Blackwater USA, the private security company involved in a Baghdad shootout last weekend, operated under State Department authority that exempted the company from U.S. military regulations governing other security firms, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials and industry representatives.
In recent months, the State Department’s oversight of Blackwater became a central issue as Iraqi authorities repeatedly clashed with the company over its aggressive street tactics. Many U.S. and Iraqi officials and industry representatives said they came to see Blackwater as untouchable, protected by State Department officials who defended the company at every turn. Blackwater employees protect the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats in Iraq.
Blackwater “has a client who will support them no matter what they do,” said H.C. Lawrence Smith, deputy director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, an advocacy organization in Baghdad that is funded by security firms, including Blackwater.
The State Department allowed Blackwater’s heavily armed teams to operate without an Interior Ministry license, even after the requirement became standard language in Defense Department security contracts. The company was not subject to the military’s restrictions on the use of offensive weapons, its procedures for reporting shooting incidents or a central tracking system that allows commanders to monitor the movements of security companies on the battlefield.
“The Iraqis despised them, because they were untouchable,” said Matthew Degn, who recently returned from Baghdad after serving as senior American adviser to the Interior Ministry. “They were above the law.” Degn said Blackwater’s armed Little Bird helicopters often buzzed the Interior Ministry’s roof, “almost like they were saying, ‘Look, we can fly anywhere we want.’ “
A Blackwater spokeswoman referred questions about how the company is regulated to the State Department.
Richard Griffin, assistant secretary for diplomatic security, said in a statement that State Department security contractors are routinely briefed on rules for the use of force. When a shooting incident occurs, he said, it is reviewed by the U.S. Embassy’s Regional Security Office. “Anyone who fails to live up to our standards will be removed from the contract,” Griffin said.
On Wednesday, the State Department announced that it will form a joint commission with the Iraqi government to examine issues related to private security.
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised that Blackwater guards would be held accountable for what he called “a big crime” in the weekend violence. Iraqi officials have threatened to expel Blackwater from Iraq over the incident, in which at least nine Iraqis were killed.
“We will not allow Iraqis to be killed in cold blood,” al-Maliki said. “There is a sense of tension and anger among all Iraqis, including the government, over this crime.”
The confrontation between the Iraqi government and Blackwater, headquartered in Moyock, N.C., has illuminated the uneven and largely dysfunctional regulatory system intended to govern tens of thousands of hired guns operating in Iraq.
A one-paragraph subsection to a 2004 edict issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the now-defunct U.S. occupation government, granted contractors immunity from the Iraqi legal process. This edict is still in effect. Congress has moved to establish guidelines for prosecuting contractors under U.S. law or the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but the issue remains unresolved.
“It’s a lot of people with guns who are under no real law, and that’s very troublesome,” said Sen. James Webb, D-Va., who has advocated greater oversight of private security companies. “Ninety-five percent of the people who are doing this are honest, ethical and moral, but the fringe that isn’t, it’s very difficult to see the legal construct that will hold them accountable.”
Interior Ministry officials have said they had received information on six previous cases in which Blackwater guards allegedly opened fire on civilians, more than any other company.
Blackwater’s conduct at times inflamed tensions inside the Interior Ministry, Degn said. On May 24, Degn was evacuated from the building after an armed standoff between Interior Ministry commandos and Blackwater guards, who had shot and killed an Iraqi driver outside the gates. U.S. and Iraqi officials feared the incident might lead to retaliatory attacks against Americans.
“They are part of the reason for all the hatred that is directed at Americans, because people don’t know them as Blackwater, they know them only as Americans,” said an Interior Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. The official, interviewed before Sunday’s incident, said: “They are planting hatred, because of these irresponsible acts.”