NPR logo U.S. Embassy Security Practices in Iraq Overhauled


U.S. Embassy Security Practices in Iraq Overhauled

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered an overhaul Friday of U.S. Embassy security practices in Iraq, tightening government oversight of diplomatic convoys escorted by private security contractors.

The action Friday follows a shooting incident by private security contractor Blackwater USA that killed 13 Iraqis in Baghdad.

An internal review board made the recommendations – accepted by Rice on a preliminary basis.

Recommendations call for Diplomatic Security agents to accompany every convoy, Rice the installation of video cameras in security vehicles, audio recordings of radio traffic between the embassy and such convoys and improved coordination and communication between convoys and the U.S. military.

Previously, diplomatic security agents only accompanied U.S. convoys on an "ad hoc" basis. Further, while radio traffic had been monitored it had not been recorded by the embassy.

The Secretary's orders call for convoys to have direct contact with tactical U.S. military teams in their vicinity.

"In case there is an incident, we will have an improved capability to ensure that we have all the possible information we can collect to determine exactly what happened," said Sean McCormack, a spokesman at the State Department. "And, we want to make sure that we have full connectivity, up and down the chain, with the military operating in the area."

He did not say that previous Blackwater and U.S. practices were lacking in proper safeguards for accountability, but instead noted that under the new orders State will have better control of the operations of private contractors, including Blackwater.

The Moyock, North Carolina-based company is the largest of three private security firms that guard U.S. diplomats in Iraq.

Security procedures came under review after a Sept. 16th incident in which Blackwater guards are accused of opening fire on Iraqi civilians while driving through a main square in Baghdad.

Blackwater contends its employees came under fire first, but the Iraqi government and witnesses have disputed that, saying the guards opened fire for no reason.

The United States has not made conclusive findings about the incident, although there are multiple investigations under way to determine exactly what happened.

The FBI on Thursday took control of what had been a State Department probe, in part to prepare for the possibility that the case may be referred to the Justice Department for prosecutions.

Also in response to the Blackwater ordeal, members of the House of Representatives passed legislation, 389-30, late Thursday making U.S. contractors operating overseas accountable under U.S. law. Senate Democratic leaders said they planned to follow suit with similar legislation and send a bill to President Bush as soon as possible.

"There is simply no excuse for the de facto legal immunity for tens of thousands of individuals working in countries" on behalf of the United States, said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas.

The State Department has counted 56 shooting incidents involving Blackwater guards in Iraq this year. All were being reviewed as part of the comprehensive inquiry that Rice ordered.

The State Department orders issued on Friday were recommended by a separate commission, created by Rice and led by Patrick Kennedy, one of the most senior management experts in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Outside experts include retired Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO commander in Europe, Stapleton Roy, a retired veteran diplomat, and Eric Boswell, a former State Department and intelligence official.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press