judgments on that one. It's way over my head.

JD: Really?

EP: That's big-time lawyers going on.

JD: Well, I'm not a big-time lawyer.

EP: I'm not -- we're not, either.

JD: I'm a citizen who read the case, and North Carolinians are very patriotic. We're going to write on a motion you all have filed, so you need to know where my line of questioning is. Very patriotic people. It's hard to read -- to be honest with you, it's hard to read that brief as American citizens and not be insulted by it. Here you have an American company operating a plane with six Americans on it that crashed in Afghanistan. As far as I know, there's no Afghanistan citizen involved in this in any way, shape or form.

EP: Where did the crash occur? In Afghanistan.

JD: Correct. But remember all the parties here are flying under FAA regulations.

EP: Right.

JD: And so, so what you're saying is you no longer want to have this case heard by an American judge and an American jury under American law. You want it heard under Shari'a law? Under Islamic law?

EP: Here's, but here's the glitch. That contract was flown in Afghanistan supporting, under operation and control of the U.S. military. Um, and uh, you know, the trial lawyers try to characterize it as a, uh, air taxi, air charter for hire. It's impossible to fly an FAA Part 135 mission there, because there's no nav[igation] aids, there's no flight service station, there's no published approach procedures, there's no radar control. There's none of those things, none of those elements that you would expect to have in a FAA-sanctioned organization. That was a battlefield support mission, flown on a battlefield, in a foreign country.

JD: That's not what the Air Force says. The McMahon case is purely private litigation, which the United States has no interest in.

EP: I think there are some other statements from a number of general authors that would beg to differ with that.

Who is the architect of this curious legal strategy? The company's chief counsel is Joseph Schmitz, who served as Defense Department Inspector General from 2002 until he left to join Blackwater in 2005. He's the son of John Schmitz, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California who was expelled from the far-right John Birch Society for "extremism," and the brother of Mary Kay Letourneau, a former schoolteacher who served several years in prison for statutory rape involving a teenage student to whom she's now married.

Joseph Schmitz is also a member of the Knights of Malta -- a Catholic military order that was involved in fighting Islamic rule of the Holy Land during the Crusades.

(Photo of "I Support Blackwater" T-shirt from the company's online store, which also offers a Christmas-themed onesie for infants.)