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Pact tightens military control over Blackwater

A new agreement between the Pentagon and the State Department gives the military in Iraq more control over Blackwater Worldwide and other private security contractors.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A new agreement between the Pentagon and the State Department gives the military in Iraq more control over Blackwater Worldwide and other private security contractors.

The agreement was signed Wednesday at the Pentagon by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, whose department uses Blackwater to guard its diplomats. It spells out rules, standards and guidelines for the use of private security contractors.

The agreement also says contractors will be accountable for criminal acts under U.S. law. That partly clarifies what happens if a contractor breaks the law, but leaves the details to be worked out with Congress.

The move to tighten oversight followed Iraqi outrage over a Sept. 16 shooting in which 17 Iraq civilians were killed in a Baghdad square. Blackwater said its guards were protecting diplomats under attack before they opened fire, but Iraqi investigators concluded the shooting was unprovoked.

U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq later complained that they often do not know security firms are moving through their areas of responsibility until after some hostile incident has taken place.

Advance word
One of the chief features of the new accord is a provision giving the main U.S. military command in Iraq, known as Multi-National Force-Iraq, or MNF-I, more information on ground and air movements of private security contractors, regardless of whether they work for the embassy or the military.

The agreement does not give the U.S. military complete control of all contractor movements, but it states that the U.S Embassy's tactical operations center "will generally honor" the military's recommendations to alter or cancel ground convoy or helicopter movements. Final authority, in the event of disagreement between the embassy and the military, rests with the ambassador, it says.

If, however, the military cite a "substantial increase in the threat" to a private security convoy after it has begun moving in an area where the U.S. military is not present, then the contractor "will comply with (military) recommendations to alter routes or abort missions," the nine-page document says.

The accord says all personal security units escorting U.S. government personnel must coordinate their movements with coordination centers of either the U.S. military or the embassy. In turn, movement details -- to include time, route, destination and convoy composition -- are to be provided by either of those coordination centers to a higher-level U.S. military command a minimum of 24 hours in advance.

The agreement says deadly force is authorized when a private security contractor "reasonably believes that a person has committed a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent and poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to the personal security contractor."

When there is evidence of a crime, the embassy and the Pentagon "will make referrals to the appropriate prosecutorial authority," the agreement said. State and Defense departments will team up to help Congress establish a legal basis to hold security contractors "accountable under U.S. law."

Legal loophole
A legal loophole has made it difficult or impossible to prosecute contractors under U.S. military or civilian law. A drunk contractor who killed an Iraqi security guard after a Green Zone Christmas party last year apparently has not been charged with a crime, although the case was sent to a federal prosecutor in the United States.

The loophole has roots in the U.S. provisional government that operated in Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and has been an irritant in the U.S. relationship with the independent Iraq government that came later. Iraqi authorities have demanded that security contractors be accountable under Iraqi law, but the Bush administration opposes that.

There has been a string of repercussions since the September shootings by the North Carolina-based Blackwater:

  • Iraqis have threatened to expel the company and have demanded the right to prosecute contractors.
  • A federal grand jury is investigating whether criminal charges are warranted.
  • Blackwater chairman Erik Prince was called before Congress and asserted his employees had "acted appropriately at all times," vigorously rejecting charges that guards from his company acted as if they were immune to legal prosecution.
  • Richard Griffin, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, resigned just one day after a State Department study found serious lapses in the department's oversight of private guards.

In a meeting at the end of October, Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and reached a general understanding that more military control was needed over security firms operating in the war zone.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., author of a House-passed bill that would subject all contractors to criminal liability, called Wednesday's agreement "an important step toward improving transparency, management and accountability in security contracting. There is no question that it comes in response to significant congressional pressure ... but the agencies deserve credit for reading the writing on the wall and taking substantive steps to deal with a clear and critical problem."