WASHINGTON — The State Department has interceded in a congressional investigation of Blackwater USA, the private security firm accused of killing Iraqi civilians last week, ordering the company not to disclose information about its Iraq operations without approval from the Bush administration, according to documents revealed Tuesday.
In a letter sent to a senior Blackwater executive Thursday, a State Department contracting official ordered the company "to make no disclosure of the documents or information" about its work in Iraq without permission.
The letter and other documents were released Tuesday by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), whose House committee has launched wide-ranging investigations into contractor abuses and corruption in Iraq.
The State Department order and other steps it has taken to limit congressional access to information have set up a confrontation between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Waxman, who has repeatedly accused the State Department of impeding his inquiries.
In his own letter to Rice on Tuesday, Waxman called her department's latest efforts to withhold information from the committee "extraordinary" and "unusual."
"Congress has the constitutional prerogative to examine the impacts of corruption within the Iraqi ministries and the activities of Blackwater," Waxman wrote. "You are wrong to interfere with the committee's inquiry."
In response to Waxman's letter, Kiazan Moneypenny, a senior contracting officer in the State Department's office of acquisition management, appeared to soften the department's stand, saying later Tuesday that it would allow Blackwater to hand over unclassified documents.
Classified documents still would be subject to State Department review. The committee has accused the administration of using secrecy designations to keep bad news about Iraq out of the hands of Congress.
The firm's contract
The State Department's order to Blackwater last week cited a provision in the North Carolina security firm's contract that makes all records produced by the company in Iraq property of the U.S. government, and prohibits the company from releasing documents without State Department approval.
Waxman had sought information about Blackwater's contract with the State Department, under which it provides nearly 1,000 armed guards to protect U.S. diplomats when they travel outside Baghdad's Green Zone.
The request was part of a probe into a Sept. 16 incident in which at least 11 Iraqis were killed after Blackwater employees protecting a U.S. Embassy convoy opened fire.
The incident enraged the Iraqi government, which accused the firm of routinely shooting civilians with impunity.
L. Paul Bremer III, the former U.S. administrator for Iraq, granted contractors immunity from prosecution in an order he signed the day before handing over sovereignty in June 2004.
A preliminary Iraqi investigation said the shootings occurred without provocation; Blackwater and the State Department said the convoy was ambushed and the guards opened fire after being attacked.
Waxman has scheduled a Blackwater hearing for next Tuesday, but Blackwater's attorneys warned the committee that the State Department's letter may complicate company executives' testimony.
"In the fluid setting of a congressional hearing it may become difficult, if not impossible, for Blackwater personnel to meet the terms of" the State Department finding, wrote Stephen M. Ryan, an attorney advising Blackwater in the congressional investigation.
"This contractual direction from the [State Department] is unambiguous."
A company spokeswoman said Tuesday that Blackwater interpreted the State Department's apparent shift Tuesday as permission to release documents sought by Waxman.
The State Department has repeatedly defended Blackwater in the aftermath of the Sept. 16 incident. After a brief ban on diplomatic travel outside the Green Zone, department officials have resumed trips under Blackwater guard and have said that the company's status has not changed.
In his letter to Rice, Waxman also objected to a move by the department to bar its officials from speaking with committee investigators about corruption inside the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
An e-mail received by the committee Monday night indicated that the State Department was treating information about corruption as classified, suggesting it might undermine bilateral relations.
"The scope of this prohibition is breathtaking," Waxman wrote. "On its face, it means that unless the committee agrees to keep the information secret from the public . . . the committee cannot obtain information about whether Mr. Maliki himself has been involved in corruption or has intervened to block corruption investigations."
Waxman said that previous official reports of corruption within Iraqi ministries were treated as "sensitive but unclassified." The State Department retroactively classified the reports after his committee requested them, Waxman said.