State Department accused of stonewalling congressional panel

A spat between the State Department and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., escalated Tuesday when he accused the agency of stonewalling separate investigations into corruption in Iraq and the controversial security contractor Blackwater USA.

In a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Waxman said the department had refused to allow officials with "direct knowledge of corruption within the [Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki] government" to be interviewed unless the committee agrees to keep the information secret. Waxman, who has scheduled a hearing Thursday on corruption in Iraq, issued subpoenas to three State Department officials.

Waxman said the department specifically refused to allow its employees to provide "assessments which judge or characterize the quality of Iraqi governance or ability/determination of the Iraqi government to deal with corruption" unless the committee treated the interviews as classified. Waxman said questions the officials are not allowed to answer include "whether there is large-scale corruption in Iraq."

The State Department believes such disclosures could "undermine U.S. relations with the Maliki government," Waxman said. He called the restrictions absurd and breathtaking, noting that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker appears to have gone beyond such limits in recent congressional testimony.

"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.

Waxman wrote that a Blackwater attorney had informed the committee that a State Department contracting officer instructed the company not to provide documents related to the committee's investigation into Blackwater's work in Iraq. But on Tuesday evening, the committee posted an update on its Web site saying the department had sent a letter overruling the contract officer and instructing the firm to cooperate.

Waxman, who has launched a host of widely publicized investigations of Bush administration officials and policies, has asked Eric Prince, who heads Blackwater's corporate parent, to appear at an Oct. 2 hearing on the company's conduct and its effect on U.S. efforts in Iraq. Blackwater is under investigation by Iraqi authorities for a recent shooting of civilians in Baghdad and other incidents.

Waxman also took issue with Rice's refusal to testify at any hearing called by the committee on political reconciliation in Iraq, corruption or the recent Blackwater incident, all of which the committee is looking into. Waxman previously sought unsuccessfully to have Rice testify about the administration's pre-war intelligence and the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

"I urge you to reconsider the unusual positions you are taking," Waxman wrote. "Congress has a constitutional prerequisite to examine the impacts that corruption in Iraqi ministries and the activities of Blackwater may have on the prospects for political reconciliation in Iraq. You are wrong to interfere with the committee's inquiry."

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