Oct. 30, 2007 — -- ABC News has learned the exact wording of the immunity deal the State Department granted Blackwater security guards involved in a September shooting incident that left 17 Iraqis dead.
The security guards were given a limited immunity called "use immunity" in exchange for giving sworn statements about their involvement in the Sept. 16 shooting incident.
The wording of the immunity is included at the beginning of the Blackwater guards' sworn statements, which have been obtained by ABC News.
In each of the statements, the guards begin by saying "I understand this statement is being given in furtherance of an official administrative inquiry," and that, "I further understand that neither my statements nor any information or evidence gained by reason of my statements can be used against me in a criminal proceeding, except that if I knowingly and willfully provide false statements or information, I may be criminally prosecuted for that action under 18 United States Code, Section 1001."
The immunity deal was granted in the immediate aftermath of the shooting by State Department officials in Iraq who were under intense pressure to quickly explain what happened in the face of allegations by Iraqi officials that the contractors murdered civilians in cold blood.
News of the immunity deal caught State Department officials in Washington off guard.
"If anyone gave such immunity it was done so without consulting senior leadership at State," a senior State Department official initially told ABC News.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not comment directly on the immunity given to the security guards, but said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is determined to hold anybody guilty of wrongdoing accountable.
"Secretary Rice's attitude is that if there are individuals who broke rules, laws or regulations they must be held to account," McCormack told reporters. "Every action that she has taken during the course of the aftermath of this incident has been consistent with that approach."
McCormack refused to discuss the specific shooting and the subsequent investigation. However, he did say that the State Department "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."
"The kinds of, quote, 'immunity' that I've seen reported in the press would not preclude a successful criminal prosecution," he insisted.
"The Department of State cannot immunize an individual from federal criminal prosecution," he added.
McCormack refused to answer questions as to whether the type of immunity provided to the Blackwater guards would in fact make prosecution much harder, citing the ongoing investigation.
"The secretary doesn't want us to say anything that would potentially jeopardize an ongoing investigation," he said.
The immunity granted to the Blackwater guards is more limited in scope than so-called "transactional immunity" which would prevent any proscution for the alleged crimes. But the immunity granted to the guards means that anything said in the statements -- and anything learned as a result of the statements -- cannot be used by prosecutors.
"It's a nightmare for prosecutors," said legal expert Eugene Fidell.
Even without immunity, however, it would be extremely difficult to prosecute the Blackwater security guards in U.S. courts.
Shortly after the Sept. 16 Blackwater incident, Secretary Rice dispatched a panel of experts to Iraq to examine the use of private security contractors.
The panel's report, drafted by Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, concluded that even if a private security guard committed cold-blooded murder, there may be no legal basis for prosecuting the guard in U.S. courts under current law.
"The panel is unaware of any basis for holding non-Department of Defense contractors accountable under U.S. law," the report concluded.