By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007
The FBI said yesterday that a team of agents assigned to investigate allegations of misconduct by Blackwater contractors in Baghdad will be protected there by U.S. government security rather than Blackwater guards.
The State Department, which contracts with Blackwater to protect U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials in Iraq, requested FBI "assistance" in a probe of a Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater guards allegedly shot and killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians. The investigation is likely to include travel to the site of the shooting in western Baghdad and interviews with Iraqi witnesses.
Under Blackwater's State Department contract, the company provides security for all official travel outside the U.S.-protected Green Zone. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that security for the team would be handled by the department's Diplomatic Security Service.
The New York Daily News reported yesterday that Blackwater personnel would be protecting the FBI agents. That prompted Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees State Department operations, to urge Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bar Blackwater employees from the investigation.
McCormack said the issue was under discussion before Leahy's letter to Rice was received and he did not know whether Rice had seen it.
The Iraqi government has charged Blackwater guards with reckless behavior in this and previous shootings that resulted in Iraqi civilian deaths and property damage. Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince has said his personnel "acted appropriately at all times." The State Department contractors are immune from Iraqi law, and none has been prosecuted under U.S. law.
Also yesterday, the White House said it is opposed to a House bill that would extend current federal law covering Defense Department contractors overseas to those working for the State Department. A statement from the Office of Management and Budget said the bill was too vague and would have unspecified "intolerable consequences for crucial and necessary national security activities and operations."
It said the measure, which was debated on the House floor yesterday and is scheduled for a vote today, would add to the Defense Department's burden in the midst of military operations.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, is also backed by a trade organization of private security contractors that includes Blackwater and other firms working in Iraq.