By Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 6, 2007
The State Department responded yesterday to escalating criticism of Blackwater security guards in Iraq, announcing new measures to more closely monitor their operations as a new Pentagon report depicted a troubling lack of coordination between private security contractors and the U.S. military.
Following the recommendations of a high-level review team sent to Baghdad last week, the State Department said yesterday that it will place its own diplomatic security agents in all Blackwater convoys, mount video cameras in Blackwater vehicles and record all radio transmissions to ensure an "objective" record of any future incident of contractor use of force.
Both the classified Pentagon report and the State Department's actions follow Iraqi and congressional criticism of the use of private security contractors in Iraq after a Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater employees guarding a State Department convoy allegedly shot and killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians.
The report, which was prepared for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, found considerable frustration among U.S. military commanders, who complained that contractors working for non-Pentagon agencies, including the State Department, often behave arrogantly, traveling through areas of military operations without prior notification and setting up their own checkpoints and roadblocks.
"There is a feeling that they are untouchable, a perception that they can do whatever they want with impunity," said a Pentagon source, who was not authorized to speak to reporters and demanded anonymity.
But the report also determined that commanders often do not use the authority available to them to hold Defense Department contractors accountable -- including expelling them from bases, disarming them and pursuing sanctions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Pentagon contracts cover an estimated 7,300 security contractors, including about 1,500 working on personal security teams.
Applying the military justice code to civilians is a "complex process," the Pentagon source said. "We didn't ask for it, and we don't really know how to use it." In some cases, he said, enforcing the rules may be difficult, even if the attempt is made.
"From a practical standpoint, most of the PSD [personal security detail] guys are former Navy Seals and Special Forces with . . . years of combat experience," who are unlikely to take direction from "some 20-year-old corporal" in the military, the source said.
The draft report of more than a dozen pages is to be finalized and presented to Gates when he returns from South America this weekend. Designed as an overall look at the relationship between private security contractors and the military, it includes an assessment by a five-person team that Gates dispatched to Iraq two weeks ago in the wake of the Sept. 16 incident.
Among other findings, the report suggested that the Defense Department needs to increase the personnel and resources it devotes to contractor oversight.
The Pentagon source suggested that the report could generate new scrutiny of broader issues, such as the welter of separate but often overlapping private-contractor arrangements made by the military and the State Department. "An inescapable endpoint is: Why do we have two sets of contractors?" the source said.
Military protection of diplomatic and other U.S. civilian officials ended in June 2004, when the United States returned sovereignty to the Iraqis and opened an embassy in Baghdad. Since then, the State Department has hired its own private contractors, including Blackwater, which protects diplomats and other U.S. government civilians in Baghdad and the surrounding areas of central Iraq. State Department contractors are not liable under the military code, and U.S. officials have questioned whether they are covered by any U.S. law.
Last week, State announced the launch of three separate inquiries into its security arrangements -- a joint U.S.-Iraqi commission, an FBI-led investigation of the events of Sept. 16 and a broad review of private contractors' arrangements to ascertain whether appropriate rules exist and whether they are being followed.
An interim report from the overall review, led by senior State Department management official Patrick Kennedy, recommended the new arrangements for Blackwater convoys, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered that they be carried out, department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday.
The measures, which McCormack said are designed to increase operational control and accountability, reflect the difficulty investigators have encountered in determining the events of Sept. 16 and, if necessary, putting together a case that can be prosecuted in a U.S. court.
Blackwater has insisted that its personnel returned fire they received from Iraqis wearing police uniforms, but initial U.S. military and Iraqi government investigations have confirmed the reports of witnesses that only the Blackwater guards fired weapons.
Private contractors are supervised by the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, which briefs them before every "movement" of a protected person outside Baghdad's Green Zone.
Blackwater, which has more than 800 employees under State Department contract in Iraq, conducted 1,800 "movements" there between January and September. The 36 diplomatic security agents stationed in Baghdad occasionally accompany convoys, but having them ride along on every detail would require more than doubling their numbers, a U.S. official said. Worldwide, the service has 1,400 agents.
Radio communications with convoys are normally monitored from the embassy but have not previously been recorded and archived. McCormack said Rice has also ordered "the expansion of existing communication links to the U.S. military" to ensure that State and military personnel "have good connectivity."
Meanwhile, another private security firm, Combat Support Associates, which provides logistics support to U.S. troops at bases in Kuwait under a Pentagon contract, confirmed it had hired a former Blackwater employee who allegedly shot and killed a security guard for Iraq's vice president last December, the Associated Press reported.
A company spokesman said that a review, conducted of all prospective employees, found nothing "untoward" in Andrew Moonen's record. Moonen allegedly was drunk when the shooting occurred and is under Justice Department investigation.