Don't blame Blackwater

The security firm acts according to its contract with the State Department.

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One critical piece has been missing from the debate about Blackwater's behavior in Iraq. The security firm operates as should be expected – as an agent of the US State Department, which it is. It acts just as State has prescribed by contract. Giving the Defense Department (DoD) more oversight over Blackwater and other contractors in Iraq, a plan announced Tuesday, doesn't change that.

Since Blackwater was involved in a September shootout in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, the firm has come under intense criticism for what many call overaggressive tactics.

But the issue isn't an overly aggressive contractor. It's the State Department's zero tolerance for casualties of its employees in Iraq. Such an approach makes tragedies such as the September episode more common – and it marginalizes the lives of innocent Iraqis who just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Placing so many diplomats and civil servants on nation-building assignments in the middle of a civil war has a high price – perhaps too high, as officials at State have finally started to acknowledge.

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The US government appears to tolerate a certain number of casualties from the all-volunteer military. But civilian employees are a different story. Images of dead diplomats being dragged through Iraqi streets or videotaped beheadings of civil servants, it's assumed, would undermine already tenuous public support of the war.

The very branch of the US government charged with fostering relations with the Iraqi government and people is responsible for the behavior that has helped erode support from the Iraqi populace. The State Department Diplomatic Security Service set up aggressive rules for the use of force for its contractors in what's called the Mission Firearms Policy. These rules are more aggressive than those used by the military for its contracted forces. In fact, the Secretary of State's Panel on Personal Protective Services in Iraq recommended last month that these guidelines be amended to require basic assurances: "due regard for safety of innocent bystanders," "every effort to avoid civilian casualties," and only aimed shots – a nod to the fact that pointing and spraying rounds isn't explicitly banned.

Since 2005, Blackwater has conducted more than 16,500 protective security details under contract with the State Department. In 1 percent of these missions, Blackwater operators discharged weapons. The government officials that Blackwater was guarding were present on some portion of these missions and, at the least, were tolerating Blackwater's aggressive behavior.

The State Department's responsibility, however, is much more straightforward than that. The Diplomatic Security Services' Regional Security Office maintains direct operational control of each mission performed by Blackwater. As Blackwater CEO Erik Prince described to CNN, "They [State personnel] dictate the missions, they dictate the vehicles, they provide the weapons, they tell us where to go and what to do."

The State Department contract requires that protective security details are trained in some of the very behaviors that Blackwater teams have been criticized for, particularly tactical motorcade operations that include offensive driving techniques such as ramming other vehicles.

It is doubtful that replacing Blackwater with another contractor, or even with diplomatic security officers, would make a difference in how the contract is performed. Aligning the Mission Firearms Policy with Central Command's guidelines for contractors is a good first step.

Transferring oversight of contractors from the State Department to DoD will allow DoD to monitor their previously unknown whereabouts – a longtime irritant to commanders in the field. But the change will have little effect on the instructions that firms receive from their State Department contracting officers. It would also worsen accountability: DoD's dismal record of vendor oversight includes Halliburton and the contractors involved in Abu Ghraib.

One of the gravest dangers of the government outsourcing $400 billion of its services is that it can shift responsibility for its actions to the private sector even if the blame is unwarranted. The State Department has launched internal reviews and let its chief of diplomatic security go. But the Bureau of Diplomatic Security's granting immunity to the contractors involved in the shootout is a troubling precedent, particularly since that bureau contracted with Blackwater and has been responsible for its contract monitoring.

Contractors need to be held accountable to the same standards and legal codes as federal employees are. Otherwise it becomes too easy for the government to outsource its own responsibility, then absolve the contractor when it gets caught. If there was any wrongdoing at the Blackwater shootout in Baghdad, the guilty should be held accountable.

However, the American public and Congress should not be distracted by the fact that the State Department's grittier work was outsourced to a contractor. They should not allow the government to let a contractor take the fall while it sidesteps accountability for a cold calculus that its diplomats and aid workers have to be protected at all costs – costs that may include some innocent Iraqi lives.

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