Blackwater fallout: Senate moves to rein in military contractors

The Senate holds a hearing Wednesday on ways to improve oversight of private military contractors, after a series of incidents involving Blackwater. On Tuesday, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would stop 'outsourcing' security missions.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
A private military contractor's armored vehicle rolls through al-Nisoor square,Baghdad, on Jan. 2. The Senate is holding a hearing Wednesday on ways to improve oversight of military contractors after a series of incidents involving Blackwater.

After several incidents of misbehavior in Afghanistan involving the military contractor Blackwater and its employees, US lawmakers are moving to provide greater oversight of an industry that, while key to American military success, may also be undermining the mission there.

Even as US forces in Afghanistan operate under orders to protect Afghan civilians, erring on the side of caution and even holding their fire rather than risk harming them while fighting Taliban insurgents, concern is mounting that civilian contractors operate under a different set of rules – or simply don't follow the rules.

“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) of Michigan. Senator Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, takes up the topic at a hearing Wednesday.

Other lawmakers this week introduced legislation to prevent the American military from “outsourcing” security missions to contractors.

Many of the contractors in Afghanistan are overseen by the State Department or USAID, and the Pentagon typically hires contractors only for training. So oversight of a firm like Blackwater/Xe, which provides security services, typically falls under State. Administration officials generallyhave recognized the problems stemming from contractor behavior, blaming the lack of resources to conduct proper oversight. It is unclear how administration officials view increased oversight from Congress.

“The behavior of private contractors has endangered our military, hurt relationships with foreign governments, and undermined our missions overseas,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois, in introducing the Stop Outsourcing Security Act with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont. Tuesday.

But the Senate hearing Wednesday will focus on incidents involving Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, and a sister firm, Paravant, that have given lawmakers pause.

In May of last year, two men working for Paravant killed two Afghans and injured a third in a shooting incident in which alcohol appeared to be involved, creating diplomatic tensions between the two countries and a backlash against American forces in one neighborhood. The head of the American training command, Maj. Gen. Richard Formica, said it appeared the men, Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff, had “violated alcohol consumption policies, were not authorized to possess weapons, violated use of force rules and violated movement control policies.” The two were later indicted on two counts of homicide and one count of attempted homicide each, as well as firearms charges. But the incident pointed up what even a Blackwater senior executive conceded at the time was an environment in which Paravant had “no regard for policies, rules, or adherence to regulations in country.”

The rub about American contractors in today’s wars is that they are absolutely necessary: Despite its vast size, the American military does not have enough manpower to cook all the food, guard all the buildings, clean all the latrines and conduct all the training in Afghanistan. But in the hearts-and-minds campaign in Afghanistan, there is no distinction among the Afghan population between American service members and civilian contractors. Malfeasance is malfeasance.

“Local populations draw little or no distinction between American troops and the contractors employed by them,” according to a report released in December by John Nagl and Richard Fontaine at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington. “An act committed by one can have the same effect on local or national opinion as an act carried out by the other.” (See Monitor coverage of a Project on Government Oversight report that cited "lewd and deviant" behavior on the part of contractors in Kabul.) According to the CNAS report, about 75,000 contractors are working in Afghanistan, of which about 10,000 are Americans.

Paravant was formed in 2008 by Erik Prince, the controversial former head of Blackwater. That company also has been involved in other incidents in both Iraq and Afghanistan, in which Blackwater guards have thrust the US into diplomatic, legal, and military confrontations over their actions. Lawmakers cite another incident in December 2008 in which a Paravant program manager led a training team on a mission in which the team would learn how to shoot their AK-47s from the back of a moving truck and “ride it like a stagecoach,” according to quotes attributed to a Paravant program manager contained in Levin's statement.

During the training, the truck hit a bump, a weapon discharged, and one Paravant employee was seriously injured. Although the incident was reported to an Army training command, the report of Paravant employees using weapons without proper supervision “failed to set off alarm bells” within the Army or the American training command in Afghanistan, according to Levin.

“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,” said Levin.

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