Here’s Why It’s Time to Remember Blackwater and Iraq

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/albazi/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/albazi/

“The purpose of this memorandum is to inform you of a disturbing incident that occurred on August 21, 2007, while I was on [temporary duty] in Iraq. I found this incident disconcerting on many fronts; however, most of all, underscored the lack of professionalism and discipline that has been systemic during the performance of our [worldwide personal protective services] contracts in Iraq.”

So begins an unclassified “information memorandum” regarding the performance of Blackwater contractors in Iraq that government investigator Jean C. Richter sent State Department officials on August 31, 2007. According to The New York Times, in the course of his month-long inquiry into the operations of Blackwater — a global security firm with billion-dollar contracts for the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, whose employees were tasked with protecting American diplomats — he uncovered a number of contract violations: guards failed to regularly qualify on their weapons, carried weapons they were not authorized to use; and stored automatic weapons and ammunition in their private quarters, where they drank and partied heavily. Blackwater also overbilled the State Department by manipulating records.

The letter is part of newly acquired trove of documents, released from the State Department to The New York Times, that chronicles how the U.S. government was alerted to serious behavioral problems with the government contractor Blackwater and how one of the firm’s employee halted an investigation into the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. The documents are particularly enlightening because they captured the tension in the relationship between the State Department and the contractor just weeks before Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad. After that incident, the August 2007 memorandum gained importance because it raised questions about whether increased government oversight could have prevented those deaths. As the documents show, the State Department was well aware problems were brewing before that violence.

The investigators theorized that Blackwater was not reprimanded for the violations because U.S. embassy officials in Iraq had become too close to the contractor.

“The management structures in place to manage and monitor our contracts in Iraq have become subservient to the contractors themselves,” Richter wrote on August 31, 2007. “Blackwater contractors saw themselves as above the law,” he observed, adding that the “hands off” management style produced a situation in which “the contractors, instead of Department officials, are in command and in control.”

On September 16, 2007, five Blackwater security personnel shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians, outraging Iraqi citizens and straining ties between Washington and Baghdad. The subsequent investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation found no evidence to support the assertions made by the contractor’s employees that they were first fired upon by Iraqi civilians. Federal agents determined that at least 15 of the shootings were unjustified and violated the deadly force rules that governed security contractors in Iraq.

But little in the way of repercussions followed the FBI or congressional inquiries — at least in the United States. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the Iraqi government suspended Blackwater’s license to operate in the country. More importantly, the violence is considered to be a watershed moment in the American occupation of Iraq, serving as an important factor in the Iraqi government’s decision the following year to refuse to sign a treaty allowing U.S. troops to remain in the country beyond 2011. The Obama administration had wanted the Iraqi government to allow U.S. troops to stay longer, but its leaders refused to grant in return the White House’s main request, that soldiers be granted immunity in the event the commit a serious crime, like gunning down civilians without cause.

Despite the U.S. inquiries, much of the story that preceded the Nisour Square shooting has never been revealed.

Before that incident, the State Department had already launched its investigation into Blackwater. While looking into claims of poor food quality and sanitation at a cafeteria in Blackwater’s compound, Richter, the government’s investigator, was told by Daniel Carroll, the contractor’s project manager in Iraq, that those issues were no concern of the State Department. Even though Richter insisted the camp was property of the U.S. government, Carroll claimed it was not technically Department of State property. “Mr. Carroll accentuated this point by stating that he could ‘kill me’ at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” wrote Richter in his August 2007 memorandum. “I was not only surprised by the unnerving remarks related to Mr. Carroll’s perceived understanding of what fell under [government authority] and Department property, but also by the cavalier and unrestrained manner in which the Blackwater contractors felt they could respond to a [U.S. government official]. To me, it was immediately apparent that the Blackwater contractors believed they were the de facto authority and acted accordingly, in an alarming manner.”

Embassy officials sided with Carroll. Ricardo Colon, the acting regional security officer at the embassy, wrote in an August 23 email that Richter and his associate Donald Thomas Jr., a State Department management analyst, had become “unsustainably disruptive to day-to-day operations and created an unnecessarily hostile environment for a number of contract personnel.” That assessment led both men, who gave no comment to The New York Times piece, to leave for Washington, cutting their inquiry short.

No action was taken by the State Department until October 7, after the shooting had taken place. Officials took statements from both Richter and Thomas, but no follow-up occurred. But then, as the Times reported, Patrick Kennedy — the State Department official who led the special panel created by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to investigate the Nisour Square shooting — told reporters on October 23 that no communications from the embassy in Baghdad before the incident had raised concerns about contractor conduct. “We interviewed a large number of individuals,” Kennedy said. “We did not find any, I think, significant pattern of incidents that had not — that the embassy had suppressed in any way.”

Now, as violence in Iraq was once again on the rise, four of the five Blackwater guards involved in the Nisour Square shooting are on trial in Washington. This is the second time the federal government has attempted to prosecute the case since 2009, when the five guards were dismissed.

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