WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered federal agents on Friday to ride with Blackwater USA escorts of U.S. diplomatic convoys in Baghdad to tighten oversight after a shooting in which private guards are accused of killing 13 Iraqi civilians.
She also ordered video cameras installed in Blackwater vehicles.
The steps will require the State Department to deploy dozens of additional in-house Diplomatic Security agents to accompany Blackwater guards and are the first in a series of moves Rice is expected to take to boost control of contractors the agency relies on to protect diplomats in Iraq.
They are aimed at "putting in place more robust assets to make sure that the management, reporting and accountability function works as best as it possibly can," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The measures, which also include recording radio traffic between the embassy and diplomatic convoys and improving communications between those vehicles and U.S. military units in the vicinity, were implemented amid intense criticism of the department's security practices in Iraq and Blackwater's role.
They also come as Iraqis and U.S. lawmakers are clamoring for clarification of the now nebulous jurisdiction and authority under which the State Department's private security guards work.
On Thursday, the House passed legislation that would place all private government contractors in Iraq under U.S. criminal statutes. The Bush administration has expressed concerns about the proposed amendments but has pledged to work with Congress on improvements before the Senate takes up the bill in coming weeks.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said Friday that Rice's move was welcome but overdue.
"It goes without saying that contract personnel who are armed and authorized to use deadly force ought to be closely monitored," he said in a statement. "The secretary still needs to address the essential question of accountability: How will rogue individuals who commit criminal acts be brought to justice?"
In ordering changes, Rice accepted preliminary recommendations from an internal review board she created after the Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater guards are accused of opening fire on Iraqi civilians in a main square in Baghdad.
Blackwater contends its employees came under fire first, but the Iraqi government and witnesses have disputed that, saying the guards opened fire without provocation.
McCormack did not say that previous practices lacked proper safeguards to ensure accountability, but noted that the practices would now be enhanced for all the department's private security contractors, including Blackwater. The company, with about 1,000 employees in Iraq, is the largest of three private firms that guard U.S. diplomats in the country.
The new rules initially will apply only to Blackwater details because the initial recommendations cover just Baghdad where the company operates. This could be expanded to include the other two firms, Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, which work in the north and south of Iraq, McCormack said.
The United States has not made conclusive findings about the incident, though there are multiple investigations under way to determine what happened. The FBI on Thursday took control of what had been a State Department probe, in part to prepare for the possibility the incident may be referred to the Justice Department for prosecutions.
The orders issued Friday were recommended by a separate commission Rice created to look into the Baghdad embassy's overall security practices. McCormack maintained they are not intended to imply that the other investigations have determined Blackwater employees may have violated procedures.
The panel is being led by Patrick Kennedy, one of the most senior management experts in the U.S. foreign service. Rice also brought in outside experts, including retired Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO commander in Europe; Stapleton Roy, a retired veteran diplomat; and Eric Boswell, a former State Department and intelligence official.
Kennedy has been in Baghdad for nearly a week. Rice had asked for a preliminary review by Friday.
McCormack noted that not all members of Kennedy's team were in Baghdad yet and stressed that Rice's decision to implement changes did not preclude further revisions to security policies.
Before Rice's orders, Diplomatic Security agents only accompanied U.S. convoys on an "ad hoc" basis, according to McCormack. Now, at least one agent will be in every convoy, he said.
It was not immediately clear how many more agents that would require, but McCormack said it would number in the "dozens." Department officials have refused to say how many Diplomatic Security agents are in Iraq, citing security concerns.
In addition, video cameras had not previously been mounted in convoy vehicles as a matter of policy and radio traffic had been monitored but not recorded by the embassy, McCormack said. Rice's orders also mandate that convoys have direct contact with tactical U.S. military teams in their vicinity, he said.
"In case there is an incident, we will have an improved capability to ensure that we have all the possible information we can collect to determine exactly what happened," McCormack said. "And, we want to make sure that we have full connectivity, up and down the chain, with the military operating in the area."
The State Department has counted 56 shooting incidents involving Blackwater guards in Iraq this year. All were being reviewed as part of the comprehensive inquiry Rice ordered.