Letter to The Honorable Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State
Kerry to Rice: Answers Needed on Blackwater Contract Renewal
Sen. John Kerry today questioned Secretary of State Condoleezzaa Rice on the recent decision to renew State's contract with Blackwater Worldwide. The private security provider came under intense scrutiny last September when 17 Iraqis died when Blackwater guards opened fire in Bagdad.
Below is the full text of Sen. Kerry's letter:
June 10, 2008
The Honorable Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Madam Secretary:
I write today to raise important questions regarding the U.S. State Department's (State's) recent renewal of its multi-million dollar contract with Blackwater Worldwide (Blackwater) to provide security services in Iraq. As you know, Blackwater is a North Carolina-based company that has approximately 1000 personnel performing a variety of personal protective services in Iraq. Blackwater came under intense scrutiny when at least 17 Iraqis died last September 16, 2007 after its guards protecting a State Department convey opened fire at Nisoor Square in Baghdad. In light of this and related incidents, the recent decision to renew Blackwater's contract fueled the perception that the Bush Administration is allowing private security contractors to act with impunity in Iraq.
In the aftermath of the September 16, 2007 shootings, several investigations were initiated by the U.S. and Iraqi governments. State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) conducted its own investigation that resulted in a partial grant of immunity in exchange for information about the September 16, 2007 incident. Reports later emerged that this offer of immunity might pose an obstacle to the U.S. Department of Justice's prosecution efforts.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is still investigating this matter. However, according to a November 14, 2007 New York Times article, the FBI initially found that at least 14 of the 17 shootings during the September 16, 2007 incident were "unjustified and violated deadly-force rules in effect for security contractors in Iraq." In response to similar findings from its own investigation, the Iraqi government demanded the prompt termination of Blackwater's contract.
For its part, Congress has held extensive hearings on Blackwater's activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. An October 2, 2007 oversight hearing held by Chairman Henry Waxman shed light on the fact that some U.S. military commanders thought Blackwater guards "have very quick trigger fingers," "act like cowboys," and "shoot first and ask questions later." According to information taken from Blackwater's own incident reports, its personnel took part in at least 195 "escalation of force" shootings since 2005 and fired first 84% of the time.
State's renewal of Blackwater's contract under these circumstances raises serious questions to which I seek a timely response:
1. (i) How much control does State permit Blackwater to exercise over its day-to-day tactics and operations, both prior to and after the September 16, 2007 incident?
2. (ii) What criteria does State apply to review the past performance of Blackwater and other private security contractors when awarding new contracts and extending existing ones?
3. (iii) What accountability mechanisms are written into current contracts that State has negotiated with Blackwater and other private security contractors? On the subject of accountability, I understand that Blackwater supports legislation that would inject some into the overseas operations of private security contractors, including a bill that would ensure that contractors working for the U.S. government in conflict zones were liable for prosecution under American criminal law. What are your views on this and related congressional measures to enhance accountability?
4. (iv) On April 4, 2008, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr was asked by the media: "[H]ow severe does it have to be before you guys would consider yanking the contract." Starr responded, "You're really asking me to predict the future and I really can't." Understanding that it is difficult to predict the future, under what set of circumstances would State terminate its contract with Blackwater? Would State do so if the FBI investigation were to return indictments?
5. (v) On May 10, 2008, the New York Times cited claims by State officials that "only three companies in the world meet their requirements for protective services in Iraq, and the other two do not have the capability to take on Blackwater's role in Baghdad." As a result, State reportedly did not open discussions with the other two companies, Dyncorp International and Triple Canopy, when it recently renewed Blackwater's contract. Blackwater asserts that over 95% of its government contracts were competitively bid, including its present contract in Iraq. Did State competitively bid the most recent contract prior to renewing with Blackwater?
6. (vi) Taken together, the apparent dearth of private sector security options and Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy's recent statement that, "[i]f the contractors were removed, we would have to leave Iraq," suggest that the U.S. government's hands are effectively tied in Iraq. What, in your opinion, were the driving forces that resulted in the U.S. government needing to rely so heavily upon private security contractors? In the future, does State intend to rely less, as much, or more on private security contractors in high-risk areas? If, in your view, State's reliance is likely to decline, what steps does it plan to take to reduce its dependence on such contractors?
7. (vii) In foreign countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan where the Administration contemplates an American presence over the longer-term and consequently there are known, ongoing security needs, has there been any consideration given to expanding the number of full-time employees in DS? If so, what is the nature of such discussions, as well as progress to date on any related plans?
8. (viii) The U.S. Army's field manual for contractors operating in the battlefield discusses performing a risk assessment that includes contingency plans to continue essential services provided by contractors through alternative sources should contractor support become unavailable. Has State prepared similar types of risk mitigation plans in the event Blackwater or other private security contractors are unable to fulfill their contracts?
9. (ix) In the counterinsurgency campaigns being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's well-understood that we are seeking to win over the local populations. To what extent did local "hearts and minds" factor into the written and oral guidance provided to Blackwater on everyday tactics prior to the September 16, 2007 incident? What subsequent changes has State required Blackwater to make in light of our broader counterinsurgency goals?
10. (x) Senior Blackwater officials have advised my office that they approached State well before the September 16, 2007 incident to request specific steps to enhance U.S. government oversight of its activities. Is this consistent with your understanding? If so, what specific steps were recommended by Blackwater? When did any such discussions with Blackwater occur? What action, if any, did State take immediately following any such discussions? Did the immediate response include placing video cameras in vehicles and ordering DS agents to accompany all contractor security convoys?
Your prompt answers to these important questions can help set the record straight and restore public confidence that the U.S. government will hold its contractors accountable for their conduct overseas.
Thank you for your serious and timely consideration of this request. I look forward to hearing from you regarding this critical matter.
Cc: Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr