The mercenary firm Blackwater is clearly more teflon than Gen. Stanley McChrystal. While McChrystal sips Bud Light Lime, watching Talladega Nights and ponders what private sector job to scoop up, Erik Prince’s crusading private soldiers will still be running around Afghanistan and other theaters of undeclared US wars globally with the CIA. All with the blessing of the Commander in Chief.
While President Obama sacked McChrystal after comments attributed to him and his inner circle were published in a now infamous Rolling Stone article, Blackwater is being rewarded with new contracts despite its track record of scores of acts of misconduct, including allegations of murdering and manslaughtering civilians, weapons charges, conspiracy and obstruction of justice to name a few.
Given McChrystal’s alleged involvement in the torture of detainees at Camp Nama in Iraq, his primary role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death and other dark acts involving his time commanding the Joint Special Operations Command under the Bush-Cheney administration, McChrystal should have never been named commander in Afghanistan. When he was appointed, Obama sent a message about the kind of policy he wanted in Afghanistan–one which favored unaccountable, unattributable direct action forces accustomed to operating in secret and away from effective oversight. Indeed, in the Rolling Stone article, McChrystal appeared to admit his famous commitment to decreasing civilian deaths was a sham operation. According to Rolling Stone: "’You better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight,’ McChrystal will tell a Navy Seal he sees in the hallway at headquarters. Then he’ll add, ‘I’m going to have to scold you in the morning for it, though.’"
President Obama was right to fire McChrystal (technically he accepted his resignation)–it should have happened long ago. That McChrystal was fired for the Rolling Stone article, however, and not for the way he prosecuted the Afghan war speaks volumes about the administration’s Afghanistan position and policy vision (not to mention that Dick Cheney’s general, David Petraeus, was named as McChrystal’s successor).
Contrast Obama’s McChrystal treatment with his Blackwater treatment.
In January, two Blackwater operatives were indicted on murder charges stemming from a shooting in Afghanistan in May 2008. In March, Senator Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on the Justice Department to investigate Blackwater’s use of a shell company, Paravant, to win training contracts in Afghanistan. On June 11, federal prosecutors filed a massive brief in their appeal of last year’s dismissal by a federal judge of manslaughter charges against the Blackwater operatives alleged to be the "shooters" at Nisour Square. Seventeen innocent Iraqis were killed in the shooting and more than 20 others wounded. In the brief, prosecutors asked that the indictment of the Blackwater men be reinstated. Then in April, five of Erik Prince’s top deputies were hit with a fifteen-count indictment by a federal grand jury on conspiracy, weapons and obstruction of justice charges. Among those indicted were Prince’s longtime number-two man, former Blackwater president Gary Jackson, former vice presidents William Matthews and Ana Bundy and Prince’s former legal counsel Andrew Howell. Former Blackwater employees have made serious allegations in sworn declarations and in Grand Jury testimony about murder, gun smuggling, prostitution, destruction of evidence and a slew of other alleged crimes.
Clearly, none of this is cause for major concern at the White House.
Over the past two weeks, Blackwater has been awarded more than $200 million in new contracts by the Obama administration. One is a $120 million arrangement with the US State Department for security services in Afghanistan, the other, worth $100 million, is for protecting CIA operations and operatives in Afghanistan and other hot zones globally. Blackwater has spent heavily this year on lobbyists—particularly Democratic ones. In the first quarter of 2010, the company spent more than $500,000 for the services of Stuart Eizenstat, a well-connected Democratic lobbyist who served in the Clinton and Carter administrations. Eizenstat heads the international practice for the powerhouse law and lobbying firm Covington and Burling.
"Blackwater has undergone some serious changes," an unnamed U.S. official told The Washington Post. "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."
Let’s also not forget that like McChrystal, Erik Prince was recently featured in an entertainment magazine. In January, Vanity Fair profiled Prince. In the article Prince and his associates didn’t speak disparagingly about the commander in chief or the vice president, but Prince did appear to reveal details of classified US operations and the existence of a covert CIA assassination team, trained and organized by Prince, that planned hits in various countries, including inside Germany, a key US ally.
Maybe if some reporter catches Erik Prince and his cronies engaged in drunken, profanity-laced diatribes aimed at the White House and Commander in Chief, something would really change. If they used the phrase "bite me" when speaking of the vice president or embarrassed poor little Richard Holbrooke or called the National Security Advisor a "clown," maybe the administration would decide it was inappropriate to continue Blackwater’s "services."
There’s no doubt, under the Uniform Code of Military Conduct, McChrystal was rightly relieved of his duties. But in the end, it was McChrystal’s words–not his actions–that sunk his ship. Blackwater’s ship of misconduct, crime and murder will apparently sail on for the foreseeable future, at least until their words, instead of their bullets, strike the wrong people.
UPDATE: I just interviewed Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the leading lawmaker opposing Blackwater. A member of the House Intelligence Committee, Schakowsky cannot confirm details of Blackwater’s work for the CIA, but regarding the report they had been hired again by the CIA, she said: "It’s just outrageous. What does Blackwater have to do to be determined an illegitimate player? While some of Blackwater’s personnel do good work, its employees have proven to be untrustworthy with weapons in combat zones. Whether they are at the center of a mission or are doing static security, we should not be using Blackwater employees. The CIA should not be doing business with this company no matter how many name changes it undergoes." Schakowsky added: "If the reason for using Blackwater is that the government lacks capacity or can’t find any reputable firm with this capacity, then that’s a serious problem that needs to be confronted head on."