Senate Panel Blasts Blackwater Over Theft of Assault Weapons, Civilian Deaths

Thursday, 25 February 2010 09:35 By Grace Huang, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Senate Panel Blasts Blackwater Over Theft of Assault Weapons, Civilian Deaths
(Photo: The U.S. Army; Edited: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t)

"Multiple irresponsible acts" and "troubling gaps in government oversight" plagued the Afghan operations of a Blackwater Wordlwide affiliate defense contractor named Paravant, according to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.

"If we don't fix the problems of oversight and make sure contractors like Blackwater play by the rules and live up to their commitments - we'll be doing a disservice to our troops by making their already difficult and dangerous job even more so," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), the committee chairman, in an opening statement.

On May 5, 2009, two Paravant personnel in Afghanistan, Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff, fired their weapons, killing two Afghan civilians and wounding a third. An Army investigation determined that they had "violated alcohol consumption policies, were not authorized to possess weapons, violated use of force rules, and violated movement control policies."

According to Senator Levin's statement, in one media report, the event "turned an entire neighborhood against the U.S. presence," and a local Afghan elder was quoted as saying, "If they keep killing civilians, I'm sure some Afghans will decide to become insurgents."

Cannon was discharged from the military after he was absent without leave for 22 days and tested positive for cocaine. Drotleff also had an "abysmal" military record, including assault, insubordinate conduct and absence without leave and an "extensive criminal history." including convictions for reckless driving, assault and battery and disturbing the peace. However, Paravant's vetting process seemed to miss those details. Paravant also seemed to hire employees who were on Blackwater's own "Do Not Use" list.

The statement also noted that five months before this shooting, another incident occurred on December 9, 2008, where a Paravant program manager in a "wild idea" decided to "get on the back of a moving car with a loaded AK-47 and 'ride it like a stagecoach.'" The vehicle then hit a bump, causing the weapon to discharge and seriously injuring another Paravant team member.

"The reckless disregard for weapons safety is particularly striking given that he and his team were hired for the specific purpose of teaching the Afghan National Army how to safely use their weapons," Senator Levin said in the statement.

Paravant reported the incident to Raytheon, which filed a report in a system the Army uses to monitor contracts. It said the shooting was caused by "operating equipment improperly or without authority" and "improper technique," and also indicated that "policies/procedures/plans were not followed" and that "safety training [was] not followed." However, though this report was forwarded to individuals responsible for overseeing the contract, the incident "failed to set off alarm bells."

"If corrective actions had been taken in December," said Senator Levin, "the May 2009 shooting could have been avoided."

In September 2008, more than 200 AK-47s were taken out of a bunker that stored weapons meant for the Afghan National Police's use, which US Commander Gen. David Petraeus said in a letter that no military contractors or subcontractors were allowed to use. The weapons were signed for by a Paravant employee named "Eric Cartman," the name of a "South Park" cartoon character. The company said it had not employed anyone with that name.

Paravant's Director, Hugh Middleton, claimed in a June 2009 letter that "all AK-47s previously issued to Paravant were returned to the 'Bunker 22' facility from which they came."

The company also distributed pistols to its personnel diverted from a Blackwater contract with Lockheed Martin. Brian McCracken, former Paravant vice president and current Raytheon Afghanistan country manager, wrote in an email: "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."

Paravant then entered into a subcontract with Raytheon Technical Services Company; that company's role was to assist in weapons training for the Afghan National Army. In the contract, it claimed to have "2000 employees deployed overseas" and "many years of experience."

However, Paravant was created in 2008 by Blackwater, which, by then, had changed its name to Xe Services. At the time it had been awarded its contract, it had no employees either, according to Senator Levin in his statement, who also said he saw "no meaningful distinction between the two."

Blackwater suffered a large blow to its reputation after a shooting incident in September 2007 in Baghdad, which killed 17 Iraqi civilians. The company and its guards involved maintained that they fired only after they first came under attack.

McCracken said in previous testimony that Paravant was created to be "a company that didn't have any Blackwater on it," without the "reputation" or the "baggage."

During the hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Montana) called the Paravant-Blackwater configuration "layers of contracts that don't have any meaning" and a "classic example of a cover company."

However, Stephen Ograyensek, a US Army contracting officer, testified that he had "no indication that they were part of Blackwater."

During questioning, Senator Levin said that Paravant came into existence "exactly so that they could have a letterhead coming from Blackwater" and inquired how Raytheon could not have been well aware of the fact.

Fred Roitz, the former vice president for contracts and compliance at Blackwater and a current Xe Services employee, said that Raytheon knew which company it was dealing with and itself requested that the company name be something other than Blackwater so it could enter a contract. He could not recall which individual told him this.

According to The Washington Independent, a Raytheon spokesman said that "he made this claim; it's up to [Roitz] to substantiate it."

Throughout the hearing, senators made clear their disappointment in the whole situation while asking questions.

"We have two sets of rules and one image," said Senator McCaskill. "Until the contractors are held to the same standard as the men and women in uniform, we're going to be back to this ... it's still going to be the same problem."

"If you're going to get the contracts and make the money, you've got to take the responsibility for what these guys to do," she said.

Grace Huang

Grace Huang is an intern at Truthout.

Last modified on Thursday, 25 February 2010 13:44