US: State Dept. intercedes in Blackwater probe

Publisher Name: 
LA Times

The State Department has interceded in a congressional
investigation of Blackwater USA, the private security firm accused of
killing Iraqi civilians last week, ordering the company not to
disclose information about its Iraq operations without approval from
the Bush administration, according to documents revealed Tuesday.




In a letter sent to a senior Blackwater executive Thursday, a State
Department contracting official ordered the company "to make no
disclosure of the documents or information" about its work in
Iraq without permission.




The letter and other documents were released Tuesday by Rep. Henry A.
Waxman (D-Los Angeles), whose House committee has launched
wide-ranging investigations into contractor abuses and corruption in
Iraq.




The State Department order and other steps it has taken to limit
congressional access to information have set up a confrontation
between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Waxman, who has
repeatedly accused the State Department of impeding his inquiries.




In his own letter to Rice on Tuesday, Waxman called her department's
latest efforts to withhold information from the committee
"extraordinary" and "unusual."




"Congress has the constitutional prerogative to examine the
impacts of corruption within the Iraqi ministries and the activities
of Blackwater," Waxman wrote. "You are wrong to interfere
with the committee's inquiry."




In response to Waxman's letter, Kiazan Moneypenny, a senior
contracting officer in the State Department's office of acquisition
management, appeared to soften the department's stand, saying later
Tuesday that it would allow Blackwater to hand over unclassified
documents.




Classified documents still would be subject to State Department
review. The committee has accused the administration of using secrecy
designations to keep bad news about Iraq out of the hands of
Congress.




The firm's contractThe State Department's order to Blackwater last
week cited a provision in the North Carolina security firm's contract
that makes all records produced by the company in Iraq property of the
U.S. government, and prohibits the company from releasing documents
without State Department approval.




Waxman had sought information about Blackwater's contract with the
State Department, under which it provides nearly 1,000 armed guards to
protect U.S. diplomats when they travel outside Baghdad's Green
Zone.




The request was part of a probe into a Sept. 16 incident in which at
least 11 Iraqis were killed after Blackwater employees protecting a
U.S. Embassy convoy opened fire.




The incident enraged the Iraqi government, which accused the firm of
routinely shooting civilians with impunity.




L. Paul Bremer III, the former U.S. administrator for Iraq, granted
contractors immunity from prosecution in an order he signed the day
before handing over sovereignty in June 2004.




A preliminary Iraqi investigation said the shootings occurred without
provocation; Blackwater and the State Department said the convoy was
ambushed and the guards opened fire after being attacked.




Hearing scheduledWaxman has scheduled a Blackwater hearing for next
Tuesday, but Blackwater's attorneys warned the committee that the
State Department's letter may complicate company executives'
testimony.




"In the fluid setting of a congressional hearing it may become
difficult, if not impossible, for Blackwater personnel to meet the
terms of" the State Department finding, wrote Stephen M. Ryan, an
attorney advising Blackwater in the congressional investigation.




"This contractual direction from the [State Department] is
unambiguous."




A company spokeswoman said Tuesday that Blackwater interpreted the
State Department's apparent shift Tuesday as permission to release
documents sought by Waxman.



The State Department has repeatedly defended Blackwater in the
aftermath of the Sept. 16 incident. After a brief ban on diplomatic
travel outside the Green Zone, department officials have resumed trips
under Blackwater guard and have said that the company's status has not
changed.




In his letter to Rice, Waxman also objected to a move by the
department to bar its officials from speaking with committee
investigators about corruption inside the government of Iraqi Prime
Minister Nouri Maliki.




An e-mail received by the committee Monday night indicated that the
State Department was treating information about corruption as
classified, suggesting it might undermine bilateral relations.




"The scope of this prohibition is breathtaking," Waxman
wrote. "On its face, it means that unless the committee agrees to
keep the information secret from the public . . . the committee cannot
obtain information about whether Mr. Maliki himself has been involved
in corruption or has intervened to block corruption
investigations."

Waxman said that
previous official reports of corruption within Iraqi ministries were
treated as "sensitive but unclassified." The State
Department retroactively classified the reports after his committee
requested them, Waxman said.
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