WASHINGTON - Employees of the CIA-connected private security corporation Blackwater diverted hundreds of weapons, including more than 500 AK-47 assault rifles, from a U.S. weapons bunker in Afghanistan intended to equip Afghan policemen, according to an investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee. On at least one occasion, an individual claiming to work for the company evidently signed for a weapons shipment using the name of a "South Park" cartoon character. And Blackwater has yet to return hundreds of the guns to the military.A Blackwater subsidiary known as Paravant that until recently operated in Afghanistan acquired the weapons for its employees' "personal use," according to committee staffers, as did other non-Paravant employees of Blackwater. Yet contractors in Afghanistan are not permitted to operate weapons without explicit permission from U.S. Central Command, something Blackwater never obtained. A November 2008 email from a Paravant vice president named Brian McCracken, obtained by the committee, nevertheless reads: "We have not received formal permission from the Army to carry weapons yet but I will take my chances."
As a result of Blackwater's disregard for U.S. military restrictions on contractor firearms, four employees of Paravant - which held a subcontract from defense giant Raytheon to train Afghan soldiers - under the influence of alcohol opened fire on a car carrying four Afghan civilians on May 5, 2009, wounding two. That incident, occurring less than two years after Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, prompted the committee's investigation.
"In the fight against the Taliban, the perception that the Afghans have of us is critical," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the committee, told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "It's clear to me that if we're going to win that struggle, we need to know that contractor personnel are adequately screened, they're adequately supervised and they're adequately held accountable." Levin will hold a hearing on Blackwater's Afghanistan contracts Wednesday morning.
The committee's investigation points to the contrary. Blackwater personnel appear to have gone to exceptional lengths to obtain weapons from U.S. military weapons storehouses intended for use by the Afghan police. According to the committee, at the behest of the company's Afghanistan country manager, Ricky Chambers, Blackwater on at least two occasions acquired hundreds of rifles and pistols from a U.S. military facility near Kabul called 22 Bunkers by the military and Pol-e Charki by the Afghans. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. military forces in the Middle East and South Asia, wrote to the committee to explain that "there is no current or past written policy, order, directive, or instruction that allows U.S. Military contractors or subcontractors in Afghanistan to use weapons stored at 22 Bunkers."
On one of those occasions, in September 2008, Chief Warrant Officer Greg Sailer, who worked at 22 Bunkers and is a friend of a Blackwater officer working in Afghanistan, signed over more than 200 AK-47s to an individual identified as "Eric Cartman" or possibly "Carjman" from Blackwater's Counter Narcotics Training Unit. A Blackwater lawyer told committee staff that no one by those names has ever been employed by the company. Eric Cartman is the name of an obnoxious character from Comedy Central's popular "South Park" cartoon.
Blackwater personnel invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination when approached by the committee to explain the weapons acquisitions from 22 Bunkers, according to committee staff. Sailer, who is still deployed to Afghanistan, told the committee that he thought Blackwater was signing for the weapons to train Afghan police, a task it has never conducted.
Not all of the guns received from Blackwater have been returned to the Afghan government - and, according to committee staff, many only began to be returned after staff approached the company for an explanation. "It was represented to us that all the weapons had been returned" to 22 Bunkers, Levin said. "That is not true. Hundreds of them were not returned." Asked if that meant Blackwater lied to Congress, Levin replied, "They misrepresented the facts, and I'd like to leave it at that."
Raytheon did not renew Paravant's contract for training the Afghan army, which expired in September. Blackwater still holds a contract with the State Department worth millions of dollars to protect diplomats in Afghanistan. While that contract expires this year, Politico reported on Tuesday that Blackwater, now renamed Xe Services, might acquire a new multimillion-dollar contract from the Defense Department to train Afghan police - the same police force that Blackwater's weapons diversions from 22 Bunkers deprived of hundreds of pistols and rifles.
This is not the first time Blackwater has faced allegations of diverted weapons. In 2007, company employees came under federal investigation for improperly shipping hundreds of weapons to Iraq, some of which are believed to have been sold on the black market and acquired by a Kurdish terrorist group. A Blackwater statement at the time said allegations that the company was "in any way associated or complicit in unlawful arms activities are baseless." The New York Times reported in November that the company is negotiating with regulators over "hundreds of millions of dollars in fines" associated with the illicit weapons shipments.
In January, Blackwater's founder, Erik Prince, confirmed to Vanity Fair that his 12-year-old company - which has earned more than a billion dollars through government contracts in the past decade - was involved in a nascent terrorist assassination program run by the CIA, among other CIA activities. "I'm paying for all sorts of intelligence activities to support American national security, out of my own pocket," Prince told the magazine. Additionally, The Nation recently reported that Blackwater assists the Joint Special Operations Command with the terrorist manhunt in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including with the operations of JSOC's armed unmanned drones.
Levin said his inquiry had uncovered "inadequate oversight by the Army over this contract." The Florida-based Army office supposedly overseeing the contract did not even have a contracting officer representative in Afghanistan when the Paravant employees shot at Afghan civilians on May 5, 2009. Yet as early as December 2008, concerned Raytheon personnel informed that Army office that Paravant personnel were carrying unapproved weapons. An officer in Afghanistan responsible for training Afghan soldiers told the committee, "We should have had better control."
Additionally, Blackwater personnel in Afghanistan, including those involved in both the May shooting and an earlier improper weapons discharge from December 2008, have been cited for, among other infractions, drug and alcohol abuse and, in one case, an "extensive criminal history."
Wednesday's hearing is expected to receive testimony from current and former Blackwater/Paravant officers, including Brian C. McCracken, the former Paravant vice president who now serves as Raytheon's chief Afghanistan program officer; Fred Roitz, a Blackwater vice president; and John Walker, a former Paravant program officer.