Congress Questions Blackwater's Service in Afghanistan

Senate investigators find ‘reckless’ behavior in Afghanistan

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Hundreds of pages of documents demanded months ago from the defense corporation formerly known as Blackwater were still flowing into Senate Armed Services Committee offices on the eve of a hearing on private military contractors, according to committee investigators. When they arrived, the papers illustrated what Chairman Carl Levin of Michi­gan called "reckless" behavior among private contractors in Afghanistan—and "failures" in U.S. government oversight that "allowed it to persist." Those failures, in turn, could jeopardize the U.S. exit strategy of training Afghan soldiers and police to provide security for their country when U.S. troops begin pulling out in July, 2011.

The investigation highlighted a series of reckless events that now has lawmakers urging the Pentagon to take a hard look at a potential contract worth as much as $1 billion to once again engage Blackwater--now known as Xe Services--to train Afghan police. Blackwater remains a frontrunner for the job, although the inquiry found that its subsidiary Paravant was operating "with almost no consideration of the rules it was legally obligated to follow," says Levin (who uses Blackwater and Paravant interchangeably because, he says, "there is no meaningful distinction between the two"). This included stealing assault rifles and pistols intended for Afghan forces, even as the U.S. Army was denying requests for the contractors to carry arms at all.

The contractors apparently ignored that stricture. In November 2008, Paravant Vice President Brian McCracken wrote in an E-mail to a fellow contractor obtained by Senate investigators: "I got sidearms for everyone. . . . We have not yet received formal permission from the Army to carry weapons yet but I will take my chances." McCracken, now Afghanistan country manager for Raytheon—which hired Paravant to train Afghan forces—told the senators that the U.S. military did know that Paravant contractors were armed.

Another Paravant employee took more than 200 semiautomatic rifles from a U.S.-run armory and signed for them under the name Eric Cartman, a South Park cartoon character. This gem, uncovered by Senate investigators, prompted laughter among attendees at a briefing last month. But it was nervous laughter: Many of these weapons remain unaccounted for.

The behavior of the contractors in question ranged, according to interviews with current and former Blackwater employees, from sophomoric to criminal. In December 2008, a Paravant worker "recklessly" shot a Black­water colleague in the head with an AK-47 assault rifle after members of the Paravant team came up with the "wild idea" of shooting from the top of a moving car while riding it "like a stagecoach," Paravant program manager Johnnie Walker told Senate staffers. Equally troubling, staffers say, is that the U.S. military never investigated the shooting. Levin found this "dis­regard" for safety "particularly striking" given that the team was hired for the purpose of teaching Afghan troops to safely use their weapons.

Contractors are meant to train Afghan forces to handle security when American troops leave. But the result of their work has long been a source of frustration for U.S. commanders, who complain about the quality of instruction that recruits receive. The hearing "raised a number of very serious questions about Blackwater's conduct" throughout its contract tenure, and prompted Levin to send a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently, asking him to "consider the deficiencies in Blackwater's performance...before a decision is made to award the police training work" to the company.

And any violations have long-term consequences that "has undermined our mission in Afghanistan," Levin wrote to Gates. That's because few Afghans differentiate between private contractors and the U.S. military. "What's killing me about this incident with Black­water is that we have two sets of rules and one image," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. And until the military takes contracting oversight "more seriously," she added, commanders' efforts to train future Afghan replacements --and in turn prepare for a viable American drawdown--will remain stalled.