WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday ordered all diplomatic convoys in Baghdad to travel under the supervision of U.S. government security officials, a drastic overhaul of operations following allegations that the department’s private guards, Blackwater USA, have engaged in unnecessary violence in the Iraqi capital.
Under Rice’s order, all convoys will be accompanied by official monitors from the department’s Diplomatic Security Bureau and video cameras will be mounted in vehicles. In addition, radio communication will be recorded and, along with the videotape and electronic tracking data, will be archived so diplomats can better review Blackwater’s performance.
The order marks a sharp reversal for Rice and the State Department, which for weeks has insisted it has adequate controls in place to monitor the Blackwater contractors, who accompany U.S. diplomatic officials as they travel around Iraq.
As recently as last week, John Negroponte, the department’s second-highest official and the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, defended the embassy’s oversight of Blackwater, saying the contractor operated under strict standards monitored with “close” supervision by State officials.
But in announcing the new measures, the department said members of a commission appointed by Rice to investigate State’s oversight of Blackwater determined that the embassy should collect more information on convoys so that disputed incidents could be better examined.
Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, insisted the additional measures did not mean Rice believed previous oversight was inadequate, but rather that she wanted to strengthen the “management controls” the embassy has over Blackwater.
But U.S. officials and outside analysts said the move also was a reaction to growing international outrage that was further eroding U.S. standing in Europe and the Middle East. In those regions, the officials said, news reports about Blackwater’s involvement in a Sept. 16 shooting that left at least 11 Iraqis dead have run repeatedly on local media, hindering the department’s public diplomacy efforts.
It also comes more than a week after the Pentagon ordered a crackdown on its private security contractors, leaving State as one of the last U.S. agencies to defend existing government oversight of the thousands of armed guards operating in Iraq.
A new Pentagon report depicts a troubling lack of coordination between private security contractors and the U.S. military.
The report, which was prepared for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, found considerable frustration among U.S. military commanders who complained that contractors working for non-Defense 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.
Questions surrounding the State Department’s handling of Blackwater-related shooting incidents intensified Friday as a private security contractor for the Pentagon, a company called Combat Support Associates, acknowledged that it had unknowingly hired a former Blackwater contractor allegedly involved in a Christmas Eve 2006 killing of an Iraqi guard.
The former Blackwater contractor, a one-time U.S. Army paratrooper identified as Andrew Moonen, allegedly shot a guard for Iraq’s vice president after a party in the fortified Green Zone, according to reports gathered by congressional investigators. According to the investigators, Moonen was flown out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the incident, with State Department approval.
A spokesman for CSA said the company had done the required vetting of Moonen, but that the Christmas Eve incident never appeared on his record and the State Department never informed CSA that he was a suspect in the shooting. Moonen, of Kalispell, Mont., worked for CSA from February to August of this year.
“He was subject to the normal due diligence that any company would perform and there was no indication that he was a suspect,” said the spokesman, Gary Lewi. “There was nothing there.”
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman who has been investigating Blackwater’s performance in Iraq, wrote to Rice on Friday requesting Moonen’s personnel records and questioned why he was able to return to the Middle East just two months after the shooting.