The top manager in Iraq of the notorious private security firm Blackwater threatened to kill a U.S. State Department investigator for probing the company's performance, The New York Times reported Monday.
The Times, citing an internal State Department memorandum, said the threat came just weeks before Blackwater guards shot and killed 17 civilians on September 16, 2007 in Baghdad's Nisour Square.
In an August 2007 memo detailing the threat made to her, lead State Department investigator, Jean Richter, said it "sent a clear message that the Blackwater contractors saw themselves as 'above the law' and actually believed that 'they ran the place.'
However, U.S .embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater and the State Department team was ordered to leave, The Times said.
Four former Blackwater employees are currently on trial in a US court for the Nisour Square deaths.
The killings, seen as an example of the impunity enjoyed by private security firms on the U.S. payroll in Iraq, exacerbated Iraqi resentment toward Americans and was part of the reason the Iraqi government refused to reach a treaty allowing U.S. troops to stay beyond 2011.
Richter warned in her memo dated August 31, 2007, that little oversight of the company, which had a $1 billion contract to protect American diplomats, had created "an environment full of liability and negligence."
Daniel Carroll, Blackwater's project manager in Iraq, told Richter after an argument "that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq."
"I took Mr Carroll's threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract," Richter wrote.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there was little information she could provide to reporters as it was an ongoing legal case, but said the department's staff had been conducting a regular "contract review" not an investigation into Blackwater.
A fellow State Department investigator who witnessed the exchange corroborated Richter's report in a separate statement.
Blackwater lost its license to work in Iraq; it since been renamed twice and after merging with a rival firm is now called Constellis Holdings.
The State Department canceled its contract with the company soon after President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.