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Blackwater warnings got little attention

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

“There was no warning,” Hattab, who suffered lasting damage to his arm, later told a reporter. “It was a sudden attack.”

Hattab was forced to go on disability leave from his Oil Ministry job at half pay and struggled without success to get compensation from the U.S. government.

Two Blackwater employees were fired for failing to follow proper procedures in the incident. They were flown back to the United States after an investigation by embassy security personnel, but faced no subsequent prosecution.

The procedure was similar in a well-known incident last Christmas Eve, when a Blackwater employee left a party and fatally shot a bodyguard to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. Within 36 hours, security officials investigated the case and whisked the shooter back to the United States.

In the wake of the Sept. 16 shootings, Justice Department officials are looking into the Christmas Eve case to see if further action is warranted.

Many of the current and former U.S. officials said nearly all of the contractors they dealt with were highly professional. But in the violent atmosphere of Iraq, even a small percentage of “renegades” can inflict enormous damage, some said.

Iraqi politicians frequently have complained about the behavior of American security contractors, said Gans, who believes the constant friction undermined American efforts to improve relations.

“There are so many things going on in Iraq that seemed unfair,” said Gans, now a visiting professor at Principia College in Illinois. “But this piece of it was unbelievable.”

State Department leaders, appearing last week before a House committee investigating the issue, said that practical considerations had led to their decision to rely on private contractors for diplomatic security.

Faced with a need for protection and no access to the limited numbers of U.S. troops, the State Department had a choice between waiting at least 18 months to assemble a sufficient force of State Department staff security agents or hiring contractors. In addition, they said they did not believe at first that the Iraq mission would be long-lived.

While contractors are expensive, a single Bureau of Diplomatic Security agent costs nearly $500,000 a year, said Richard J. Griffin, assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security.

Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied the issue, said that though diplomats in the field clearly “have been upset with this,” they have felt they had no other choice.

“It’s not like there was ever a high-level review of this,” he said. U.S. officials in charge “didn’t want to make the hard choices. So they outsourced the hard choices.”

paul.richter@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Beirut, T. Christian Miller in Santa Rosa, Maggie Farley at the United Nations, Tina Susman in Baghdad and Laura King in Islamabad contributed to this report.


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