By Glenn Kessler and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 28, 2007
The private security firm Blackwater USA brushed aside warnings from another security firm and focused on cost, not safety, before it sent its personnel to escort trucks to Fallujah in 2004, resulting in four American deaths that marked a major turning point in the war, a congressional report said yesterday.
The report comes as Blackwater -- the State Department's prime security force -- faces new scrutiny for its role this month in the killing of at least 11 Iraqis. Citing e-mails, fresh interviews and previously undisclosed incident reports, the report by the majority staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform provides details about how cost considerations appeared to shape Blackwater's decisions that led to the brutal deaths of its employees at the hands of insurgents on March 31, 2004.
For example, the assessment said that Blackwater, then operating under a Defense Department contract, was supposed to use vehicles with armored protection kits, but as of the date of the killings, no such vehicles had been obtained. A Blackwater internal report obtained by the committee quoted an employee who said the contract "paid for armor vehicles" but that "management in North Carolina . . . made the decision to go with soft skin due to cost."
The report disclosed that another complicating factor was a contract dispute with a different company. The report suggested that Blackwater never intended to armor its own vehicles. Instead, Blackwater employees were told to "string along" the other company in hopes of forcing them out of their contract or giving them "no choice but to buy us armored cars," according to interviews by the committee staff with Blackwater officials.
"These actions raise serious questions about the consequences of engaging private, for-profit entities to engage in essentially military operations in a war zone," the committee report said.
Blackwater said that the report is "a one-sided version of this tragic incident" and that what it "fails to acknowledge is that the terrorists determined what happened that fateful day in 2004." The State Department referred calls to the Defense Department, which declined to comment.
Asked about the report, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "Had there been times where they had performed to a standard that we don't appreciate? Apparently, yes, and those are under investigation."
The congressional report also cites an urgent e-mail -- which has been previously disclosed -- that the Blackwater operations manager sent one day before the Fallujah attack to the company's headquarters in North Carolina: "I need new vehicles. I need new COMs, I need ammo, I need Glocks and M4s. . . . I have requested hard cars from the beginning. . . . Ground truth is appalling."
The committee staff obtained evidence about how another security company warned Blackwater of the dangers inherent in the Fallujah mission. Blackwater took the job -- providing security for a company granting logistical services for soldiers -- from a third firm known as Control Risks Group. CRG had twice turned down the request to provide protection for a Fallujah trip, arguing that such a convoy escort should be undertaken by the military, according to documents obtained by the committee. CRG informed Blackwater of its decision, but Blackwater ignored the warnings and reduced the number of security personnel assigned to the mission, the report said.
The Blackwater controversy has stirred a long-running personnel conflict between the State and Defense departments that began with the return of Iraqi sovereignty and the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in mid-2004. The military has repeatedly complained that State does not provide enough civilian personnel to perform the many noncombat tasks of nation-building in Iraq, many of which are still carried out by military personnel. At the same time, the State Department has long argued that the military rarely and grudgingly provides security that would allow the civilians to function safely.
Although the U.S. occupation government had relatively free access to military protection, embassy personnel in Baghdad -- along with many other U.S. officials in Iraq -- became the responsibility of the State Department when the diplomatic presence was established. In 2005, State consolidated its security responsibilities in Iraq and 26 other high-risk countries under a five-year, multibillion dollar Worldwide Personal Protective Service contract.
The contract was won by a consortium of three U.S. firms operating in Iraq -- Blackwater, Dyncorp and Triple Canopy -- that compete with each other to win "tenders" for specific tasks under its umbrella. Blackwater holds the lion's share of tenders in Iraq.
Although the Blackwater workers killed in Fallujah in 2004 were working as defense subcontractors, U.S. military officials this week energetically pointed out that more recent incidents involving the company occurred when Blackwater was under the State Department's purview. Blackwater has no prime or subcontracts with the Defense Department for personal security services in Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday. The department's "prime" contracts with the firm, he said, "are primarily performed within the United States and are for training services, not operations."
In a statement yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said that Blackwater conducted 1,873 missions from January to Sept. 18 of this year for the State Department and that they used their weapons in only 56 missions. "Each such incident is reviewed by management officials to ensure that procedures were followed," he said.