Panel: U.S. needs better control of contractors

WASHINGTON – A panel recommended to the State Department that the U.S. government impose unified control over private security guards working for the U.S. in Iraq, an idea already floated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, The Associated Press has learned.

The review panel found poor communication between diplomats and military officials and too little oversight of contractors like Blackwater USA, two people familiar with the report’s findings told the AP on Monday.

The State Department risks another incident like the Sept. 16 Blackwater shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians unless it quickly installs closer management of the private army guarding diplomats in Iraq, the independent panel privately told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rice said she wants to discuss the findings with Gates in person and intends to act quickly.

“The recommendations point a very good way forward,” Rice told reporters Monday night. She provided no details but said she and Gates would “discuss how we will carry out better coordination, how we will make certain that the United States government moves this forward with one voice.”

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The group strongly recommended that Rice coordinate her next move with the Pentagon, and she plans to speak with Gates by phone before he returns from an overseas trip late this week, a State Department official said. A face-to-face meeting would follow.

The panel, named by Rice in the wake of the Sept. 16 killings, made no specific recommendations about what should happen to Blackwater, whose guards were escorting an official from the U.S. Embassy when they fired on civilians in a Baghdad square, those familiar with the report said. The killings have outraged Iraqis and focused attention on the shadowy rules surrounding heavily armed private guards.

“There needs to be unity of effort so that whatever’s moving in the battle space is coordinated, and it needs to be understood, especially, by the military out in that battle space,” one person said.

Those familiar with the recommendations in the report spoke on condition of anonymity because Rice has not yet decided what changes she will make.