Blackwater or black hole?

What does the State Department know about the Iraqis' decision to ban its private security firm? Not much, apparently.

Published September 17, 2007 6:29PM (EDT)

The Iraqi Interior Ministry today said it's revoking the license that allows Blackwater to operate in Iraq after employees of the U.S. security company allegedly killed eight or nine Iraqi civilians during a gun battle Sunday.

The killings reportedly occurred after a U.S. State Department convoy Blackwater was protecting came under attack in downtown Baghdad. A Washington Post employee who witnessed the incident said security company helicopters fired into the streets, and witnesses reported seeing dead and injured people lying on the pavement.

So how is the State Department responding? Well, we'd like to be able to tell you. But having just read the transcript from today's State Department press briefing, all we can really say is that Sean McCormack, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, is a little light on facts, or at least ones he's willing to share.

Reporter: Do you have anything more to say about the incident involving Blackwater in Baghdad?

McCormack: Not much more than I said this morning. As I indicated to you, Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice intends to call Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki about it and express regret for the loss of innocent life. At this point we're still investigating what happened. Our Diplomatic Security Bureau is taking the lead on that investigation. They're working with Multi-National Forces-Iraq, who are going to support them in that investigation. I wouldn't try to draw any conclusions here. As we know, Iraq is -- can be a very difficult place for our diplomats to operate in. And certainly people need to realize the environment in which our people operate ...

Reporter: Have you been informed that the company has in fact lost its license, if it had one in the first place, to operate?

McCormack: We have not. I've seen the comments from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. We have not received that notification.

Reporter: Are you aware if they did have a license?

McCormack: I don't -- I don't -- I don't know what the requirements are for operating in Iraq like that. You might check with the company in question.

Reporter: Can you speak to the larger question of contractors providing security in Iraq: how many there are, to the extent you can tell us?

McCormack: I asked that question about the overall numbers. Apparently, it's not something that we give out. I think you can understand why, because people can start doing calculations backwards and potentially gain some insight into how those contractors operate to protect our personnel ...

Reporter: Can you talk about how much money is involved in the contracts?

McCormack: Good question. I didn't ask that. I will see if that's something we can offer up.

Reporter: And, lastly, can you talk about what would happen if a private contractor's license is lost, whether it's Blackwater's or somebody else's? What would that do ...

McCormack: That's a hypothetical question. I'm sure, however, that in every instance we would be able to ensure that our people are protected and able to do their jobs.

Reporter: You weren't able to provide any details about the incident itself, how many cars were in the convoy, where exactly it was. Can you confirm any of those details?

McCormack: I don't have any details at this point that I can offer in public. It was a chief-of-mission convoy that was going outside the international zone. And, as you know, recently there have been some car bomb explosions outside the international zone. So, again, I urge people to keep that in mind. We are going to make this as open and transparent an investigation, and, inasmuch as we can, share the results so that people know what we know ...

Reporter: When incidents such as these happen, do you suspend the services briefly of the company you're investigating or does it just continue as normal until you've completed the investigation?

McCormack: That's a call for the security officials on the ground, in terms of their operational tempo and what they do in response to a particular incident. If they feel as though they need to take some action, I'm sure that they will ...

Reporter: Have other incidents of this nature been reported about Blackwater in recent months?

McCormack: You know, I couldn't tell you.

Reporter: Do you know if the individual contractors involved in this have been suspended or what's happened to them?

McCormack: No, I don't. I don't have an answer to that. Again, I don't -- I caution everybody, let's not leap to conclusions. There was a loss of life here. There was a firefight. We believe some innocent life was lost. Nobody wants to see that. But I can't tell you who was responsible for that. So, again, let's not jump to any conclusions here ...

Reporter: OK ... Who is in charge of these people? The question was asked, you know, do numbers -- do they get suspended if there's an investigation going on, like a police officer would in a, you know ...

McCormack: I can't tell you exactly.

Reporter: Because the waters here are really murky, in terms of where do these people report to. Does the State Department have the authority, if there's an investigation going on, to ...

McCormack: I can't tell you what the -- I can't tell you exactly what the contract specifies. But our -- these people work as part of our security operation there. They report to the regional security officer there. And look, if our regional security officer doesn't want somebody going out, or a certain group going out, they're not going to go out. If the ambassador or the people at the embassy don't want somebody to go out, or a group to go out, they're not going to go out. I'm not saying that's the case right here. But these folks work in support of our people at the embassy and we appreciate what they do. They're taking real risks to allow us to be able to do our job. But in terms of the specific contractual arrangements, in terms of discipline, I don't know. I really don't.

Reporter: Many Iraqis think that these security contractors operate outside the law and that they're not held accountable when incidents such as these happen. Under what law would they be held accountable? Would it be U.S. law?

McCormack: Right.

Reporter: I mean, what are the rules of engagement -- sorry, that's two questions. What are the laws of engagement here and under what law would they be held accountable, Iraqi or U.S.?

McCormack: It's a good question. You know, I could probably give you an answer that is a commonsense, man-in-the-street answer, but that wouldn't have necessarily been run by lawyers first. So I'd want to actually consult with the lawyers, kind of, before I give you a definitive answer ...

Reporter: Do you know if there's any sort of diplomatic immunity for these? Do they carry a black passport, do you know?

McCormack: I don't know. I suspect not, but I don't know.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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