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New Oversight for Blackwater: Too Little, Too Late?

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New Oversight for Blackwater: Too Little, Too Late?

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New Oversight for Blackwater: Too Little, Too Late?

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The torrent of criticism aimed at Blackwater USA brought a response from the State Department today. Blackwater is responsible for State Department security in Iraq. The firm was involved in more than one controversial shooting in the past year. An incident last month resulted in the deaths of 11 Iraqis.

So, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered new oversight - all Blackwater convoys in Baghdad are to be monitored by video and audio as they escort U.S. Embassy personnel. Critics say the new measures don't go far enough.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: For the past few years, Blackwater has called the shots, doing whatever it took to protect the U.S. diplomats and others it shuttled around Baghdad, even if it meant bulldozing convoys through traffic jams or firing first in a tensed situation.

Now, there will be a closer watch on those types of aggressive operations, which may have contributed to the September shooting. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered a series of measures to oversee Blackwater based on an initial review by a special team she sent to Iraq to investigate the incident.

Sean McCormack is State Department spokesman.

SEAN MCCORMACK: She ordered that special agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security will be, again, accompanying Blackwater protective details. She directed the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to increase our capability to review material after an incident report.

NORTHAM: Rice also ordered better communications between Blackwater convoys and the U.S. military and the U.S. Embassy, and that all the radio transmissions be recorded.

MCCORMACK: Also, she has directed that we will mount video cameras in security vehicles and then begin keeping the archives of that video.

NORTHAM: Rice's directive applies only to Blackwater and only in Baghdad. The main investigation into the September shooting - led by the FBI - has not been completed, and McCormack was careful to note that the decision to implement these measures against Blackwater was not intended to signal which way the investigation was headed.

McCormack disputed that putting video cameras and State Department personnel in the Blackwater convoys signal that the department didn't trust the armed contractors' report or give an accurate account of an incident, like the deadly shooting in September.

MCCORMACK: It is not a matter of trust. One might say this is a good way to protect all involved in the case that there is an incident that you do have, at the very least, some objective baseline account of what went on.

NORTHAM: But Peter W. Singer, the author of the book "Corporate Warriors," says these new measures don't add up to much. He says many security vehicles have video cameras and they're already in contact with the embassy. Singer says it's also odd to embed a government worker with a private contractor doing government work.

Singer says the government worker is essentially a chaperone.

PETER W: That chaperone, that government employee is going to be making somewhere between three to five hundred dollars less a day than the people that he or she is supposed to be chaperoning and may not have contract authority over them.

NORTHAM: Singer says the new measures are a classic Washington response to a brewing controversy.

SINGER: First, we announce investigation after investigation after investigation - by my count, we have six different investigations. And then, you come back and you say, you know, within a couple of days, we've come up with these answers, major answers and in fact, when you look at them, they're not major. They're very small, and they don't actually deal with the fundamental problem.

NORTHAM: Which, Singer says, is whether a private company like Blackwater should be guarding U.S. Embassy staff, a role traditionally taken by the State Department's own security staff or U.S. Marines.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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