By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed regret yesterday that the State Department had inadequately supervised private security contractors in Iraq, but she defended overall U.S. diplomatic efforts in that country under what she called "complex and difficult" circumstances.
During nearly three hours of contentious exchanges with Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rice parried and often ducked questions on contractors, Iraqi government corruption and problems in the construction of a $600 million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. She repeatedly said she needed to review matters more closely or could not answer in an open congressional session.
Several lawmakers questioned whether Rice was even aware of some of the most serious allegations. "You're the secretary of state!" Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said incredulously after Rice responded to a specific charge against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by saying she is "not personally following every allegation of corruption in Iraq."
Rice's testimony was the culmination of a series of recent oversight hearings on U.S. diplomacy in Iraq. "For most of this year, Congress has focused its attention on assessing the military surge," Waxman said. But the "quality and effectiveness of [Rice's] actions in Iraq and the State Department's management are a matter of urgent national concern."
The Democratic outrage was countered by Republicans, who rushed to Rice's defense and accused the majority of seeking new ways to attack the Iraq war. "Everything this committee has done in this last year in particular has been to try and put out everything bad that is going on," fumed Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).
"We should have no illusions about the subtext of these hearings," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the committee's ranking Republican. Having failed to force a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, Davis said, "the Democratic strategy seems to be to drill enough small holes in the bottom of the boat to sink the entire Iraqi enterprise."
Rice said she launched a review of the State Department's private security contracts after Blackwater Worldwide guards allegedly shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians last month because "I did not think personally that I could say that oversight and follow-up was appropriate." Despite numerous reports of Iraqi deaths over the past three years, she had not acted sooner because she did not want to "second-guess people on the ground" who had handled the shootings in Baghdad, Rice said.
Pressed to express regret for what Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) called "the failures of your department, your failures," Rice said, "I certainly regret that we did not have the kind of oversight that I would have insisted upon." She has implemented changes recommended by the review, she said, and "we now will have that oversight."
Rice agreed that "there is a hole" in U.S. law that has prevented prosecution of contractors. Early this month, the House passed a bill that would place all contractors under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, and a similar measure is pending in the Senate. The White House opposes the bill on the grounds that it would have "unintended and intolerable consequences" for national security. But Rice seemed to support the concept, saying that it is under discussion in the Justice Department.
The FBI is investigating the Sept. 16 Blackwater shootings. An earlier shooting, in which a Blackwater guard allegedly killed the Iraqi vice president's bodyguard after a Green Zone party on Christmas Eve 2006, was referred to the Justice Department months ago, but a lack of evidence has hobbled that investigation, Rice said.
Lawmakers cited recent reports by the Government Accountability Office, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and the State Department describing pervasive corruption in the Iraqi government. In previous hearings and closed-door depositions, the oversight panel heard similar reports from U.S. and Iraqi officials.
"This is not some pie in the sky," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said to Rice. "This is your own department."
Rice declined to discuss specific allegations in open session, saying it is "potentially damaging to relationships we are very dependent on." The American people should be assured, she said, that "if there is corruption, the United States is in fact dedicated to rooting it out." But, she added, "let's not take Iraq in isolation. . . . We need to understand that corruption is a pervasive issue" in many other developing and nondemocratic countries.
Democrats focused on an April 1 memo from Maliki's office forbidding investigation of anyone in the government or cabinet without the prime minister's approval. The memo was turned over to the committee by Judge Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, the former head of the Iraqi Commission on Public Integrity, who is seeking U.S. political asylum. Radhi testified to the committee early this month that his investigators had uncovered "rampant" corruption in Iraqi ministries and that nearly four dozen anti-corruption employees or members of their families had been murdered.
Although the memo has been widely publicized in U.S. and Iraqi news media, and a senior State Department official was questioned about it in the same Oct. 4 hearing as Radhi, Rice told the committee she will "have to get back to you. I don't know precisely what you are referring to.
"Our understanding," she said, "is that the Iraqi leadership is not in fact immune from investigation. . . . If, in fact, there is such an order . . . that would certainly be concerning."