By William Fisher
Diplomatic sources believe that the State Department official charged with managing private security firms such as Blackwater and other contractors in Iraq and elsewhere overseas was ‘thrown under the bus’ by the Bush Administration seeking a ‘sacrificial lamb’ to protect the more politically powerful people who supervised his office.
Richard Griffin, State’s Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Director of the Office of Foreign Missions (DS), resigned abruptly on October 24 in the face of a gathering firestorm of criticism regarding the management and oversight of the ‘private armies’ charged with protecting US diplomats, Iraqi government officials, and visiting VIPs including members of the House and Senate.
A State Department source, who spoke on condition of anonymity ”because of the sensitivity” of the issue, said Griffin’s resignation was calculated to provide cover for several politically better-connected higher-ups who were responsible for the overall management and oversight of contractors who provide security services and others engaged in major construction projects such as the massive new American Embassy in Baghdad.
The protected officials were identified as Griffin’s boss, Henrietta H. Fore, Undersecretary for Management, and State’s Inspector General, Howard J. Krongard.
The House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, led by feisty California Democrat Henry Waxman, has been conducting ongoing investigations into Blackwater and other private security contractors, as well as reportedly large-scale problems in the construction of the Baghdad embassy.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice testified before the Committee last week, largely evading questions about the activities of Blackwater, while acknowledging shortcomings in the supervision of the Embassy construction project but claiming that it was the State Department itself that identified and moved to correct the problems.
Krongard is already under attack by Waxman, but Fore has thus far managed to keep a relatively low profile. However, according to a State Department source, “The Waxman investigation into (the Office of the Inspector General) would have implicated Fore and Griffin pretty quickly. Of the three -- Krongard, Fore, and Griffin, Griffin has the least political clout and support. So we think that he was sacrificed early in a public gesture in order to placate the Waxman committee and keep them away from Fore, who has the most clout.”
Appointed by President Bush in August 2005 as Under Secretary for Management, Fore is responsible for the State Department’s people, resources, facilities, technology and security, and is principal advisor on management issues. Among many other management and administrative functions, she leads the Department’s diplomatic security and overseas buildings operations – the two offices most directly implicated in the Blackwater and Embassy construction issues.
Fore is also State’s White House liaison and its representative on the President's Management Council. In the wake of a sex scandal that forced the resignation of Randall Tobias as Director of US Foreign Assistance, in May she was named to fill that post as well as becoming Acting Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
According to Waxman, government officials have accused Krongard of repeatedly blocking investigations into contracting fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan, including construction of the new Embassy in Baghdad, and censoring reports that might prove politically embarrassing to the Bush administration.
The State Department source said, “Krongard’s guilt is that he helped cover up what Fore and Griffin did. Of the three, Griffin is the weakest link, so he gets to be the scapegoat for the other two.”
The organization that represents America’s diplomats, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) has called on Inspector General Krongard to “surrender day-to-day control of State’s vital Office of Inspector General pending the resolution of grave allegations of malfeasance leveled against him by numerous current and former career government officials.”
AFSA urged the Bush Administration to make it a top priority to obtain additional staffing resources for diplomacy. In Iraq alone, some 270 Foreign Service positions remain unfilled. State has also requested funds to hire an additional 100 DS Special Agents.
But the State Department source says Griffin is more than a mere scapegoat. The Bureau Griffin headed hired Blackwater and other private security firms including DynCorp and Triple Canopy, “ostensibly trained them, supervised them, and then failed to hold them accountable for errors. In fact, it appears that the DS Bureau actually covered up for Blackwater in several cases.”
One diplomat said, “While construction of the Embassy is supervised by another State office, Griffin’s office was also involved. It is responsible for supervising the construction of, and certifying, physical security features, such as bomb resistant walls, protective barriers, and so forth. In order for OBO to accept the building contractors' work, DS has to certify that the work on these features meets or exceeds their security standards. One complaint is that a wall, ostensibly certified by DS as meeting their standards (which should have been impervious to a rocket attack) was breached by a launched grenade (smaller than a rocket), which obviously meant that it should never have been certified as ‘safe’.” The Office of the Inspector General (IG) and Griffin’s office are accused of attempting to cover up this fact.
A diplomatic advocacy group, Concerned Foreign Service Officers (CFSO), said that Griffin and his deputy, “fostered the kind of ‘we are above the law - accountable to no-one’ environment which gave carte blanche to Blackwater and others to act as they saw fit.”
The organization said the killing of Iraqi civilians and other alleged excesses by Blackwater “come as little surprise to those who have complained for years about the ‘above-the-law’ culture that has developed in the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.”
It charged that DS believes “that the laws and regulations of the United States need not apply to those who are entrusted to enforce those laws or to protect American diplomats.”
Griffin, an ambassador-rank official who previously held senior posts with the Secret Service and Veteran's Affairs Administration, had been in his current position since June 2005.
The management and oversight of security contractors such as Blackwater intensified after Blackwater guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle on Sept. 16. The FBI, as well as the Iraqi government and the State and Defense departments are investigating the incident, but Baghdad has ordered Blackwater to leave Iraq and has vowed to overturn a law shielding contractors from prosecution.
Earlier, in 2005, a drunken American employee of Blackwater, had shot and killed one of the personal bodyguards of Iraq’s vice president the night before. Within 36 hours of the shooting, Blackwater and the embassy had shipped him out of the country. But as with previous killings by contractors, the case was handled with apologies and a payoff.
Blackwater fired the shooter and fined him $14,697 -- the total of his back pay, a scheduled bonus and the cost of his plane ticket home, according to Blackwater documents. The amount nearly equaled the $15,000 the company agreed to give the Iraqi guard's family.
The recent shootings have also triggered the disclosure of a number of similar events previously, and reopened a long-standing feud between the State Department and the Pentagon about who is responsible for the safety of US civilians serving in Iraq. Also at issue is the question of whether civilian contractors in Iraq can be prosecuted under US criminal law, the Pentagon’s Uniform Code of Military Justice, or not at all.
According to an email from a US Embassy spokesman to superiors. "If the [private security company] is found negligent, the only recourse is dismissal. In cases where there was clear criminal intent, a criminal case could hypothetically be pursued in US federal court, but this has yet to happen out here."
With State Department and FBI investigations underway, the military leaked its own report on the September 16 shootings, finding no evidence that the Blackwater guards fired in self-defense, as the company has maintained. US officers have publicly criticized the security contractors as out-of-control "cowboys" whose behavior alienates Iraqis.
Testifying before Waxman’s committee, Blackwater founder and CEO Erik Prince refused to comment on the September 16 shootings because they are the subject of ongoing investigations. But he defended his company’s record. He noted that 30 Blackwater employees had been killed in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003 and that there had been no casualties among those the company was charged to protect.
Some Democrats in Congress have pointed out that Prince and his family has long been substantial contributors to Republican candidates and causes, but State Department officials have said the contracting process is immune from political influence. Prince is a former US Navy Seal.
In response to the growing criticism of Blackwater and similar contractors, DS has more than doubled its three-dozen agents in Baghdad. It has deployed to Iraq a third of the 100-agent SWAT force it maintains for emergencies anywhere in the world. Secretary Rice has ordered that at least one DS agent accompany every Blackwater-guarded convoy leaving the Green Zone -- an average of six or seven each day -- and has directed DS to monitor and archive radio and video transmissions from Blackwater vehicles to be used as evidence in any future incident.
Some observers believe continuing Congressional scrutiny may force Rice to remove Blackwater's approximately 900 personal-security personnel from Iraq. And a new, $112 million contract was signed with Blackwater just last month may be in jeopardy, according to a senior DS official.
The new contract added 241 Blackwater personnel and increased its helicopter fleet in Iraq from eight to 24 to provide a quick-reaction air component for diplomatic transport, medical evacuation and rescue -- tasks the military has declined to take on.
According to documents obtained by Waxman’s committee, contractors are highly paid for security duties: Blackwater charges State $1,221.62 a day for a "protective security specialist," according to a 2005 invoice released by the committee.
But during a recent interview on the "Charlie Rose" television show, Blackwater head Prince said, “That is an all-inclusive cost. They get paid well, but they get paid only for every day they are at work in a hot zone. They pay significant taxes right off the top of that, state and federal. They have to cover their own insurance, their own housing allowance -- all those benefits that a soldier gets wrapped in."
In any case, Prince said, "I know it would be hard for the State Department to recruit other people to come over and do reconstruction work . . . if some of them are going home in coffins." Most of Blackwater’s security personnel have formerly served in the US military.
The Blackwater controversy intensified even as Secretary Rice appeared before Waxman’s committee, where she acknowledged that she regretted that oversight of security contractors was not as good as it could have been but generally defended her department's performance.
At the same time, however, ABC News revealed new evidence that the US sought to conceal details of Blackwater shootings of Iraqi civilians more than two years ago.
ABC charged that internal e-mails “show that State Department officials tried to deflect a 2005 Los Angeles Times inquiry into an alleged killing of an Iraqi civilian by Blackwater guards.
"Give [the Los Angeles Times] what we can and then dump the rest on Blackwater," one State Department official wrote to another in the e-mails. "We can't win this one."
One department official taking part in a chain of e-mails noted that the "findings of the investigation are to remain off-limits to the reporter." Another recommended that there be no mention of the existence of a criminal investigation since such a reference would "raise questions and issues."
In the May 2005 incident, a Blackwater convoy was transporting a senior US diplomat down a Baghdad thoroughfare when guards opened fire on an approaching taxi. The taxi driver told The Times that he was slowing to a stop when a burst of machine-gun fire cut into his taxi, wounding him and killing a 19-year-old passenger.
The Times began making inquiries after receiving a tip in August 2005. Peter Mitchell, then a spokesman for the US Embassy, told superiors that he planned to tell a reporter that the State Department had "thoroughly investigated" the incident and that "no criminal act occurred."
ABC charged that the e-mails indicate, however, that the only investigation done was "administrative." Two Blackwater employees were fired and sent back to the US after they were found to have violated operating procedures. Blackwater has declined to comment on the incident.
Following allegations of waste, fraud and mismanagement in the construction of the new Baghdad Embassy, a 182-page report prepared by the embassy itself concluded that "Currently, Iraq is not capable of even rudimentary enforcement of anticorruption laws." As a result, the report said, corruption has become "the norm in many [Iraqi government] ministries."
The confidential report, first disclosed by The Nation magazine, said "All indications point to corruption as undermining the support of the population for Iraq's government." The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, it said, “is an enabler of the spreading corruption.”
It added,"The Prime Minister's Office has demonstrated an open hostility
to the concept of an independent agency to investigate or prosecute corruption cases. The Iraqi Government has been withholding basic support and resources" from an Iraqi Government commission formed to investigate corruption.
In her testimony before the Waxman committee, Secretary Rice vowed to examine corruption allegations against Maliki, but refused to discuss publicly what she said could be rumor. Rice said her office would look into these allegations as well as "hundreds of reports of corruption" among other Iraqi officials.
Meanwhile, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) says urgent action is needed to deploy more foreign service personnel worldwide, as well as to hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan. AFSA’s president, John K. Naland, says, “The magnitude of current staffing shortfalls is astounding.” He said the current deficit is 2,094 Foreign Service positions worldwide.