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10-31-07, 09:10 AM #1
U.S. Military Will Supervise Security Firms in Iraq
U.S. Military Will Supervise Security Firms in Iraq
By JOHN M. BRODER and DAVID JOHNSTON
WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 - All State Department security convoys in Iraq will now fall under military control, the latest step taken by government officials to bring Blackwater Worldwide and other armed contractors under tighter supervision.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed to the measure at a lunch on Tuesday after weeks of tension between their departments over coordination of thousands of gun-carrying contractors operating in the chaos of Iraq.
Mr. Gates appears to have won the bureaucratic tug-of-war, which accelerated after a Sept. 16 shooting in central Baghdad involving guards in a Blackwater convoy who Iraqi investigators say killed 17 Iraqis. Military coordination of contractor convoys will include operations of not only Blackwater, formerly known as Blackwater USA, but also those of dozens of other private firms that guard American diplomats, aid workers and reconstruction crews.
In Iraq, the government approved a draft law to overturn an order imposed by the American occupation authority in 2004 granting the employees of foreign contractors immunity from Iraqi law. Also on Tuesday, the State Department confirmed that some Blackwater employees questioned in connection with the Sept. 16 shooting had been granted a form of immunity in exchange for their statements. However, officials insisted that the immunity was limited and that it did not foreclose the possibility of prosecutions.
Democrats in Congress complained that the State Department appeared to have bungled the Blackwater investigation and said they feared that no one would be held accountable for the Iraqi deaths. "It feels like they're protecting Blackwater," said Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat.
At the Pentagon, Geoff Morrell, the chief spokesman, said the military would assert greater control over contractor training, rules for the use of force, employment standards and movements around Iraq.
He said Mr. Gates and military officers in Iraq insisted on the new measures "so they aren't blindsided by contractors running in and out of their battle space and potentially causing problems."
Mr. Morrell and his State Department counterpart, Sean McCormack, said that the details of the new arrangement had not been worked out but that the process was on a fast track and that both agencies hoped to have all issues resolved by Thanksgiving.
The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, will have to approve the arrangement, but he is likely to accept new rules that give his officers greater control over the numerous armed entities operating in his theater.
The State Department has had repeated problems trying to rein in the nearly 845 Blackwater guards in Iraq, who have fired their weapons in 195 incidents since 2005, according to Blackwater's count, leaving an undetermined number of Iraqis dead. Blackwater and two other security companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, share a multibillion-dollar contract to guard American diplomats and other civilians in Iraq.
But the Defense Department has had its own difficulties controlling its nearly 130,000 contractors, who handle a variety of jobs including interrogations of prisoners and transportation of fuel and ammunition. Auditors have uncovered numerous instances of cost overruns, sloppy work, theft and corruption in the tens of billions of dollars in logistics and reconstruction contracts in Iraq.
But for now, the focus is on a series of measures to bring greater accountability to private security contractors. The State Department has announced several such steps already, including the assignment of agents of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to accompany all Blackwater convoys, the installation of video cameras in all Blackwater vehicles and the establishment of a multiagency review board to examine all cases involving the use of force.
Ms. Rice and Mr. Gates agreed to tighten the rules for the use of force by armed contractors. Although current rules are quite restrictive and allow force to be used only defensively, the standards have not been enforced and Blackwater guards, in particular, earned a reputation for being quick on the trigger.
Mr. Morrell said the new, more stringent rules would be likely to put the Blackwater guards, and perhaps the people they are responsible for protecting, in greater danger.
"We want everybody operating for the sake of the same mission, O.K., which means, as the secretary has talked about before, invariably State Department contractors are going to have to assume greater risk because we have to operate with the overall mission in mind," Mr. Morrell said. "And that is winning the hearts and minds, the trust and confidence, of the Iraqi people."
Congressional Democrats criticized the administration over the immunity issue, saying it underscored the government's inability to hold contractors accountable. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who sits on two committees that oversee the State and Justice Departments, said: "In this administration, accountability goes by the boards. That goes equally for misconduct and for incompetence. If you get caught, they will get you immunity. If you get convicted, they will commute your sentence."
At the State Department, Mr. McCormack said that any lawbreakers "must be held to account" as a result of the inquiry into the Sept. 16 shootings, which has since been taken over by the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation. He said that if immunity were granted, it would not preclude a criminal prosecution.
Of Ms. Rice, he said, "Her attitude has been since the very beginning that we need to determine the facts and if the facts lead us to the conclusion that there are those who broke rules, laws or regulations, they must be held to account."
A Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, said in a statement that Blackwater employees could be prosecuted despite the immunity deals, which were not authorized by federal prosecutors. He said that neither the Justice Department nor the F.B.I. could discuss the case, but said "any suggestion that the Blackwater employees in question have been given immunity from federal criminal prosecution is inaccurate."
Three law enforcement officials confirmed Tuesday that State Department investigators did take statements from Blackwater employees after offering them immunity, though they had no authority to do so.
Immunity is intended to preserve the constitutional right against self-incrimination while still giving investigators the ability to gather evidence. Witnesses granted immunity have no right to remain silent but nothing they say can be used against them.
Law enforcement officials said the Blackwater employees were given a Garrity warning, named after a Supreme Court case, Garrity v. New Jersey. This form of limited immunity does not bar a criminal prosecution but is seldom granted in a case in which a criminal prosecution is likely. It is almost never granted without the approval of federal prosecutors.
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