If Wednesday’s one-two punch of news involving Blackwater Worldwide produced yet another black eye for the security contractor, it delivered a real body blow to the State Department, which hired the company to guard diplomats in Iraq and which has been the subject of mounting criticism over its lack of oversight.
First, The New York Times reported that an ongoing FBI investigation into the Sept. 16 killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater personnel has found that at least 14 of the deaths were unjustified. Then a House committee grilled the State Department’s inspector general, Howard J. Krongard, during hearings into allegations that he had impeded probes into alleged misconduct by Blackwater. According to the Washington Post, “the Justice Department told the committee that Krongard had resisted helping with a probe of possible gun smuggling by Blackwater into Iraq and had taken steps that had ‘certainly impacted the investigation.'” This is the State Department’s top official in charge of rooting out misconduct.
After being questioned about a conflict of interest involving his brother, who is on Blackwater’s advisory board, Krongard (after talking to his brother by phone during a break) ended up recusing himself from investigations involving Blackwater.
Wednesday’s embarrassing developments came after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been forced to step up oversight procedures in Iraq, and after what many saw as a serious State Department misstep in granting limited immunity to some of the Blackwater guards who were involved in the September shootings. That complicated the FBI probe, which will have to build any criminal case it puts together without benefit of their testimony or evidence.
Whether indictments will be sought has not been decided, the Times reported (and Justice later confirmed). However, the Times said some officials “have expressed pessimism that adequate criminal laws exist to enable them to charge any Blackwater employee with criminal wrongdoing.”
How the United States got into this mess of cloudy, iffy accountability was explored in a recent analysis by Lt. Col. Rick Francona for MSNBC. Francona offers insight into the reasons, indeed what he argues is the need, for hiring private contractors in a war zone. But he concludes that Blackwater “is a distraction we don’t need. The State Department needs to cancel that contract, then enter into another Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ but this time with better oversight by the Diplomatic Security Service and well-defined legal parameters.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday, “Once we have the final results of the investigation, if any individuals were found who have broken the rules, then I can assure you they’re not going to be working on any contracts for the State Department in the future.” That doesn’t sound like an agency ready to pull the plug on a whole company, but the story isn’t over — and the State Department is under a heap of pressure to get this right.
Susan Albright, a former editor of the Star Tribune’s editorial pages, writes about national and foreign developments.