Editorial: Blackwater in Iraq serves as warning

Recent report sheds light on inadequate government oversight of private security contractor during war

July 06--The risks of relying on private security contractors to perform tasks traditionally reserved for members of the military and government agencies have been well documented over the past decade of war. Few reports, however, have captured so many of those risks in such powerful detail as one revealed last month in The New York Times.

That report, which recounts circumstances in 2007 involving the company then known as Blackwater, draws from State Department records that describe inadequate government oversight and reckless behavior among private employees hired to execute critical tasks.

The episode, The Times wrote, culminated with a Blackwater manager threatening to kill a State Department investigator, an incident duly reported to embassy officials and resulting -- incredibly -- in the removal of the investigator and a colleague from Iraq.

The Blackwater manager, a former Navy SEAL, said "that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq," Jean C. Richter wrote in an Aug. 31, 2007, memo after returning to the U.S. Another State Department employee witnessed the threat and confirmed Richter's account, but federal officials took no action, the Times reported. The memo was among documents disclosed as part of a lawsuit against the company.

"The management structures in place to manage and monitor our contracts in Iraq have become subservient to the contractors themselves," Richter wrote. "Blackwater contractors saw themselves as above the law."

Less than a month later, Blackwater employees fired into a crowd in Nisour Square, killing 17 Iraqis. The shooting inflamed tensions between Iraq and America and helped define Blackwater's reputation for running roughshod. It also highlighted the Bush administration's reliance on private security.

Four contractors still face trial on charges related to the shooting after an appeals court overturned a lower court's dismissal of the charges in 2009.

Richter's memo detailed a litany of poor choices, bad management and dangerous behavior he said had been demonstrated by employees of Blackwater, a company that reaped billions of dollars in contracts supplementing -- or in some cases, substituting for -- government security overseas.

The allegations, the Times reported, included overbilling the government, falsifying staffing data, improperly storing automatic weapons and carrying weapons without authorization, among others.

The company, which has since been sold to new owners, no longer exists as Blackwater; it's now known as Academi.

But the legacy of such episodes -- and federal officials' inaction -- persists.

The incidents themselves provide a cautionary tale for government officials responsible for balancing national security and scant public resources. They are, as well, sobering reminders of the chaos and dysfunction that permeated the highest ranks of the federal government during the war in Iraq.



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