WASHINGTON — Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Cal., charged Tuesday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides are trying to impede congressional probes into corruption in Iraq and the activities of controversial private military contractor Blackwater USA.
Waxman, chairman of the House oversight committee, complained in a letter to Rice that the State Department this week barred its officials from talking to Congress about corruption in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government unless those discussions are kept secret.
The department also retroactively classified a study drafted by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that reportedly details extensive corruption in al-Maliki's government, Waxman said.
"Your position seems to be that positive information about the Maliki government may be disseminated publicly, but any criticism of the government must be treated as a national security secret," Waxman told Rice.
"You are wrong to interfere with the committee's inquiry," he wrote.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey disputed Waxman's version of events.
"There seems to be misunderstanding as to the facts in this matter. The information requested by the committee has been or is in the process of being provided," Casey said.
On another Waxman complaint, that Rice has refused to testify before the panel, Casey said the department has offered to make three other senior officials available.
Waxman's committee is also investigating the role of private military contractors in Iraq, including Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater USA.
Blackwater, which has received roughly $700 million in State Department contracts to protect U.S. government civilians in Iraq, is under fresh scrutiny following a September 16 incident in which Blackwater security guards protecting a State Department convoy allegedly shot and killed 11 Iraqi civilians. Blackwater says its employees were returning fire from insurgents, a version of events disputed by the Iraqi government.
Waxman's panel has requested that Erik Prince, chairman of the Prince Group LLC, Blackwater's corporate parent, appear before it next Tuesday.
But in a letter to Blackwater dated September 20-the same day as the panel's request-a State Department contract officer ordered Blackwater not to disclose information about the contract.
"I hereby direct Blackwater to make no disclosure of documents or information generated under" the State Department contract "unless such disclosure has been authorized in writing," wrote the contract officer, Kiazan Moneypenny.
She also wrote that State Department and Blackwater officials discussed the matter by phone on September 19 and 20, and that, as a result, "the department's position on this matter has been further reinforced."
Moneypenny did not respond to a message left on her office voicemail and officials in the department's Bureau of Administration, which oversees contracts, referred questions to State Department spokesmen.
Casey said "Blackwater has been informed by the State Department that it has no objection to it providing information to the committee."
In a related letter to Waxman, an attorney for Blackwater said it might be "difficult, if not impossible" for the company to comply with State's orders without advance limitations on the kind of questions that will be asked at the hearing.
"We also write today to ask that the committee and its members refrain from asking questions during the hearing that might reveal sensitive operational and technical information that could be utilized by our country's implacable enemies in Iraq," wrote attorney Stephen M. Ryan of McDermott, Will & Emery.
The standoff underscores the unusual role being played in Iraq by private military contractors such as Blackwater, who are not directly answerable to congressional overseers and who operate under murky rules of accountability for their actions in Iraq.
In the State Department's September 20 letter to Blackwater, Moneypenny cited regulations declaring that contract documents are "the exclusive property of the U.S. Government."
"Based on my grade school civics class, I think the legislative branch is part of the U.S. government," said Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, who has written extensively about private military contractors.
In the past, the State Department withheld documents about private contractors on the grounds that the private company owned the information, according to Singer.
Rice last week announced that she has ordered a full review of State Department-funded security escorts in Iraq.
In a report to be released this week by Brookings, a left-of-center think tank, Singer writes that the actions of private military contractors in Iraq are often at odds with U.S. goals there.
Contractor actions often inflame Iraqi public opinion, weaken U.S. efforts in the "war of ideas" in the Middle East, and undermine efforts to build up Iraqi institutions, the report says.
"The use of private military contractors appears to have harmed, rather than helped the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. mission in Iraq," Singer concludes.
Joseph Neff of the Raleigh News & Observer contributed.