WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The State Department's diplomatic security chief resigned yesterday, marking the first departure of a government official with oversight responsibility for the administration's troubled private security contractor program.
Richard J. Griffin, the assistant security of state for diplomatic security, did not give a reason for his resignation when he met with Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte. State Department spokesmen confirmed the departure, which is effective Nov. 1, but declined to elaborate on the reasons behind it.
"I just want to thank him for his exemplary service to the country," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters before meeting with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.
Griffin, an ambassador-rank official who was previously deputy director of the U.S. Secret Service and inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs, had been in his current job since June 2005. He served 36 years in the U.S. government, according to his official biography.
Griffin made no mention of the security contractor controversy in a resignation letter to Rice and President Bush, saying only that he was going to "move on to new challenges." A deputy, Gregory Starr, will fill his position on an acting basis.
The department's private security force of more than 1,000 personnel has drawn criticism for years, but complaints intensified after an incident Sept. 16 in which Blackwater USA contractors guarding a diplomatic convoy killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
Rice has issued two sets of directives to overhaul oversight of the program, the second of them coming Tuesday. The new rules will, among other things, put the guards under federal law when they are working abroad, and will set new rules for their use of weapons.
The steps were recommended by the review panel that Rice created after the Sept. 16 shootout.
"Prompt measures should be taken to strengthen the coordination, oversight and accountability aspects of the State Department's security practices in Iraq in order to reduce the likelihood that future incidents will occur," the panel said in its 24-page report.
The Blackwater controversy has taken a toll on the administration. It has caused friction with the Iraqi government and further damaged the image of the U.S. contingent in Iraq among Iraqis. It has attracted wide coverage in news media in Arabic countries, Europe and elsewhere, intensifying impressions that Americans favor the use of force.
The international furor erupted after the Sept. 16 incident. An Iraqi investigation ruled the shooting was unjustified.
In the aftermath of that shooting came revelations that other private guards had resorted to violence and faced no consequences for their actions. In one instance, a Blackwater employee killed a guard to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi and was removed from the country with the help of the U.S. Embassy. The shooting remains under investigation.
Griffin, responsible for security arrangements for U.S. diplomats abroad, defended the system set up for Iraq and Afghanistan during testimony before a congressional committee Oct. 2.
Griffin said the State Department contracted with private companies because it did not have enough personnel to staff U.S. needs in Iraq. If the agency decided to hire enough of its own agents, Griffin said, it would have to figure out what to do with them once the need for them in Iraq had ended.
Earlier yesterday in Baghdad, the Iraqi Cabinet upheld the findings of an official investigation of the Sept. 16 incident that found the Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation. Blackwater disputes this, saying the U.S. Embassy convoy it was protecting was attacked first.
The Iraqi Cabinet also renewed calls for Blackwater's expulsion from Iraq and set up a committee to look into repealing a 2004 directive that gives private contractors virtual immunity from prosecution.
Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.