Blackwater has spent heavily on Democratic lobbyists in 2010 and clearly it has paid off. Despite the investigations, the indictments, the trail of dead bodies, George W Bush’s favorite mercenary company is thriving under the Obama Administration. After its original sugar daddy left town, Blackwater has happily remarried. Over the past two weeks, the Administration has awarded nearly a quarter billion dollars in new US government contracts to Blackwater to work for the State Department and CIA in Afghanistan and other hot zones globally.
In an interview Sunday on ABC’s "This Week," CIA Director Leon Panetta made it clear that the Agency is dependent upon private security companies to operate globally. But, not just any private security companies. Specifically, Panetta said, the CIA needs Blackwater.
"I have to tell you that in the war zone, we continue to have needs for security. You’ve got a lot of forward bases. We’ve got a lot of attacks on some of these bases. We’ve got to have security. Unfortunately, there are a few companies that provide that kind of security," Panetta told Jake Tapper. "So we bid out some of those contracts. [Blackwater] provided a bid that was underbid everyone else by about $26 million. And a panel that we had said that they can do the job, that they have shaped up their act. So there really was not much choice but to accept that contract." While Tapper specifically asked Panetta about Blackwater’s work in Afghanistan, the CIA contract is not limited to Afghanistan–it is a global contract.
PolitiFact didn’t review the accuracy of Panetta’s statements about Blackwater (which, these days, tries to pass itself off under the new names Xe Services and the US Training Center), but it should have. Blackwater is still Blackwater. Yes, the company changed its name and yes they hired some new figureheads and yes Erik Prince says he is selling the company and leaving the government services business. But let’s be clear: this is a company that remains under serious investigation by multiple US agencies and Congress for a range of alleged crimes and violations. Among these are weapons charges, murder, manslaughter, conspiracy, making false statements and using shell companies to win contracts that may not have been awarded to Blackwater if the company’s true identity was clear. Most recently, McClatchy revealed that "the U.S. government and the private military contractor are negotiating a multimillion-dollar fine to settle allegations that Blackwater violated U.S. export control regulations in Sudan, Iraq and elsewhere."
In April, five of 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. Meanwhile, US prosecutors are still pursuing the Blackwater operatives alleged to be responsible for the single greatest massacre of Iraqi civilians by a private US force, the infamous Nisour Square massacre. Earlier this year, Senator Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee formally called on the Justice Department and Defense Department to investigate what he called "the reckless use of weapons by Blackwater personnel and a failure by the company to adequately supervise its personnel" in Afghanistan.
When Panetta says a panel determined Blackwater had "shaped up their act," what exactly does he mean? I would love to see the findings of that CIA panel and how "shaped up" is defined. Moreover, Panetta speaks as though his hands are simply tied up and that if Blackwater comes in with a lower bid than any other company, there’s nothing he can do. That is simply ridiculous. "It’s just outrageous," Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who, as chair of the House Intelligence subcommittee on investigations and oversight is leading classified investigations of Blackwater, told me last week. "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."
At a minimum, part of the calculus that should be employed when reviewing Blackwater’s fitness to work for the US government is how the company’s history of killing civilians and engaging in serious misconduct–all of which has been well documented in Afghanistan and elsewhere–will impact US operations. "I’m just mystified why any branch of the government would decide to hire Blackwater, such a repeat offender," Schakowsky said on "This Week." "We’re talking about murder, a company with a horrible reputation, that really jeopardizes our mission in so many different ways." The message that using this firm sends to Muslim countries in particular is that the US has no problem using a company owned by an avowed Christian supremacist whose own employee said in a sworn declaration "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe," adding that Prince’s companies "encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life."
Panetta said that the CIA had reviewed Blackwater’s work for the Agency "to ensure that first and foremost, that we have no contract in which they are engaged in any CIA operations," adding, "We’re doing our own operations. That’s important, that we not contract that out to anybody." This is simply a blatantly misleading statement. I have talked with many US military and Blackwater sources who have told me point-blank that while Blackwater technically is hired for "security," they regularly are pulled into operations. The Blackwater guys are not dime store rent-a-cops. Many of them are former Navy SEALs or other US special forces veterans–precisely the type of men recruited by the CIA’s paramilitary division for operations. The idea that the Blackwater guys are just standing around Afghanistan or any other war zone (declared or not) smoking cigarettes and admiring their tattoos while their colleagues who happen to officially work for the CIA chase the bad guys is simply not true. Blackwater forces have been a major part of sensitive US operations almost from the moment the US went into Afghanistan in 2001.
As we know, Blackwater and Prince individually trained and ran private CIA assassination teams at various points since 9-11. Panetta told Congress he put an end to those teams. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But saying that Blackwater is just doing security while on CIA contract is a dubious claim. Take the example of the deadly suicide bombing at the CIA outpost at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost Afghanistan last December 30. Top CIA officials in the country were meeting with Humam Khalil Muhammed Abu Mulal al-Balawi, who claimed to have recently met with Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. It was arguably considered one of the most important intelligence contacts made since 9-11 for the Agency. When al-Balawi blew himself up, two Blackwater operatives were killed. The point is that this company’s operatives are involved with the most sensitive, secret US missions.
What we are seeing clearly is the Obama administration not only using Blackwater in sensitive operations globally, but actively defending the company’s continued existence as a government contractor in good standing. Just look at the report about Blackwater and Sudan. According to McClatchy‘s investigation, two former senior U.S. officials said Blackwater "at one point proposed a broad defense package [for Southern Sudan’s Christian forces] that would have required the south to pledge as much as half its mineral wealth to pay for Blackwater’s services." According to McClatchy, "Had the company been indicted, it could have been suspended from doing business with the U.S. government, and a conviction could have brought debarment from all government contracts, including providing guard services for the CIA and State Department in war zones." Instead of indicting the company, the Justice Department protected Blackwater and opted for a settlement rather than a criminal prosecution thus ensuring the company could continute to work for the US government.
No one is paying any attention to what should be a major part of the story of Blackwater’s thriving second marriage to the current Administration: the money trail. 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.
Put that together with two other important facts about Blackwater and you get a clear picture of why this company continues to win contracts. First, Blackwater does have the market pretty well cornered on providing large numbers of seasoned special forces veterans, security clearance in-hand, ready for rapid deployment. This results from a dramatic over reliance on using private companies–specifically Blackwater– for security that has expanded rapidly over the past decade. The US government has not moved to create its own force that could provide these services despite the need for them created by US foreign policy. Second, Blackwater has been involved with so many sensitive operations for a decade and knows where the bodies are buried and who buried them. Those are not the kind of people you simply cut loose without fear of consequences.