Blackwater and the “Subservient” State Department

Last week, The New York Times reported an extraordinary incident involving the infamous private security contractor once known as Blackwater. (Blackwater became Xe in 2009, Academi in 2011, and just last month, merged with Triple Canopy to form Constellis Holdings.) Reporter James Risen obtained internal government documents detailing how a Blackwater employee threatened to kill a State Department investigator who had allegedly uncovered rampant misconduct by the company in Iraq.

In August 2007, a few weeks before Blackwater guards shot dozens of civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, Blackwater’s Iraq project manager, Daniel Carroll, told investigator Jean C. Richter “that he could kill” him and that “no one could or would do anything about it.” According to Risen, Richter and Carroll were discussing alleged contract violations by the company, including excessive carousing, security detail understaffing, weapons qualification lapses, poorly maintained vehicles, billing fraud, and labor abuses.

The article’s revelations about Blackwater are not surprising if you are familiar with the company’s history. Over the past decade, the company and its employees have been punished for weapons export violations and using excessive force. Even the death threat incident rings eerily familiar. In 2009, two men filed anonymous “John Doe” affidavits in federal court alleging Blackwater murdered people who cooperated with investigators and personally threatened the affiants with death and violence.

According to Risen, instead of taking action against Carroll, American Embassy officials ordered Richter and a co-investigator to leave Iraq. Richter’s superiors, up to and including then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, were notified of the incident but also took no action against Blackwater or Carroll. Richter warned them that lax oversight of Blackwater in Iraq was causing the government to become “subservient” to the company, which saw itself as “above the law.” Richter also conveyed his fear that Carroll’s belligerent and arrogant attitude could “permeate throughout the rank and file of personnel under his charge.” Just days later, the tragic events in Nisour Square validated that fear. Despite the international outcry over the shooting—and the death threat incident—State renewed Blackwater’s Iraq security contract the following year.

We first became aware of the State Department’s unusual relationship with Blackwater in December 2006, when a Blackwater guard named Andrew Moonen fatally shot an Iraqi security guard. With State’s help, Moonen was quickly spirited out of Iraq after the shooting and, according to CNN, was soon able to find work with another private security contractor “because the State Department and Blackwater kept the incident quiet and out of Moonen’s personnel records.”

Fast forward to today. Four former Blackwater guards are on trial for the Nisour Square shooting. That it took so long to bring the case to trial can also be blamed on State, which granted legal immunity to the guards immediately after the incident. That decision caused the case to be thrown out in 2009; it was revived by an appeals court two years later, which necessitated the filing of new charges. In April, the trial judge harshly criticized State’s conduct in the case: “If the Department of State and the Diplomatic Security Service had tried deliberately to sabotage this prosecution, they could hardly have done a better job.”

State’s subservience to security contractors isn’t limited to Blackwater. For years, the Project On Government Oversight has documented security problems at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. First, we reported that ArmorGroup North America (AGNA)—of Lord of the Flies fame—had committed multiple violations on the embassy security contract that State knew about but failed to fix. Then, we documented how State also gave a pass to AGNA’s successor on the contract, Aegis Defense Services, whose performance deficiencies also put embassy personnel at risk. State even attempted to cover up Aegis’ poor performance by providing inaccurate and misleading testimony to Congress in July 2013.

The State Department exemplifies the “agency capture” we have seen in recent years as the government has grown more dependent on contractors. That the world is still dealing with fallout from Blackwater shows that State must assert greater control over its private security contractors.