More Oversight of Security Contractors

The State Department is tightening its oversight of private security contractors operating in Iraq after an official panel found significant shortcomings in the department's operations of the security program. The panel, led by Patrick Kennedy, a senior State Department official, made 19 recommendations to improve the operations and monitoring of security convoys in the wake of the deadly incident last month in which guards working for Blackwater USA under a State Department contract were involved in a deadly shooting in downtown Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqi civilians.

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The State Department is tightening its oversight of private security contractors operating in Iraq after an official panel found significant shortcomings in the department's operations of the security program. The panel, led by Patrick Kennedy, a senior State Department official, made 19 recommendations to improve the operations and monitoring of security convoys in the wake of the deadly incident last month in which guards working for Blackwater USA under a State Department contract were involved in a deadly shooting in downtown Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqi civilians.

But even with the new procedures, it remains unclear whether there are any legal consequences for private guards who are found to have used excessive force. Two incidents—the downtown Baghdad shooting last month and the killing of an Iraqi guard by a drunken contractor last Christmas Eve—have been referred to the FBI for investigation. But the report casts doubt upon whether they can be tried in U.S. courts, calling the legal framework "inadequate." The report said that the panel "is unaware of any basis for holding non-Department of Defense contractors accountable under U.S. law."

Kennedy pointed out that there were not any lawyers on the panel. But, he added, "We're calling on Washington to make sure that there is legal clarity here."

Many of the panel's recommended changes, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quickly endorsed, will affect the daily conduct of missions. Cameras are being installed in vehicles, an agent from the State Department Diplomatic Security branch will accompany each convoy, and records will be kept of the locations and communications of each security convoy. The report also calls for tightening the rules for when and how contractors can use deadly force to make it clear that they should "fire only aimed shots with due regard for civilians," Kennedy told reporters.

While Kennedy insisted that the State Department had always been reviewing incidents where private guards used deadly force, he said there was a clear need for "an expanded level of oversight." This will include a rapid-reaction investigative group, called a "Go Team," that will go to the scene of any incident and report on its findings.

Kevin Whitelaw