The Cable

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.

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The Cable

Moscow Beefs Up Military Support for Iraq

Moscow dispatched jet fighters and military trainers to Iraq to boost the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, highlighting a growing Syrian, Iranian, and now Russian effort to bolster Maliki in his fight against Islamist extremists.

The shipment of Russian airplanes follows days of Syrian airstrikes on targets from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and stepped-up military assistance from Tehran. The Obama administration continues to weigh air strikes against ISIS. In the meantime, the assistance from Tehran, Damascus, and Moscow threatens to further reduce Washington's potential leverage over Maliki as the administration pushes him to mount a serious outreach effort to the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

For more than a year, Baghdad urged Washington to speed up the delivery of F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters as it battled for control of its own country. However, members of Congress repeatedly held up the deliveries due to unease about Maliki's ethno-centric leadership, which disproportionately favors the country's Shiite population. 

A senior Iraqi official pointed out that the latest support from Moscow demonstrated America's diminished role in the conflict. "The American influence is getting sidelined ... due to the lack of security and military support to the Iraqi government and people in its war of survival," the official told Foreign Policy.

According to the New York Times, the military advisers arrived this weekend to help set up the planes, which will include 12 SU-25 ground-attack fighter jets. The senior Iraqi official said that five of the SU-25 planes had arrived in Iraq on Saturday as part of an "expected" delivery of jets from the Russians. Baghdad is hoping the aircraft will bolster efforts to seize back control of a large swath of territory taken by Sunni rebels led by ISIS. On Saturday, Iraqi security forces with tanks and helicopters launched an offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit. Due to conflicting reports, it's unclear how successful the offensive to retake Saddam Hussein's hometown has been.

A senior Pentagon official acknowledged the Times report and said it would not affect U.S. assistance to the country. "Our mission remains the same: to protect U.S. personnel and interests; assess the state of the [Iraqi Security Forces] and [ISIS]; continue to provide ample [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] coverage, and prepare to assist the [Iraqi Security Forces] in an advisory capacity," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told Foreign Policy Sunday.

In the past, hawkish lawmakers including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that failing to deliver arms to Iraq could result in adversaries such as Russia stepping in to fill the void. However, other powerful lawmakers such as Bob Mendendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, placed holds on the delivery of the equipment citing concerns about Maliki, who has increasingly stoked sectarian tensions in Iraq following the departure of U.S. troops in 2011.

In January, Menendez finally lifted his objections to the transfer of 24 Ah-64E Apaches after receiving assurances from the Obama administration that Baghdad wouldn't use the attack helicopters against civilians, according to a Senate aide. The emergence of Moscow and Tehran in Iraq could mean multiple things for the United States.

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely tracks Iraq's security situation, said there are "two angels on Iraq's shoulder" at the moment - the U.S. is on one, and Russia, Iran and Syria are on the other. But in terms of providing effective and timely assistance to its allies, the model offered by America's adversaries seemed to be more effective.

"To be honest, the other model has a much better track record of helping out its allies in the Middle East than we do," Knights, now traveling in Japan, said. With Iran and Russia stepping up to the plate, the U.S. risks losing influence in Maliki's government.

On the other hand, Maliki has repeatedly failed to heed U.S. warnings that his chauvinistic sectarian leadership is tearing the country apart. As the conflict in Iraq increasingly takes on the character of a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, Washington is loath to be viewed as an advocate on either side of the bloodshed.

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