The much anticipated face-off between Rice and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., over issues raised by the committee coincided with a State Department campaign to show that it is addressing concerns that it failed to control the conduct of private security contractors like Blackwater USA in Iraq.
In the wake of a report by a team of State officials that faulted the department for not bringing security contractors under control, Richard Griffin, head of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which oversees Blackwater and other security firms, resigned Wednesday. Rice announced Tuesday that she would quickly implement the team's recommendations.
At Thursday's hearing, Rice told the committee that, along with plans to improve coordination with the Department of Defense on contractor oversight, the changes will fix problems highlighted by the Blackwater controversy.
"I certainly regret that we did not have the kind of oversight that I would have insisted upon," Rice said. "We now will have that oversight."
Rice did not specifically answer questions from Waxman about whether Iraqi corruption is undermining U.S. reconstruction efforts. Democrats cited reports on an announcement by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that investigations of top Iraqi officials suspected of corruption could not be held without his approval. And they displayed an e-mail that they say shows al-Maliki personally blocked a corruption investigation of Iraq's transportation minister, who is his cousin.
Rice declined to say if she heard about such concerns through State Department channels. Discussing such issues would be premature until investigations are done and could also endanger State Department sources, she said.
That position represented an apparent shift from a previous department position that publicly discussing corruption in the al-Maliki government could harm U.S.-Iraqi relations. Rice disagreed with members who accused her of stonewalling and who said she appears to be willing to make for public consumption only positive statements about al-Maliki.
Rice said the United States would oppose any rule exempting any Iraqi officials from investigation or prosecution for corruption.
"There is a very bad problem with corruption in Iraq," she said. "It is a problem in the ministries. It is a problem in the government . . . I don't know how to say that more clearly."
Republicans defended the secretary, calling the committee's investigations into the State Department a backdoor effort to debate the war.
"We should have no illusions about the subtext of these hearings," said House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Tom Davis, R-Va. "Unable to reverse course, the Democratic strategy seems to be to drill enough small holes in the bottom of the boat to sink the entire Iraqi enterprise."