Diplomatic convoys in Iraq get new rule

Rice orders presence of government officials

October 06, 2007|By Peter Spiegel | Peter Spiegel,Los Angeles Times

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered all diplomatic convoys in Baghdad to travel under the supervision of U.S. government security officials, a drastic overhaul of operations in the wake of 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 communications will be recorded and, along with the videotape and electronic tracking data, will be archived so diplomats can better review Blackwater's performance.

Yesterday's order marks a sharp reversal for Rice and the State Department, which for weeks has insisted that 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 D. 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 Department officials.

But in announcing the new measures, the department said members of a commission appointed by Rice to investigate 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 that Rice believed previous oversight was inadequate, but rather that she wanted to strengthen the "management controls" the embassy has over Blackwater.

"This is a good way to be able to protect all involved, in the case that there is an incident, that you have at the very least some objective baseline account of what went on," McCormack said.

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 both 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 the State Department as one of the last U.S. agencies to defend existing government oversight of the thousands of armed guards operating in Iraq.

Questions surrounding the department's handling of Blackwater-related shooting incidents intensified yesterday as a private security contractor for the Pentagon, a firm called Combat Support Associates, acknowledged that it had unknowingly hired a former Blackwater contractor allegedly involved in the Christmas Eve 2006 killing of an Iraqi guard.

The former Blackwater contractor, a one-time U.S. Army paratrooper identified as Andrew J. 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, Gary Lewi, said the company had done the required vetting of Moonen but 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 worked for CSA from February to August of this year.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a Democrat from California whose House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been investigating Blackwater's performance in Iraq, wrote to Rice yesterday requesting Moonen's personnel records and questioned why he was able to return to the Middle East just two months after the shooting.

Rice's decision to step up monitoring of Blackwater could present serious logistical challenges and could hinder the ability of U.S. diplomats to travel outside of the Green Zone.

Of particular concern, according to officials, is the new rule that requires officers from State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security to ride in every convoy traveling within the capital. An officer will be required to ride with the convoy itself as well as with advance teams that precede most convoys and backups that are held in reserve in case they are needed.

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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