Army contractor's use of a cover name for Blackwater angers Sen. McCaskill

(Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"The American people have a right to be outraged that we're playing this kind of game with contracting. It's wrong. It's flat wrong."

With those words, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) voiced her exasperation near the end of a three-hour Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about a contract to train Afghan National Army troops last year to use American weapons. One issue at the Feb. 24. hearing was that the $25 million contract, awarded in September 2008, was to a company called Paravant -- well known to those involved as a cover name for Blackwater (now Xe Services).

Another issue was that while the U.S. Army was paying for it, the contract was awarded to Paravant (Blackwater) by a Raytheon subsidiary called Raytheon Technical Services Co. RTSC holds a multibillion-dollar War Fighter Focus contract, primarily to train U.S. troops, but in this case the Army decided to use the company, through a separate task order under the War Fighter Focus contract, to hire Paravant.

Why didn't the Army contract directly with Paravant? That was not explored at the hearing. But the use of a cover name, Paravant, to bid on a contract when the attached qualifications were essentially those of Blackwater has been referred to the Justice Department by the committee's chairman, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.).

Another major issue examined at the hearing was the lack of oversight of the Paravant contract by Raytheon and the Army. The military unit responsible for overseeing this odd contracting was the Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, referred to as PEO-STRI. It is located in Orlando, and its primary job is to supervise billion-dollar training and simulator contracts -- though it was eight months before one of its contract officers arrived in Afghanistan to monitor the training.

It is not that the contract did not need oversight from the start. At the hearing, Levin said that the 72 trainers (six teams of 12) hired by the Paravant manager in Afghanistan, Brian C. McCracken, included a person whose record during his Army service apparently included "assault, insubordinate conduct [and] absence without leave" and who, after discharge, had a criminal record that included assault and battery, driving while intoxicated, resisting arrest and trespassing.

Another trainer who was hired had been "discharged from the U.S. military after he was absent without leave for 22 days and tested positive for cocaine," according to Levin, and a third "was fired from Blackwater's security contract in Iraq for an alcohol-fueled incident that ended in a fight between him and another contractor." Levin added that "he had been on Blackwater's own internal 'Do Not Use' (DNU) list since September 2006."

As the hearing revealed, the first two were eventually fired after allegedly getting drunk, using a Paravant sport-utility vehicle to go off base, shooting and killing two Afghans and wounding another. (They are in custody awaiting trial in the April 2009 incident.) The third of the contractors Levin mentioned was also fired after he was, as Levin put it, "thrown off the contract by the U.S. Army" after attempting to pull rank on an Army lieutenant.

In early 2009, Raytheon decided it needed to have a person on the scene for oversight of the contract, and it chose McCracken, a former Blackwater manager who did the original hiring. According to Levin, amid the military's concerns in late April 2009 about whether the trainers "were performing up to U.S. Army standards," the Army's chief of training and education for Afghan soldiers said that "McCracken, who had recently moved from Paravant to Raytheon, would be responsible for monitoring Paravant and would be coordinating oversight of the contracts."

The hearing exposed yet another contracting issue: Raytheon wrote to Paravant in June 2009, saying it intended to end the contract based in part on the alleged involvement of the trainers in the killings. Paravant responded that its trainers were independent contractors and that it was not responsible for their actions when they were not working as trainers.

McCaskill zeroed in on this, saying that, if the United States is putting these trainers on the battlefield and they are seen as part of the U.S. military mission, there needs to be "a clear line of responsibility for what they do." She told Fred Roitz, Blackwater's former vice president for contracts, who now holds the same position at Xe: "If you are going to get the contracts and make the money, you have to take responsibility for what they do."

McCaskill also questioned James T. Blake, head of Army contracting for PEO-STRI, about the fees paid Raytheon. She said that Raytheon botched its oversight of the contract but that there were no penalties. "Should there be penalties for this kind of failure of oversight?" McCaskill asked. Blake replied that it would be looked into because it "was not in the contract" and that "this issue wasn't envisioned."

Referring to contractors and soldiers in Afghanistan, McCaskill said: "You know, we've got two kinds of organizations that are performing the same functions. One responds to money, and the other responds to duty. And if we're going to hold these guys accountable, we better get busy with making sure it hurts when they . . . fail to do things like this."

The columnist's son, Andrew J. Pincus, is a partner in the law firm Mayer Brown LLP, which represents Xe Services, formerly Blackwater.

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