By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; A05
Federal auditors on Monday put a stop to Army plans to award a $1 billion training program for Afghan police officers to the company formerly known as Blackwater, concluding that other companies were unfairly excluded from bidding on the job.
The decision by the Government Accountability Office leaves unclear who will oversee training of the struggling Afghan National Police, a poorly equipped, 90,000-strong paramilitary force that will inherit the task of preserving order in the country after NATO troops depart.
GAO officials upheld a protest by DynCorp International Inc., which currently conducts training for Afghan police under a State Department contract. DynCorp lawyers argued that the company should have been allowed to submit bids when management of the training program passed from State to the Army. Instead, Pentagon officials allowed the training program to be attached to an existing Defense contract that supports counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan.
Xe Services, the new name of Blackwater, was poised to win one portion of a much larger group of contracts, shared among five corporations, that could earn the companies more than $15 billion over five years.
GAO officials said the decision will allow a new round of bidding by DynCorp and other firms, including Xe Services.
"We recognize the Army's position that it needs to swiftly award a contract for these services," said Ralph O. White, an attorney with the GAO's procurement oversight division. But he said the Army must conduct a "full and open competition," or explain in writing why DynCorp had been excluded.
The Pentagon's decision to allow Xe to run the training program drew a strong protest last week from Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin cited a history of allegedly abusive behavior by the contractor's employees, including misappropriation of government weapons and hiring of workers with criminal records that included assault and drug offenses. He also accused managers of the private security company of lying to win lucrative jobs in Afghanistan.
Levin, responding to Monday's GAO decision, said government contracting practices had too often been unfairly exclusive, though he acknowledged that Xe may ultimately end up as the winner in competitive bidding.
"If this contract is re-bid and Blackwater is among the bidders, I hope that the Defense Department will take a close look at the company to determine if it is a suitable contracting partner for the U.S. government," he said.
A spokesman for Xe declined to comment.
DynCorp President Bill Ballhaus welcomed the decision.
"We are performing this crucial training mission now, and will continue to meet all objectives of the commanders on the ground while a full and transparent bidding process can ensure the best outcome for the taxpayer, our mission and the Afghan people," he said.