Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conceded on Thursday that there was a “hole” in United States law that had allowed Blackwater USA employees and other armed contractors in Iraq to escape legal jeopardy for crimes possibly committed there.
In an appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Ms. Rice said the administration would support new laws that would apply to contractors but expressed reservations about proposals to bring contractors under the military justice system.
She deferred a number of other questions about problems with the supervision of the thousands of private security guards in Iraq, saying she planned to meet with Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense, to try to come up with new rules to avoid episodes like the shooting by Blackwater gunmen on Sept. 16 that Iraqi investigators have said left 17 Iraqis dead. “Obviously we need a better coordinated policy for all of them,” she said.
Blackwater, meanwhile, under continuing siege in the courts, the news media and Congress, stepped up its public relations efforts this week with a mass e-mail message to its employees, suppliers, fellow security contractors and political allies, asking them to flood Congress with messages of support.
The e-mail message noted that the Blackwater “family” was working vigorously to defend American interests. “In this tumultuous political climate,” Blackwater “has taken center stage, our services and ethics aggressively challenged with misinformation and fabrications,” the message said. “While we can’t ask that each supporter do everything, Blackwater asks that everyone does something. Contact your lawmakers and tell them to stand by the truth.”
It then suggests some talking points: Blackwater is saving taxpayers millions of dollars by providing temporary workers to take the place of full-time government or military employees; 30 Blackwater guards have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan but none of the American officials they guard have been killed or seriously wounded; and Blackwater’s work force is mainly military veterans and “mature law enforcement personnel.”
“Expanding our communications effort starts with you,” said the Blackwater message, which was sent by Constant Contact, an e-mail marketing firm. “Pass the word — pass the truth.”
Blackwater’s spokeswoman, Anne Tyrrell, did not respond to requests for comment.
In response to questions, Ms. Rice acknowledged that there was rampant corruption in the Iraqi government, but said that the State Department was working to fix the problem. “There’s a pervasive problem of corruption in Iraq,” she said. “There is a problem in the ministries. There is a problem in the government. There are problems with officials.”
“It is our job to put in place anticorruption efforts to help the Iraqis do so themselves, but I don’t know how to be more candid,” she said. “I don’t know how to be less flattering.”
She said some of the money stolen from the Iraqi government was financing insurgent militias, particularly in the Shiite-dominated south. But she added that it would be unfair to confront senior Iraqi leaders with unproven accusations of wrongdoing.
“To assault the prime minister of Iraq or anyone else in Iraq with here-to-date unsubstantiated allegations or lack of corroboration in a setting that it would simply fuel those allegations, I think, would be deeply damaging, and frankly, I think it would be wrong,” she said.
A number of Democratic members of the committee pressed the issue, saying they had heard from American Embassy staff and Iraqis that American anticorruption efforts were ineffective or nonexistent and that the problem threatened the mission in Iraq.
“Corruption funds terrorists who attack our troops,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland. “Corruption fuels sectarian divisions. Corruption stymies reconstruction efforts and certainly it erodes confidence in the Iraqi government.”
But Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, the senior Republican on the committee, dismissed the three-hour hearing as a partisan effort to undermine the war.
“We should have no illusions about the subtext of these hearings,” he said. “Unable to reverse course, the Democratic strategy seems to be to drill enough small holes in the bottom of the boat to sink the entire Iraqi enterprise, while still claiming undying support for the crew about to drown.”
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