An Oct. 21 Page One article misidentified two companies contracted by the State Department for personal security. In 2002, DynCorp International was hired to protect Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In 1994, MVM Inc. was hired to protect Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. This online version has been corrected.
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State Department Struggles To Oversee Private Army
In the short term, taking over in Iraq would require pulling agents from other assignments. Training new agents "would take anywhere from 18 months to two years to identify them, do all the backgrounds, do the clearance work, seven months of basic training [and] follow-up training for high threats," said Richard Griffin, the assistant secretary of state for Diplomatic Security, in recent testimony.
A new, $112 million contract signed last month with Blackwater may also be in jeopardy, according to a senior DS official who, like other current and former administration officials and military officers interviewed for this article, discussed the contractor issue on the condition of anonymity. The new contract -- adding 241 Blackwater personnel and increasing its helicopter fleet in Iraq from eight to 24 -- will provide a quick-reaction air component for diplomatic transport, medical evacuation and rescue, the senior official said, something for which the military has declined to dedicate resources.
The need for the helicopters, the official maintained, was underscored when a convoy carrying Poland's ambassador in Baghdad was ambushed early this month. "Our technical ops center [in Baghdad] heard the radio chatter" between the ambassador's guards and the U.S. military, the official said. When the military said a rescue would take an hour, DS contacted Blackwater. Its helicopter extricated the dead and wounded -- including the badly burned ambassador -- in seven minutes.
But as criticism of State's security operations grows, the downside of having a contractor army at its disposal -- and under its responsibility -- has become more apparent, the official said. "With perfect 20/20 hindsight," he said, "maybe four years ago we should have seen this coming."
A Low-Key History
Before Iraq and Blackwater landed it in congressional hearing rooms, DS preferred to stay in the diplomatic shadows. Its duties include investigating visa and passport fraud, providing courier services, and managing technical and physical security for State's domestic and overseas facilities and personnel. Most visibly, its agents provide around-the-clock protection for the secretary of state and visiting foreign dignitaries.
Each U.S. embassy is assigned a DS agent as regional security officer. Trained, local hires have long provided protection around buildings, but it was not until 1994 that DS contracted with a U.S. firm for personal protection services, hiring Virginia-based MVM Inc. to accompany exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to Haiti after the U.S. military restored him to power.
Later, other U.S. contractors were hired temporarily to protect U.S. officials in trouble spots including Bosnia and the Palestinian territories. But for the most part, U.S. diplomats venturing outside their embassies are lightly guarded with local protection or are on their own.
Marc Grossman, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey in the mid-1990s, recalled telling his staff to take their own security precautions. After losing embassy employees to attacks, he advised staffers to keep a six-sided die in their glove compartments; to thwart ambushes, they should assign a different route to work to each number, he said, and toss the die as they left home each morning.
DS operations grew after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but it was not until after the administration declared war on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 that security contractors became a permanent fixture on the State Department's payroll.
DynCorp International was hired to protect Hamid Karzai, first installed as head of a transitional government in Kabul and later elected president. Karzai was reluctant to accept the guards, said a U.S. diplomat posted to Afghanistan. "He was concerned about how it would look to have blonde or African-American guards, even women." Karzai asked why he couldn't have Italian Americans who could blend in more easily.
Dyncorp also guarded Khalilzad, whose gratitude was mixed with worry that the guards' speeding convoys would hit an Afghan child darting from a side street.
But Afghanistan, in security terms, was child's play compared with what would lie ahead in Iraq.