The State Department, which is facing growing criticism of its policy on private security contractors, overlooked repeated warnings from U.S. diplomats in the field that guards were endangering Iraqi civilians and undermining U.S. efforts to win support from the population, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Ever since the contractors were granted immunity from Iraqi courts in June 2004 by the U.S.-led occupation authority, diplomats have cautioned that the decision to do so was "a bomb that could go off at any time," said one former U.S. official.
But State Department leadership, unable to field U.S. troops or in-house personnel to guard its team, has clung to an approach that shielded the contractors from criminal liability, in the hope of ensuring continued protection to operate in the violent countryside.
Of course, not all of these farsighted individuals were quite ready to do away with Blackwater's aggressive approach.
But the complaints and concerns received little high-level attention, for several reasons, said diplomats who served in Iraq. In the crisis atmosphere of Iraq, the security problems seemed less urgent than other issues. In addition, even staff members who were uneasy with the arrangement were ambivalent because they wanted aggressive protection when they felt personally endangered.
Of course, this-like so many other problems-came about as a result of a failure to plan for the aftermath of the invasion:
Faced with a need for protection and no access to the limited numbers of U.S. troops, the State Department had a choice between waiting at least 18 months to assemble a sufficient force of State Department staff security agents or hiring contractors. In addition, they said they did not believe at first that the Iraq mission would be long-lived.
While contractors are expensive, a single Bureau of Diplomatic Security agent costs nearly $500,000 a year, said Richard J. Griffin, assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security.
Add the numbers up, combine it with a healthy fear of getting killed in the streets by insurgents, and you suddenly you have a State Department ready and willing to pay contractors to shoot up Iraqi civilians. And now we have the Iraqi government calling these Blackwater personnel murderers and demanding $8 million in compensation for each of the victims killed in the shooting. Where do we go from here? Your guess is as good as mine.
UPDATE:Relatives of Iraqis killed in the Blackwater incident are taking the American approach and opting to sue.