Dan is Mother Jones' deputy DC bureau chief. He is the New York Times best-selling author of Sons of Wichita(Grand Central Publishing), a biography of the Koch brothers that is now out in paperback. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
Why did Blackwater set up a new corporate identity when it inked a subcontract with Raytheon to train Afghan troops? Masking its scandal-tainted brand was the brainchild of its defense contractor client, according to a top executive for Xe Services (as Blackwater is now known).
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Fred Roitz, an executive vice president at Xe, pulled back the curtain on the creation of Paravant, LLC. He suggested that Raytheon wanted to do business with Blackwater—so long as it didn't appear that it was actually doing business with the controversial security firm. Roitz said it was his "understanding... that the request for a company other than Blackwater came from Raytheon."
So Paravant was born. As Brian McCracken, a former Paravant vice president who now works for Raytheon, acknowledged, the subsidiary and Blackwater were effectively "one and the same." Along with a bank account and address, Paravant also shared its corporate parent's propensity for stirring up controversies. In May, two of the firm's trainers, Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff, opened fire on an oncoming car, killing two Afghan civilians and wounding a third. The men are currently being prosecuted by the Justice Department on second-degree murder and weapons charges. A months-long investigation by the armed services committee followed, unearthing evidence [PDF] that Paravant personnel had acted recklessly, disregarded military regulations, and improperly acquired hundreds of AK-47s and other firearms that were intended for use by the Afghan National Police. The probe also indentified a series of vetting lapses by Blackwater and major oversight failures by the army officials that were supposed to be supervising its work.
Before joining Congress, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) was the scourge of military contractors, filing dozens of whistleblower lawsuits against companies who defrauded the government in connection with their work in Iraq. In the past, the freshman lawmaker, who's known for his pugilistic style and no-holds barred remarks, has blasted the firms working on the payroll of the US government overseas: "We're not going to let the defense contractors use our money to bribe our government and take it over," he once said. And he has singled out Blackwater (now known as Xe) for special criticism: "We can't let, basically, Blackwater take over the entire government here. We have to draw the line somewhere."
But did Blackwater contractors come to his rescue last week, when Grayson was traveling in Niger and a military coup erupted? It certainly seems that way, considering the prepared testimony of Xe executive vice president Fred Roitz, who will testify later today in connection with a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Blackwater subsidiary Paravant. In his remarks, he stated: "Xe Services, through its subsidiary Presidential Airways, provides aviation support and medevac services to Defense Department personnel in Africa. Just last week, our personnel evacuated a congressman from Niger during civil unrest."
The description certainly seems to fit the dicey circumstances Grayson found himself in last week. As CNN reported:
Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida, narrowly escaped harm earlier this week after being caught up in a military coup in the African country of Niger.
Grayson's press secretary, Todd Jurkowski, confirmed to CNN that Grayson was close to the action. "He heard the gunshots. They were literally in the building next door."
The outspoken congressman was in Niger as part of a congressional delegation focused on science, technology and humanitarian relief, according to Jurkowski. When the situation began to unravel, Grayson was taken to the residence of the United States Ambassador to Niger, where he was placed under armed protection.
Roitz offered his remarks in defense of Xe's personnel, who he described as "good corporate citizens," who "support numerous charitable and civic organizations in the region, including the Special Olympics, the USO, the Boy Scouts, and local nonprofit food service organizations."
In his prepared statement, Roitz said that Xe was a changed company following the departure of a series of high-level Blackwater employees and installation of a new management team. "Unfortunately, there were times when the first priority of the former leadership of the company was supporting those missions, even at the expense of complying administrative and regulatory requirements," Roitz said, referring to the firm's work in Iraq and Afghanistan. "That will not happen under the company's new leadership team, which emphasizes core values of honesty, integrity, reliability, and accountability." He also said the company is "in many significant ways, a new company when compared to the old Blackwater."
As for Grayson, if he was in fact saved by Blackwater, I wonder whether the experience has given him a newfound respect for the work of contractors. I have a call in to Grayson's spokesman. I'll update this post when I hear back.
UPDATE: Todd Jurkowsk, Rep. Grayson's spokesman, says the congressman's office is still trying to confirm whether he was in fact evacced by Presidential Airways. "The flight was arranged through the State Department," Jukowski says. "The Congressman did not know, and frankly did not care, who owned the plane.” On the subject of contractors, Jurkowski added, "The Congressman does not deny that there is admirable work being done by some employees of private contractors. However, he stands by his criticism of companies who have been found to cheat the American people, defraud our government, and unnecessarily risk the lives of members of our military, all in the name of making a profit."
When Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and his staff briefed reporters Tuesday on their six-month investigation into Blackwater subsidiary Paravant, ahead of a hearing on the topic scheduled for this morning, the chairman of the armed services committee was asked whether the findings of the probe had given him any ideas about strengthening the contracting "procedures" currently in place. His response didn't make it into my story, but it's worth sharing:
What you need is oversight and hopefully this hearing is going to lead to dramatically better oversight, as well as much more care with who we contract with, looking at backgrounds of contractors before we contract with them, so I would say that the deterrent effect will be forthcoming. I don't see that we need new rules. What we need is an implementation of contract terms. And much more care as to who we contract with.
Unauthorized weapons stockpiles, reckless shootings, steroid-injecting personnel—tales from the security firm's latest Afghanistan outrage.
Daniel SchulmanFeb. 23, 2010 10:00 PM
Blackwater improperly obtained hundreds of weapons intended for use by Afghanistan's already underequipped police force—and then falsely claimed to a Senate committee that the firearms had been returned when many remained unaccounted for.
According to a months-long investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee that unearthed a range of misconduct by the company's personnel, contractors working for a Blackwater subsidiary named Paravant operated recklessly and routinely violated military regulations. The inquiry also identified a series of major vetting lapses by the company, which employed at least one contractor it had previously fired for improper behavior in Iraq and others who abused alcohol and drugs, including steroids. The investigation paints a grim picture of the state of contracting oversight in Afghanistan, where, according to committee staffers, military officials missed multiple red flags calling Paravant's conduct into question—and were even confused about who was ultimately responsible for overseeing the company's work in the first place.
If Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) have their way—and, let's be honest, they probably won't—the days of most private security and military contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan would be numbered. On Tuesday the lawmakers, who are among the most vocal congressional critics of wartime contractors, introduced the "Stop Outsourcing Security Act" in the House and Senate. The legislation would mandate that diplomatic security, which is largely handled by contractors (with occasionally disastrous results—see Nisour Square, Blackwater; vodka butt shots, ArmorGroup), be performed solely by US government personnel. The bills, which would allow the White House to seek certain exceptions for mission-critical contractors, would also "restore the responsibility" of the US military over a variety of functions that have been outsourced, from training foreign security forces and guarding convoys to performing military intelligence and administering prisons. "The behavior of private contractors has endangered our military, hurt relationships with foreign governments, and undermined our missions overseas,” Schakowsky said today.
Sanders and Schakowsky introduced similar measures in 2007, but the bills never advanced. But here's a bit of interesting trivia. Who was Sanders' sole co-sponsor in the Senate? None other than Hillary Clinton, who on the campaign trail declared, "When I am President I will ask the Joint Chiefs for their help in reducing reliance on armed private military contractors with the goal of ultimately implementing a ban on such contractors." By the time she became Secretary of State, overseeing armies of contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq, she had changed her tune. "Whether we can go all the way to banning, under current circumstances, seems unlikely," she told State Department employees during a townhall meeting last February. Frankly, though, the main circumstance that had changed was that Clinton was no longer running for president.
Given the government's heavy reliance on contractors, the notion of banning them (or even phasing them out in any precipitous way) was just as unrealistic then as it is now. This point was underscored in a recent Congressional Research Service report that noted "many analysts and government officials believe that DOD would be unable to execute its mission without PSCs." The same report also made the point that run-amok contractors are fanning anti-American sentiment and undermining America's foreign policy goals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the challenges in Afghanistan and ongoing efforts to hold onto security gains in Iraq, that's really the last thing American troops or diplomats need. But the solution advanced by Sanders and Schakowsky is extremely unlikely to succeed—and could potentially do more harm than good, given that the military is already stretched thin and the State Department's diplomatic security branch has nowhere near the manpower to do what the lawmakers are asking. What's doable—or at least should be doable—is to make sure the right laws, regulations, and oversight is in place to keep contractors accountable, to hold them to the terms of their contracts and, this should go without saying, to the highest standards of conduct when they are representing US interests overseas. Iraq IG Stuart Bowen has an interesting plan for addressing some of the oversight challenges, which I covered today. And Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) have introduced bills intended to clarify some of the legal uncertainties surrounding contractors working overseas. But in the end, if the Obama administration can't solve its contractor problem, perhaps then it's time to revisit the Sanders/Schakowsky option.