State Dept. ignored Blackwater warnings
Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images
The United States has a long history of breaking and tearing up treaties unilaterally.... Today, the STATE DEPARTMENT's BILLION DOLLAR CONTRACTS with BLACKWATER and other "security" companies are the 21st century equivalent of the US government - or local state and county governments - paying BOUNTIES for scalps of those American 'Indian' tribes designated as "savages"...
ACCOUNTABILITY: Complaints about Blackwater guards’ behavior were acknowledged by some in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, but received little high-level attention.
Diplomats had raised concerns about guards' endangering of Iraqi civilians, but the complaints got little attention.
By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 7, 2007
WASHINGTON -- The State Department, which is facing growing criticism of its policy on private security contractors, overlooked repeated warnings from U.S. diplomats in the field that guards were endangering Iraqi civilians and undermining U.S. efforts to win support from the population, according to current and former U.S. officials.Ever since the contractors were granted immunity from Iraqi courts in June 2004 by the U.S.-led occupation authority, diplomats have cautioned that the decision to do so was "a bomb that could go off at any time," said one former U.S. official.
But State Department leadership, unable to field U.S. troops or in-house personnel to guard its team, has clung to an approach that shielded the contractors from criminal liability, in the hope of ensuring continued protection to operate in the violent countryside.
The procedures have come under critical scrutiny since a Sept. 16 shooting involving contractors for Blackwater USA, the State Department's main security contractor, killed at least 11 Iraqis and set off a series of American and Iraqi investigations.
On Friday, in a tacit acknowledgment of the policy's shortcomings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered drastic increases in supervision of the security contractors. Meanwhile, the House, flatly rejecting the current approach, on Thursday approved in a 389-30 vote legislation that would subject contractors to U.S. criminal law.
The developments -- and the dramatically heightened attention to violence involving security contractors -- have not surprised current and former officials who have served in Iraq and seen incidents that injured Iraqis and destroyed their property.
"It's about time," said Janessa Gans, who was a U.S. official in Iraq for nearly two years, describing her reaction to news that the Iraqi government was threatening to expel Blackwater in the aftermath of the Sept. 16 shooting.
Gans said that during her travels around the country she saw heavily armed contract guards frighten Iraqi civilians and destroy their property, and she was shocked that they appeared to have so little accountability and that the Iraqis often found it difficult to obtain justice or compensation.
Gans, who related her experiences in an interview and in an opinion article published in Saturday's Times, described one incident. In 2005, a heavily armored Chevy Suburban at the head of her U.S. convoy smashed into a tiny car carrying an elderly man, a younger woman and three frightened children.
When she objected, the contractors pointed out that they were trained to treat all Iraqis as potential terrorists. Gans said she replied: "If they weren't terrorists before, they certainly are now."
Several other officials formerly assigned to duty in Iraq agreed to discuss concerns about security procedures but insisted on anonymity because they still are employed by the government and are not authorized to express their views. Some officials who have had similar experiences while at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad declined to describe them out of concern that they could be identified through the details of their accounts.
Their views of Blackwater and other security contractors are at odds with the descriptions in recent weeks from Rice and other top State Department officials, who have praised the guards as providing effective service under dangerous conditions.
Blackwater's chief executive noted last week that no U.S. official has been killed under Blackwater's protection.
Nonetheless, concerns have been voiced at times even by the most senior U.S. officials in Iraq. Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq John D. Negroponte, now the deputy secretary of State, had been overheard urging contractors to slow down and take more care as they careened through the streets.
"He was frequently exasperated," Gans said. "He would say, 'Is that necessary?' "
Gans said she complained to high-level embassy officials. Other current and former officials said that the concerns frequently were discussed among embassy staff and were acknowledged by some members of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which oversees contractors for the State Department.
But the complaints and concerns received little high-level attention, for several reasons, said diplomats who served in Iraq. In the crisis atmosphere of Iraq, the security problems seemed less urgent than other issues. In addition, even staff members who were uneasy with the arrangement were ambivalent because they wanted aggressive protection when they felt personally endangered.
When leaving the gates of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, "you want the biggest, meanest guys in the world protecting you," said a U.S. official who served in Baghdad and has been moved to another post in the region.
The private security contractors working for the State Department have operated under murky legal guidelines. While U.S. laws apply to contractors working for the Pentagon, workers for the State Department do not fall clearly under American or Iraqi law, allowing some to escape punishment for wrongdoing.
In May 2005, an Iraqi cabdriver with two passengers in the back seat was traveling down a broad thoroughfare when a five-car U.S. convoy carrying U.S. officials heading back to the Green Zone approached from a side street. The driver, Mohammed Nouri Hattab, 34, stopped about 50 feet from the convoy, but bullets ripped into his Opel, killing one passenger and striking Hattab's shoulder.