3rd top official departs State Dept. under criticism

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 19, 2007 

WASHINGTON — The head of the State Department's embassy-building operation, responsible for the troubled $740 million new embassy in Baghdad, announced Wednesday that he's stepping down.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Charles Williams is the third senior State Department official to depart amid failures in managing the burgeoning U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq. The department's inspector general and head of diplomatic security also have resigned.

Williams earned Congress' ire after promising in July that the mammoth, 104-acre Baghdad embassy complex would open on schedule and on budget in September.

Instead, the embassy is riddled with problems — including a fire suppression system that didn't work when it was tested — and it's unlikely to open until well into next year.

Criminal investigations into shoddy work and the awarding of subcontracts are under way. The State Department also is under fire for awarding a sole-source, fixed-price contract to build the compound to First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Co., a Lebanese-owned Kuwaiti firm.

Williams' departure had been rumored for months.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in a statement that Williams' retirement would be effective Dec. 31.

Casey, noting that Williams had overseen the construction of 56 embassies and consulates during his seven-year tenure, said, "We salute General Williams for his service to our country and wish him all the best in the future."

A call to Williams' office wasn't immediately returned.

A senior State Department official said Williams wasn't forced out. "Obviously, everyone's aware of the problems with the new embassy compound," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

The Baghdad embassy originally was to cost $592 million. But the State Department informed Congress earlier this year that design changes and additions would cost another $144 million.

Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell brought Williams into the department. He initially won plaudits for vastly accelerating the department's embassy-construction program, replacing aging and unsafe foreign posts with modern new ones.

But critics at State Department headquarters and overseas chafed at what they called his dictatorial management style and obsession with delivering embassies on budget and on time, no matter the consequences.

The department chose First Kuwaiti because it was the only firm that would agree to a fixed-price contract to build the Baghdad embassy in the middle of a war zone.

The result, critics say, is a structure that's riddled with problems: the fire-sprinkler system, which malfunctioned because water mains were constructed improperly; faulty wiring; and blast-proof walls and windows that may not be up to specifications.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker banished Williams' Washington-based project manager, James L. Golden, from Iraq after he and First Kuwaiti attempted to clean up the scene of a mortar-round attack that raised questions about whether the embassy's defenses performed as they should have.

Golden and his Baghdad-based counterpart, Mary French, have been implicated in a Justice Department criminal probe. Neither has been charged with wrongdoing.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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