Report: State Dept., Blackwater cooperated to neutralize killings
Warren P. Strobel - McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — State Department officials worked closely with the private security contractor Blackwater USA to play down incidents in which company operatives killed innocent Iraqis, according to Blackwater and State Department documents obtained by a congressional committee.
When a drunken Blackwater contractor killed a bodyguard of Iraq's vice president last Christmas Eve, the State Department helped spirit the contractor out of the country within 36 hours, according to the report, released Monday by Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Officials in Baghdad and Washington then dickered with Blackwater on the compensation for the family of the guard, Raheem Khalif. An unnamed official in the State Department's Diplomatic Security service complained that the $250,000 payment proposed by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was too much, because it might lead Iraqis to "try to get killed so as to set up their family financially," according to a State Department e-mail obtained by the committee.
When a Blackwater contract employee killed an Iraqi in Hillah in June 2005, the State Department asked the firm to pay $5,000 in compensation. "(W)e are all better off getting this case — and any similar cases — behind us quickly," a department official wrote.
The disclosures appear to contradict past claims by State Department officials that they aggressively investigated wrongdoing by Blackwater. The company has received $835 million in contracts to guard U.S. civilians in Iraq.
Blackwater has come under heightened scrutiny since a shooting Sept. 16 in Baghdad that left 11 Iraqis dead. On Monday, the FBI said it has begun a criminal investigation.
"At the request of the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is sending a team to Iraq to assist in the ongoing investigation into the September 16, 2007, shooting incident allegedly involving Blackwater employees," FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said in a statement.
The memorandum released Monday by the House committee's Democratic staff describes other questionable incidents.
On Sept. 24, 2006, a Blackwater detail driving on the wrong side of the road caused a red Opal driven by an Iraqi to skid into a Blackwater vehicle, hit a telephone pole and burst into flames. Blackwater personnel collected people and equipment from their disabled vehicle and left without aiding those in the Iraqi vehicle, described as being "in a ball of flames," according to a company report.
On Nov. 28, 2005, a Blackwater motorcade making a round-trip journey to Iraq's Oil Ministry collided with 18 different vehicles, according to another company document. Team members' written accounts of the incident were found by the company to be "invalid, inaccurate and, at best, dishonest reporting."
No employee of a private military contractor has been criminally charged for actions in Iraq.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell didn't return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment. She told the Associated Press: "We look forward to setting the record straight on this and other issues" at a hearing Tuesday of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Three senior State Department officials are also to testify.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said, "We are scrupulous in terms of oversight and scrutiny, not only of Blackwater but of all our contractors."
The committee staff working for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., also reported, based on company documents, that Blackwater has fired 122 employees for misconduct under the State Department contracts.
Of those, 28 were let go for weapons-related incidents, 25 for drug and alcohol violations and 16 for "inappropriate/lewd conduct."
"The only sanction that has been applied to Blackwater contractors for misconduct is termination of their individual contracts with Blackwater," the staff memorandum says.
It quotes David Satterfield, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior Iraq adviser, as saying that Blackwater has 861 personnel working in Iraq. Two other companies, DynCorp and Triple Canopy, also conduct protective security details in the country.
Citing Blackwater's security incident reports, the memorandum says Blackwater employees used their firearms 195 times from Jan. 1, 2005, through Sept. 12, 2007. Blackwater fired first in 84 percent of those incidents.
Blackwater documents acknowledge 16 Iraqi casualties in that time frame. But that number appears low.
The House committee says that in many cases, Blackwater employees fire from moving vehicles and don't "remain at the scene to determine if their shots resulted in casualties."
In the case of the Christmas Eve killing of a guard to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi — which enraged the Iraqi government — the Blackwater contractor fled to a guard post operated by Triple Canopy and was later apprehended by police in Baghdad's Green Zone.
According to investigative reports the committee cites, he claimed to have fired in self-defense, but Blackwater fired him on Christmas Day for violating its policy against possessing a firearm while intoxicated.
With the knowledge of State Department officials, he was put on a plane out of Baghdad on the morning of Dec. 26.