Blackwater to abide by new rules
The State Department has ordered increased oversight and electronic surveillance of Blackwater USA's private security officers while on duty after an initial assessment of the company's diplomatic security operations at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.
The new rules, issued Oct. 5, come amid public and congressional concerns about the recent shooting of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors who provided diplomatic security for State employees. Several investigations have been launched into the incident, which has sparked outrage among many Iraqis and Americans. Blackwater is based in Moyock, N.C.
Under the new guidelines, agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security will begin accompanying Blackwater's protective details. State officials plan to more closely review reported incidents, record radio transmissions between security details, mount cameras in security vehicles and archive electronic records of the vehicles' movement. The department also will expand existing communications links to U.S. military units operating in the same areas as the Blackwater details.
The goal is to improve operational accountability and control, according to a State statement announcing the changes.
Video cameras are "something that American police use every day. If the police in the U.S. are doing it, certainly a rich company like Blackwater should be able to do it," said Marc Garlasco, Human Rights Watch's senior military analyst and a former senior intelligence analyst at the Pentagon, where he served as chief of high-value targeting during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. "It's the minimum that they should be doing to keep tabs on these guys."
Garlasco added that although increased surveillance is a positive step, it will be pointless if there is no penalty for violations. Contractor accountability dominated discussions on Capitol Hill last week as lawmakers took issue with legislation passed in the initial stages of the American occupation of Iraq. Those laws grant immunity to contractors who commit crimes in Iraq or Afghanistan if they work for agencies other than the Defense Department.
Furthermore, under an Iraqi law imposed by U.S. authorities, non-Iraqi contractors cannot be prosecuted in Iraqi courts.
The House attempted to close those loopholes last week by passing legislation that would expand the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 to cover all contractors working for the government in war zones, including those under State contracts, as many Blackwater employees are. The legislation would hold all contractors accountable under the U.S. laws.
The Bush administration has expressed opposition to the proposed rule changes, which also include provisions requiring the FBI to investigate allegations of contractor misconduct.
"The bill would have unintended and intolerable consequences for crucial and necessary national security activities and operations," White House officials wrote in a Statement of Administration Policy on the eve of the bill's passage.
The House bill's sponsor, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), said State's new guidelines were a good first step but would mean little without the rule change. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must address the question of accountability, Price said. "It is astonishing to me that the White House would continue to oppose a bill supported by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House and even the contracting industry to make that critical change," he added.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, praised the new rules as "important first steps in improving accountability and oversight."
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.