WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday ordered measures to boost oversight of U.S. security firm Blackwater, including putting video cameras on its convoys, after last month’s deadly shootings in Iraq.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said dozens of diplomatic security agents would also be sent to Iraq to accompany each convoy protected by Blackwater guards.
The firm has come under intense scrutiny in the U.S. Congress and is under investigation over the Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad that killed 11 Iraqis.
Rice took the actions after receiving a report by a special panel she sent to Baghdad to look into the incident. “We are putting in place more robust assets to make sure that the management reporting accountability function works as best it possibly can,” said McCormack. “These were initial steps.”
Senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy heads the panel Rice sent to Iraq last weekend and McCormack said he expected more recommendations would follow.
Special agents would begin immediately accompanying Blackwater when the firm transports U.S. diplomatic personnel outside the fortified international zone, McCormack said. “Agents are en route to Baghdad and we will continue to deploy them,” he said, declining to provide exact numbers for security reasons.
Video cameras and other recording devices would be loaded onto convoy vehicles and electronic data tracking material would be stored, he added. “The idea here is if you have an incident, you have a record.”
There would also be increased communication between privately secured convoys and the U.S. military operating in the area, McCormack said. There are four different investigations into the Sept. 16 killings involving Blackwater, including one led by the FBI as well as a joint U.S.-Iraqi inquiry.
The incident has put the role of private security contractors into the spotlight, both in Iraq and in the United States, where the Bush administration has been criticized for insufficient oversight and a lack of accountability.
Blackwater, which has earned more than a billion dollars from U.S. government contracts since 2001, says it acted “appropriately” during the shootings, but Iraq’s government has insisted that what happened was a crime. There are differing versions of what happened on Sept. 16. U.S. military reports from the scene of the shooting indicated Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation and used excessive force, The Washington Post reported on Friday. “It was obviously excessive. It was obviously wrong,” an unnamed U.S. military official told the newspaper. “The civilians that were fired upon, they didn’t have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP (Iraqi police) or any of the local security forces fired back at them,” the official was quoted as saying.
Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince said in remarks prepared for a congressional hearing this week that his firm’s guards came under small-arms fire and “returned fire at threatening targets.” “Some of those firing on this Blackwater team appeared to be wearing Iraqi National Police uniforms, or portions of such uniforms. As the withdrawal occurred, the Blackwater vehicles remained under fire from such personnel,” said Prince in the remarks obtained by Reuters but which were deleted from the testimony he ultimately delivered.