Private Iraq Investigators Out

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The State Department suddenly canceled a contract for eight private investigators to assist U.S. officials in Iraq in "extremely complex and sensitive investigations," after a senator raised questions about whether the department had outsourced oversight of security contractors.

The eight were working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, assigned to the agency's Regional Security Office to examine incidents involving U.S. personnel as part of a new Force Investigation Unit.

The unit was created after an incident last year in which 17 Iraqi civilians were allegedly killed by private security guards from the firm Blackwater, which was hired to protect State Department officials. When the agency announced the Baghdad unit last October, Undersecretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy told reporters that no contractors would be part of the investigative teams, which would be "composed of State Department employees."

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sept. 19, advising her that he had just learned that the private investigators were working in Iraq. Feingold, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote, "It is highly troubling that the Department is apparently outsourcing oversight of its security contractors."

ABC News subsequently reported that the department signed a one-year contract, worth $4.4 million, with privately owned U.S. Investigations Service, taking effect March 1. The deal also called for USIS to provide two translators, as well as a senior police adviser to liaison with Iraqi government officials.

In a letter to Feingold dated Friday, a department official wrote that "the use of contract security specialists/investigators in the FIU has been terminated." Matthew A. Reynolds, assistant secretary for legislative affairs, added that the contracted investigators were hired as "a short-term, interim measure" until the department could hire its own special agents.

Michael John, USIS vice president for communications, said yesterday that he did not know why the contract was canceled last week. But the department said yesterday in a statement that the private investigators were no longer needed "due to the improved security situation [and] the reduction in use-of-force incidents by private security contractors in Iraq."

The agency said the eight investigators were "monitored and directed" by agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, "who are federal law enforcement officials," to ensure that no direct criminal investigations were performed.

John said the adviser and translators, who were Iraqi hires, are still employed by the department.

Yesterday, Feingold said in a statement, "I am pleased the State Department has terminated what appeared to be a illegal contract." He added that he hoped the cancellation indicates "a growing recognition by this administration that there are certain things that must not be outsourced to contractors, especially oversight of other contractors."

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