The State Department’s request for $1.5 billion to protect U.S. diplomats and a growing number of reconstruction teams on the ground is a pricey reminder that the war-torn country remains a dangerous place.
The bid to boost security spending by one-third in 2008 comes as the department confronts mounting criticism over problems with construction of a massive new embassy in Baghdad, heavy-handed tactics by private security guards and a plan to force U.S. diplomats to serve in Iraq.
Lawmakers who control the flow of money are questioning the department’s appetite for more. Over $500 million of the proposed 2008 spending would go to three private security firms, including Blackwater Worldwide (formerly Blackwater USA), which has been denounced since a Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad left 17 Iraqis dead.
The Baghdad security money also will pay for armored vehicles, bulletproof vests, ammunition, X-ray machines, bomb-sniffing dogs, barriers to prevent attacks by suicide bombers, and overhead shields to deflect mortar attacks, according to an Oct. 22 budget document sent to Congress.
Rep. Nita Lowey said lawmakers won’t let U.S. diplomats go unprotected. But before the fiscal year 2008 request can be approved, the State Department must prove “it is capable of overseeing the actions of private security contractors and preventing the misuse of American taxpayers’ money in Iraq,” she said.
“Right now we have little reason to believe that is the case,” said Lowey, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees State Department spending.
Democrat: Iraq efforts 'in disarray'
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been the most vocal critic, saying the department’s efforts in Iraq are “in disarray.”
The request is part of a larger $3.2 billion supplemental spending measure separate from the Bush administration’s annual budget submission for the State Department. Supplementals have been the vehicle of choice for financing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a strategy panned by critics who say it undermines accountability.
In its December 2006 report, the Iraq Study Group said wartime supplementals receive “minimal scrutiny” and make it difficult for the public to know how much the Bush administration wants to spend in Iraq.
Nearly $1 billion of the total is for security in and around Baghdad where many State Department employees work in a makeshift complex while the new embassy is being built inside the city’s fortified Green Zone, the budget document says.
The 2008 request for Baghdad security is nearly $400 million more than the 2007 bill, Lowey’s subcommittee staff says, a boost driven by the expected demands of operating and protecting an expanding embassy work force shifting to a larger facility.
In justifying the money for protective measures, the document says the “security situation in Iraq remains serious with attacks targeting both military and civilian targets throughout Iraq.”
The embassy, a 104-acre compound that will be the world’s largest diplomatic mission, was scheduled to be completed in September. The project is badly behind schedule and might not open until well into 2008. It’s also expected to cost nearly $150 million more than its original $600 million price tag.
The number of State Department personnel in Iraq is growing; 80 positions are being added at the embassy for a total of 1,725 employees, and more than a dozen new Provincial Reconstruction Teams are being established to help rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure.
The department says Blackwater and the other two security companies — Triple Canopy and Dyncorp — are collectively paid about $520 million a year.
With Blackwater’s current security contract set to expire in May and the Iraqis demanding the company’s expulsion over the September shootings, State officials may be forced to hire another contractor.
Blackwater has said its convoy that was protecting U.S. diplomats was under attack before it opened fire, but initial investigations by Iraqi and U.S. authorities have concluded otherwise.
Security firms are expensive
Waxman said Blackwater charges the government more than $1,200 a day for a single guard — nearly six times what it would cost to have a soldier do the same job.
Another $517 million is for protective details and helicopters to allow the 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams to travel and work securely throughout Iraq. Many, but not all, of the teams move with U.S. military forces or are located at heavily guarded bases.
The State Department budget document lists four teams in need of “adequate movement security.” Each operates outside of Baghdad in towns such as Basra, a port city in the south where British forces are reducing their presence, and Irbil, an area in the north dominated by the Kurds.
The document notes that aviation support, which allows security teams to respond quickly to hostile action or transport injured personnel, is a “major component of the security cost” for the reconstruction teams. The budget document does not specify how much, however.
U.S. military commanders have pointed to the surge of American troops earlier this year as the reason for a drop in Iraqi civilian deaths and fewer attacks on coalition force in recent months. Buoyed by that progress, the Bush administration plans to begin reducing the size of the military force next year.
The improvements have not eased personal concerns among foreign service personnel about working in Iraq, however. Top State Department officials have repeatedly sought experienced personnel to work at the Baghdad embassy and in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.
Facing a shortfall in volunteers, the department recently announced it would identify 200 to 300 foreign service officers as “prime candidates” for 48 unclaimed positions in Iraq. If not enough of them agree to go, some would be ordered to do so under threat of dismissal.
At a town hall-style meeting in Washington last week, several hundred members of the department’s foreign service voiced strong objections to the forced call-up, with many applauding when a colleague likened it to a “potential death sentence.”