By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Last Christmas Day in Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad received a furious phone call from Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. An American -- drunk, armed, wandering through the Green Zone after a party -- had shot and killed one of his personal bodyguards the night before, Mahdi said. He wanted to see Khalilzad right away.
At the vice president's home, Khalilzad found the slain guard's family assembled. Mahdi demanded the names of the American and his employer. And he wanted the man turned over to the Iraqi government.
After consulting with the embassy's legal officer, Khalilzad identified the shooter as Andrew J. Moonen, an employee of Blackwater USA, the company that provides security for U.S. diplomats in Baghdad. But he would not deliver Moonen himself. Within 36 hours of the shooting, Blackwater and the embassy had shipped him out of the country.
"As you can imagine," the embassy's Diplomatic Security office said in an e-mail to its Washington headquarters the day of Moonen's departure, "this has serious implications."
But as with previous killings by contractors, the case was handled with apologies and a payoff. Blackwater fired Moonen and fined him $14,697 -- the total of his back pay, a scheduled bonus and the cost of his plane ticket home, according to Blackwater documents. The amount nearly equaled the $15,000 the company agreed to give the Iraqi guard's family.
Ten months later, however -- after Blackwater guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle on Sept. 16 -- the State Department can no longer quietly manage the consequences of having its own private army in Iraq. The FBI is investigating the incident, Baghdad has vowed to overturn a law shielding contractors from prosecution, and congressional critics have charged State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security with failing to supervise Blackwater and other security companies under its authority.
The shootings have also reopened long-standing, bitter arguments between the State Department and the Pentagon, which over the years have feuded over policies including the decision to invade Iraq and the treatment of detainees. Such broad disagreements have frequently played out over a narrow question: Who is responsible for the safety of U.S. civilians serving in Iraq?
With State Department and FBI investigations underway, the military leaked its own report on the Sept. 16 shootings, finding no evidence that the Blackwater guards fired in self-defense, as the company has maintained. U.S. officers have publicly criticized the security contractors as out-of-control "cowboys" who alienate the same Iraqis the military is trying to cultivate.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week that the contractors are at "cross purposes" with military goals, and he has suggested they be put under his authority. Many at State see this as a power grab by a Defense Department that has long refused to supply protection for diplomats. Since last month's shootings, one diplomat said, the Pentagon "has spared no expense to excoriate Blackwater and the State Department."
At its headquarters in a Rosslyn high-rise, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is in crisis mode. Already, the service has more than doubled its three dozen agents in Baghdad, dispatching at least a third of the elite, 100-agent mobile SWAT force it keeps for emergencies around the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered that at least one DS agent accompany every Blackwater-guarded convoy leaving the Green Zone -- an average of six or seven each day -- and has directed DS to monitor and archive radio and video transmissions from Blackwater vehicles to be used as evidence in any future incident.
An examination of State Department security contractor operations awaits Rice's review. Some officials speculated that Rice will have no choice but to remove Blackwater's approximately 900 personal-security personnel from Iraq; others said they think the company will be allowed to stay through the end of its current contract in May.
Replacing Blackwater -- by far the largest and most visible of three private security companies under State Department contract in Iraq -- would be difficult and expensive. DS officials fear that their bureau may be permanently tasked with guarding the hundreds of U.S. civilian officials now under Blackwater protection in Iraq. The service has only 1,400 trained agents worldwide, spread among the State Department building in Washington, 25 domestic U.S. offices and 285 U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas.
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.A Convenient Choice
When the U.S. military invaded and occupied Iraq in early 2003, there was no question who would be in charge of security for the official civilians pouring in to remake the country. Under an executive order signed by Bush, the Coalition Provisional Authority and its head, L. Paul Bremer, reported directly to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. But as U.S. troops became preoccupied with a growing insurgency, the Pentagon hired Blackwater to provide protection for Bremer and other civilians.
The next year, as the United States prepared to return sovereignty to the Iraqis and the State Department began planning an embassy in Baghdad, Rumsfeld lost a bid to retain control over the full U.S. effort, including billions of dollars in reconstruction funds. A new executive order, signed in January 2004, gave State authority over all but military operations. Rumsfeld's revenge, at least in the view of many State officials, was to withdraw all but minimal assistance for diplomatic security.
"It was the view of Donald Rumsfeld and [then-Deputy Defense Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz that this wasn't their problem," said a former senior State Department official. Meetings to negotiate an official memorandum of understanding between State and Defense during the spring of 2004 broke up in shouting matches over issues such as their respective levels of patriotism and whether the military would provide mortuary services for slain diplomats.
Despite the tension, many at State acknowledged the Pentagon's point that soldiers were not trained as personal protectors. Others worried that surrounding civilian officials with helmets and Humvees would undermine the message of friendly democracy they were trying to instill in Iraq.
"It was a question of, 'Do you want uniforms?' " the senior DS official said. " 'Should the military be doing that kind of work?' "
It was clear that the mission was beyond DS capabilities, and as the mid-2004 embassy opening approached, "we had to decide what we were going to do," the former State Department official said. "We had to get jobs done, and to do that we had to have some protection."
State chose the most expedient solution: Take over the Pentagon's personal security contract with Blackwater and extend it for a year. "Yes, it was a sole-source contract" justified by "urgent and compelling reasons," said William Moser, the deputy assistant secretary of state for logistics management, in recent congressional testimony. Midway through the contract, Moser said, an independent audit forced Blackwater's $140 million proposal down to $106 million.
The senior DS official rejected congressional suggestions that Blackwater's Republican political contacts and campaign contributions influenced its selection. "I'll stack our procurement office against anybody else's," he said. "Particularly DOD's." State officials "could care less whether [Blackwater head Erik] Prince gave money to anybody." Blackwater was the only contractor in Iraq with helicopters, and it already had personnel and facilities in place.
When the sole-source contract expired in the summer of 2005, State invited bids on a massive "worldwide personal protection services" contract to put its operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere under one umbrella. Blackwater formed a consortium with U.S. firms DynCorp and Triple Canopy, and the group won a multiyear, $1.2 billion agreement.
Under the individual task orders that only the three are eligible to bid on, DynCorp provides personal security in northern Iraq, and Triple Canopy in the south. Blackwater covers Baghdad and Hilla, and has by far the largest share of the $520 million that State spends annually on contract security in Iraq.
Both Blackwater and State say the firm provides good value. The cost of sending a U.S. diplomat or DS agent overseas "ranges from around $400,000 for a regular mission around the world to around $1 million for an American diplomatic position in Iraq," Moser, the State logistics official, told Congress. "So when we talk about using contract employees, I think that we have to be very careful to consider what the fully loaded costs would be of direct hires."
DS provides contractors a 1,000-page list of rules and procedures and says all security personnel meet rigid requirements -- including military or police experience -- and undergo security vetting. Contractors are highly paid for security duties: Blackwater charges State $1,221.62 a day for a "protective security specialist," according to a 2005 invoice released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
But that is an all-inclusive cost, Blackwater head Prince argued during a recent interview on the "Charlie Rose" show. "They get paid well, but they get paid only for every day they are at work in a hot zone. They pay significant taxes right off the top of that, state and federal. They have to cover their own insurance, their own housing allowance -- all those benefits that a soldier gets wrapped in."
In any case, Prince said, "I know it would be hard for the State Department to recruit other people to come over and do reconstruction work . . . if some of them are going home in coffins."
U.S. diplomats who have served in Iraq are uniform in their defense of Blackwater and the other security firms that protect them. Blackwater, they point out, has lost about 30 of its own personnel in Iraq -- and not one diplomat.
But just as diplomats receive only rudimentary training to protect themselves, DS had little preparation and established no comprehensive guidelines for running a thousands-strong private army. In particular, the senior DS official said, little thought was given to how contractors would be held legally accountable for incidents such as the Sept. 16 shootings.
Oversight, the official acknowledged, has "perhaps not been as good as it could be."