By Matthew Cole
A Senate committee Wednesday lambasted the private military company formerly known as Blackwater, accusing the firm of engaging in "reckless use of weapons," hiding its identity to score government contracts, and harming America's war effort in Afghanistan.
Investigators for the Senate Armed Services Committee say they also found that Blackwater contractors in Afghanistan secured more than 500 weapons from the U.S. military, even though company employees were not authorized to carry weapons there, and that the military signed over some of the weapons to a contractor who used a fake name borrowed from a character in the TV cartoon "South Park."
The hearing was part of an on-going investigation by the Armed Services Committee into the role of contractors in Afghanistan, and focused on a shooting incident involving two Blackwater security trainers. The trainers, Justin Cannon and Scott Drotleff, who were working for Paravant, a subsidiary of Blackwater's successor company, Xe Services, are accused of killing two Afghan civilians in May 2009. Both face federal charges of murder, but maintain their innocence.
Both Paravant and Xe are owned by Erik Prince, the owner and founder of Blackwater. Blackwater changed its name to Xe in early 2009 after the company was involved in a series of deadly incidents in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, Xe offshoot Paravant was operating as a subcontractor to Raytheon, providing weapons training to the Afghan National Army.
During Wednesday's hearing, committee chairman Carl Levin, D.-Mich., reported that a Paravant executive who acted as point man with Raytheon after the May 2009 shooting incident had told Senate investigators that Paravant routinely disregarded policies and rules in Afghanistan.
"Paravant had no regard for policies, rules, or adherence to regulations in country," said Sen. Levin, quoting James Sierawski of Paravant and Xe. Sierawski, who was interviewed by investigators after his name turned up on internal emails connected to the shooting, is apparently still employed by Paravant and Xe.
'Eric Cartman' Signs for Weapons
In the months before the deadly incident, Paravant employees in Afghanistan obtained more than 500 AK-47s and other weapons from the U.S. military, despite knowing that they have been denied permission to carry weapons on several occasions. Investigators released documents showing that the military handed out hundreds of rifles and handguns, even allowing a Paravant employee to sign for some using the name "Eric Cartman." Cartman is a character on the cable series "South Park," known for its crude humor. The weapons had been intended for the Afghan National Army.
In an internal email released by the committee, a Paravant manager who supervised the two accused shooters in Afghanistan told a colleague that he "got sidearms for everyone." "We have not yet received formal permission from the Army to carry weapons," read the email from Brian McCracken, "but I will take my chances."
McCracken was called as a witness at the hearing, where he asserted that Blackwater had been given verbal permission by the military to carry the weapons.
Two days after Paravant diverted several hundred weapons away from the Afghan National Army, one of its contractors was shot in the head by a second Paravant contractor, after his AK-47 accidentally discharged. Paravant fired the contractor who discharged the weapon, and the victim survived, but a military official today acknowledged that the incident was not investigated. The committee faulted the Pentagon with exercising little oversight over contractors operating in Afghanistan.
Sen. Levin pointed out that both men accused in the civilian shooting incident, Drotleff and Cannon, had unsatisfactory military records that should have disqualified them from employment with Paravant. Paravant, Levin said, was arming contractors who never should have had weapons in the first place.
Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Mark Begich of Alaska both accused Blackwater of hiding its identity by setting up new companies when securing government contracts. Begich called Paravant a "scam company," and a "shell" for Blackwater.
In a statement to ABC News, Sen. Levin echoed the charge that Paravant was a "shell," "set up to avoid the 'baggage' that the name Blackwater carried." Levin said the name change had fooled an Army contracting officer who approved Paravant's subcontract with Raytheon. "The deception here is deeply troubling," said Levin, "because the Department of State said in 2008 that it had lost 'confidence in (Blackwater's) credibility and management ability.'" Blackwater lost a security contract with the State Department after a 2007 shooting incident that cost the lives of 17 Iraqi civilians.
At the hearing, Blackwater executive vice president Fred Roitz testified that it was Raytheon that asked Blackwater to change names.
"Raytheon requested that a company name be other than Blackwater. It was at Raytheon's request," Roitz told the committee.
Roitz also acknowledged that Blackwater intentionally used the name Paravant to deceive Pentagon's contracting office, in an effort to secure the contract.
In a sharp exchange, Sen. Levin asked Mr. Roitz if he was bothered that he had "made statements that weren't accurate, in order to cover-up the fact it was a Blackwater operation instead of Paravant?"
"I'm troubled today," Mr. Roitz replied.