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Blackwater Bombshell Raises Questions for State Department Heavyweight

Blackwater Bombshell Raises Questions for State Department Heavyweight

Eye-opening new revelations about the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide and its cozy relationship with the State Department are raising new questions about a senior Foggy Bottom bureaucrat who has found himself in Capitol Hill’s crosshairs before — and seems certain to now do so again.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s current under secretary for management, led a review of the private security firm in 2007 after its guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. Kennedy’s review, however, failed to reference a scathing State Department memo on the contractor completed just weeks earlier that found the company had systematically overcharged the government. The memo also alleged a senior Blackwater executive in Baghdad threatened to kill the State Department auditor behind the memo.  At the time, Kennedy dismissed questions about early warnings of Blackwater misconduct.

As under secretary for management, Kennedy holds large sway in the promotion and appointments of officials throughout the State Department. The powerful bureaucrat is responsible for a range of department operations related to human resources, budgets, facilities, consular affairs and security. It’s unclear if Kennedy’s review in 2007 simply missed the internal memo of Blackwater misconduct or whether it was suppressed.

Though the incident is now seven years old, anger remains on Capitol Hill about how the State Department, and in particular, Kennedy, manages relations with government contractors. On Monday, an aide for Senator Claire McCaskill (D-M.O.) noted his boss’s "longstanding frustrations with the failure to improve contract management at the State Department." He cited an April letter between McCaskill and Kennedy in which she scolds Kennedy for failing to implement recommendations from the Inspector General about the maintenance of contract files dating back seven years.

"I have written to you nearly a dozen times over the past five years raising concerns about contract management," McCaskill wrote. "When I have raised these concerns, you have repeatedly responded that the State Department’s contract acquisition and management are adequate and that the Department is making improvements."

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf did not respond to a request for comment about the alleged Blackwater threat and Kennedy’s review of the Nisour Square killings. At the daily press briefing, spokesperson Jen Psaki offered few details, citing the ongoing legal case into the tragic incident. "There’s very little we can say," she said.

The new flap dates back to 2007, when Blackwater was at the peak of its influence in Iraq and reaping hundreds of millions of dollars per year in government contracts.

In his 2007 memo, Jean Richter, a Diplomatic Security special agent, wrote that Blackwater contractors "saw themselves as above the law" and characterized an environment where "the contractors, instead of Department officials, are in command and control." He warned higher ups that lax oversight of Blackwater fostered "an environment of liability and negligence." 

Sixteen days after Richter filed his report, Blackwater officials fired into a crowd of men, women and children in a busy traffic circle in Baghdad. Blackwater guards said they were shot at first, but American military investigators later found no evidence of an insurgent attack that day. Federal prosecutors accused the guards of shooting indiscriminately with grenade launchers and automatic weapons.

The incident badly damaged relations between the United States and the Iraqi government, and prompted then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to name a special panel led by Kennedy to review the killings and recommend reforms.

No one on the panel interviewed Richter, according to the panel’s final report, which includes a list of everyone consulted about the incident. It’s particularly unusual that the panel didn’t talk to Richter given that he specifically visited Iraq to review the State Department’s contract with Blackwater, the firm at the center of the controversy. During a press Q&A on October 23, 2007, then-Time magazine reporter Brian Bennett noted the existence of "complaints about contractor conduct," and asked "why this review wasn’t done earlier?" In response,  Kennedy told reporters that his review found no communications from the embassy in Baghdad complaining about contractor conduct prior to the Nisour Square killings. 

"When you look through the report you’ll see that we interviewed a large number — large number of individuals," Kennedy said at the time.  "We did not find any, I think, significant pattern of incidents that had not — that the Embassy had suppressed in any way. (A transcript of the Q&A is available in the State Department archives here).

As it happened, Richter’s report cited a number of complaints about contractor misconduct that went beyond cavalier behavior and death threats. According to his memo, he found evidence that Blackwater overcharged Foggy Bottom by allowing guards to use unauthorized weapons, falsifying records, understaffing certain assignments, and placing foreign workers in poor housing conditions.

Kennedy has survived congressional scrutiny before. Last year, he endured the grilling of a series of angry Republicans for his oversight of diplomatic security in the months leading up to the 2012 attack on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya. In May of last year, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) subpoenaed his documents and records related to the incident. It’s unclear how much heat the latest flare up may bring.