WASHINGTON (AP) – The State Department’s embattled security chief stepped down under pressure on Wednesday as the fallout from last month’s deadly Blackwater USA shooting of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad claimed its first political casualty.
Richard Griffin’s forced resignation came amid growing questions about the use of private contractors to protect diplomats in Iraq, according to officials familiar with the circumstances of his departure.
Griffin, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, made no mention of the furor in his resignation letter to President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But his decision to step down came at a time when the department is facing withering Iraqi and congressional criticism for its security practices.
It also followed by just a day the release of a report commissioned by Rice that found serious lapses in the department’s oversight of private guards, who are employed by Griffin’s bureau and report to it.
Rice accepted the resignation, which is effective Nov. 1. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Griffin will be replaced on an acting basis by one of his deputies, Gregory Starr.
“I just want to thank him for his exemplary service to the country,” Rice told reporters before meeting with Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.
Griffin, an ambassador-rank official who was previously deputy director of the U.S. Secret Service and inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs, had been in his current job since June 2005. He served 36 years in the U.S. government, according to his official biography.
His brief resignation letter praised the “brave men and women” of Diplomatic Security who “serve on the front lines of the war on terrorism” but said only that he was leaving to “move on to new challenges,” according to a copy provided to The Associated Press.
Griffin could not be reached for comment but two State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe an internal personnel decision, said Rice wanted new leadership for the Diplomatic Security bureau.
The change comes at a critical time in the debate over the State Department’s reliance on private security guards and the rules under which they operate after the Sept. 16 shooting in which Blackwater personnel are accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians.
Earlier Wednesday in Baghdad, the Iraqi cabinet upheld the findings of an official investigation of the incident that found the guards opened fire without provocation. Blackwater disputes this, saying the U.S. Embassy convoy it was protecting was attacked first.
The Iraqi cabinet also renewed calls for Blackwater’s expulsion from Iraq and set up a committee to look into repealing a 2004 directive that gives private contractors virtual immunity from prosecution.
On Tuesday, Rice ordered a series of measures to boost government oversight of private guards the department uses to protect its diplomats in Iraq, including the introduction of more explicit rules on when and how they can use deadly force.
The steps were recommended by the review panel that Rice created after the Sept. 16 shootout.
“Prompt measures should be taken to strengthen the coordination, oversight and accountability aspects of the State Department’s security practices in Iraq in order to reduce the likelihood that future incidents will occur,” the panel said in its 24-page report.
It did not, however, single anyone or any agency out for criticism.
Arguments on Capitol Hill over the role of private contractors in Iraq have largely obscured the broader debate over the war in recent weeks as majority Democrats have scrambled for new strategies designed to end the U.S. presence there.
In addition to clarifying the rules of engagement for contractors to bring them into line with the Pentagon’s, Rice accepted recommendations from the panel for private security guards to undergo cultural awareness and Arabic-language training and to set up a board to investigate any incidents where they use deadly force.
She had already accepted interim suggestions from the panel to have Diplomatic Security agents escort diplomatic convoys protected by Blackwater and other private guards, install cameras in all security vehicles, improve communications with U.S. military forces in areas where they travel, and record and catalog radio traffic with the embassy.
The panel made no specific recommendations about what should happen to Blackwater but it did recommend that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad assess “whether the continued services of the contractor involved is consistent with the accomplishment of the overall mission in Iraq” once an FBI investigation of the incident is complete.
The moves announced Tuesday are among those that Rice opted to make on her own, but further changes are likely after she meets later this week with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.