McCaskill presses State Department for details on Iraq security

Wednesday, June 16, 2010 | 6:37 p.m. CDT; updated 8:56 a.m. CDT, Thursday, June 17, 2010

WASHINGTON — Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is demanding that the State Department tell Congress what role contractors will play in a combat-ready force planned to protect diplomats in Iraq after American military forces leave.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the department has asked the Pentagon for Black Hawk helicopters, bomb-resistant vehicles and other heavy gear to outfit its own protection force in Iraq.

Without the equipment, the department said it won't be able to safeguard its diplomatic staff when U.S. troops depart in December 2011. Contractors will be required to help maintain the gear, according to the department's plans, outlined in documents sent to the Pentagon in early April.

McCaskill wants to know whether the private sector will be doing more than upkeep. In a letter sent Wednesday to Patrick Kennedy, the State Department's undersecretary for management, McCaskill asks whether contractors would be at the controls of the aircraft and vehicles.

She also is asking what measures the department will put in place to ensure that the gear, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is not misused by hired hands.

McCaskill is chairwoman of the Senate's contracting oversight subcommittee. She has been a harsh critic of the federal government's reliance on companies, such as Blackwater Worldwide and KBR Inc., for support work in war zones.

In the letter, she also asks Kennedy if any individual people or companies outside the department contacted State Department officials about the need for combat equipment.

McCaskill said the answers should be delivered to her subcommittee by July 1.

The State Department wants 24 of the Army's Black Hawk helicopters, 50 bomb-resistant vehicles, heavy cargo trucks, fuel trailers and high-tech surveillance systems, according to the documents. The State and Defense departments are still discussing the request.

Brian Heath, a State Department spokesman, said Kennedy had received the senator's letter and was preparing a response.

The military gear sought by the State Department would be controlled by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. During the Bush administration, the bureau came under fire from McCaskill and other members of Congress for its management of private security firms used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said Tuesday that the request for the equipment reflects the fact that there is still an active insurgency in Iraq. But he denied that it implies the Iraqi army and police, which the U.S. has spent billions of dollars training and equipping, are incapable.

"It is still a lethal force that continues to attack the Iraqi government and that potentially affects governments like the United States that are providing direct support," Crowley said.

The State Department is also seeking to use an existing Defense Department contract in Iraq to support these posts and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with essential services, including meals, mail delivery and laundry.

If the State Department can't use that contract, known as LOGCAP, the department "will be forced to redirect its resources towards developing, implementing and overseeing a massive new life support infrastructure throughout Iraq," the documents state.

The LOGCAP contract in Iraq is held by KBR.

McCaskill said the department needs to explain whether its plans to allow other companies to compete for the work.

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