Daniel Schulman

Senior Editor

Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He is the author of the new Koch brothers biography, Sons of Wichita (Grand Central Publishing). Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.

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A Kinder, Gentler Blackwater?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 11:46 AM EDT

Jeff Stein reports this morning that the company formerly known as Blackwater has been awarded a CIA contract worth about $100 million to provide security in "multiple regions." This comes days after the company landed a $120 million State Department contract for work in Afghanistan. Stein's piece includes an interesting quote from an official who defends the government's decision to provide Blackwater 2.0 with more work, given the litany of abuses and scandals in the firm's recent past:

"Blackwater has undergone some serious changes," maintained a U.S. official who is familiar with the deal and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it freely.

"They’ve had to if they want to survive. They’ve had to prove to the government that they’re a responsible outfit. Having satisfied every legal requirement, they have the right to compete for contracts. They have people who do good work, at times in some very dangerous places. Nobody should forget that, either."

If Blackwater (which is currently up for sale) only now has to prove it's a responsible, legally compliant company, you have to wonder what type of standard government contracting officers were applying previously, as they handed the firm (and its affiliates) contract after contract despite serious questions about its conduct. The offical Stein quotes is echoing the line Blackwater's new management team has been pushing —that the company has been reformed, chastened by the mistakes of its past. It may even be true. Otherwise it's a shrewd, if predictable, PR campaign.

In February, when he was called before a Senate committee to answer for the misconduct of employees of a Blackwater-created shell company named Paravant, Fred Roitz, a senior VP at Xe (as the company is now known), insisted [PDF] the company had truly been transformed into a model corporate citizen: "These changes in personnel, attitude, focus, policy and practice, ownership, and governance represent a break from the past. The new Xe Services remains committed to our nation’s critical missions. We are equally committed, however, to a culture of compliance that in all circumstances reflects a responsible US government contractor." Following the hearing, I approached Roitz to pose a couple questions about his testimony and Xe's new corporate culture. I'd barely introduced myself when he refused to speak with me, brushing past trailed by an entourage of lawyers and crisis management specialists. It sure seemed like the old Blackwater to me.

McChrystal's White House Spanking

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 10:16 AM EDT

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to the White House for a presidential spanking over some jaw-dropping remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone, which profiles the general in an issue that hits newsstands on Friday. The article, fittingly titled The Runaway General, features highly critical comments about senior Obama administration officials including National Security Advisor James Jones (a "clown," an unnamed aide remarks), Vice President Joe Biden ("Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?" another anonymous aide quips), and the president himself.

The blogs are ablaze with speculation about whether McChrystal will keep his job over this flap, which is really no small manner. McChrystal has effectively undermined the president's authority—and at the worst time possible too, since things are really not going terribly well in Afghanistan presently. For what it's worth, McChrystal says he's sorry for shooting his mouth off:

I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should have never happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.

Heads are already starting to roll over the debacle. The first to go? McChrystal's civilian press aide, Duncan Boothby, who arranged access to the general and his inner circle. Expect more fallout in the days to come. 

NATO's Contract Fraud A-Team

| Fri Jun. 18, 2010 12:53 PM EDT

According to the Wall Street Journal, military commanders in Afghanistan have arrived at the conclusion that allowing billions of dollars to flow to local and international contractors with the scantest of oversight is kind of a big problem. They "now believe," the Journal reports, that "the massive infusions of cash are helping engender a culture of corruption that has undermined Afghan support for the government of President Hamid Karzai and the NATO forces that back it." You think?

The US-led coalition is in the process of putting together a contract corruption-fighting unit dubbed Task Force 2010. It's a catchy enough name. But I might have gone with something different. "2010" gets you wondering why there's no Task Force 2009, or 2008, or 2007...really, why 9 years have passed without a similar unit being stood up. The Journal reports:

Up until now, much of the limited scrutiny that contractors have endured has focused on private security firms, some of which have allegedly paid off the Taliban to avoid attacks.

Officers directly involved with the new task force stressed that it plans to look beyond security firms and examine the full array of contracts, which range from delivering fuel and food to NATO forces to using coalition money to build health clinics and schools in remote villages.

Of particular concern is the frequent use of multiple sub-contracts on many contracts. U.S. officials already investigating corruption in Afghanistan say they have found evidence of companies, in particular construction firms, using a string of sub-contractors to shift cash to shell companies. The money then disappears, usually into foreign bank accounts.

A number of the primary contractors have ties to top Afghan officials or people with powerful political connections, officials say.

Task Force 2010 will look "at who are not only the subcontractors, but the subcontractors to the subcontractors—literally, where is the money going, and is it all above-board?" said Gen. David Petraeus, who commands U.S. Forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, Tuesday at a Congressional hearing on the war in Afghanistan.

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