Blackwater's Erik Prince is all over television these days, making the rounds on Late Edition, 60 Minutes and, tonight, Charlie Rose. His line is that Blackwater is a responsible security firm operating under duly constituted legal authority in Iraq. The trouble, as always, is Nisour Square, where Blackwater guards, apparently believing they were under attack, killed 17 Iraqi civilians. In particular: were Blackwater guards even fired on by Iraqis?
The U.S. military and the Iraqi government say no. In fact, the U.S. unit on the scene says that Blackwater fired on Iraqis as they ran from the square. But Blackwater says its convoys came under "complex attack" -- first from a nearby car bomb that put the convoy on notice, and then from small arms fire. It was a line that Prince reiterated in his television appearances. "At least three of our armored vehicles were hit by small arms fire incoming," Prince told Wolf Blitzer yesterday. "There was definitely incoming small arms fire from insurgents."
Both eyewitness accounts and an Iraqi investigation -- reliant on videotape, interviews and other unspecified investigative methods -- have discounted the idea that Iraqis fired on Blackwater. Prince was pressed on the forensic evidence on the scene: the spent rounds that reportedly match Blackwater weapons, and not Iraqi ones. (If the small arms fire came from insurgents, chances are you would find Kalashnikov rounds littering the square, and Blackwater guards aren't known to fire the inferior, non-U.S. weapon.)
His reply? It would probably take a "battalion" to thoroughly secure the square sufficiently for a thorough forensic search, so "the jury's still out." He told 60 Minutes' Lara Logan that neither the U.S. military nor the Iraqis performed a "C.S.I."-like investigation.
CBS news highlighted some of Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-AK) greatest pork hits this weekend-- including $1 million to promote salmon baby food and $500,000 to paint a jet like a flying fish.
The airplane project was sponsored by the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, a non-profit set up by Stevens and originally run by his son and former aide. The board hands out tens of millions in grants to promote the Alaska seafood industry.
Stevens' press secretary, Aaron Saunders, tells KTVA-CBS 11 News the senator is, "dismayed CBS ignored the facts."
" ...we never said the salmon baby food project was designed to promote Alaska salmon. Furthermore, we emphasized that these funds were not allocated for the development of salmon-flavored baby foods, as it appeared in the story. It was to be used to explore the many health benefits of omega 3s, which certainly could help children across America, not just in Alaska," [Saunders said].
Stevens' office apparently had no comment on the half million for the Alaska Airlines salmon paint job.
Now we're getting somewhere. On Friday, Mitchell Wade took the stand.
He's the government's star witness in its case against Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor who says that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts he gave to Cunningham weren't bribes: Wade's an admittedly dirty defense contractor who admits that all those giftswere intended as bribes.
It was a simple set-up, Wade testified. Once he found out that the secret to Wilkes' success as a contractor was Cunningham, he decided to get himself a piece. And sure enough, it worked. The downside? Keeping a congressman on the hook meant you had to spend time with the guy. From The San Diego Union-Tribune:
Joseph Nacchio, the former CEO of Quest Communications, claimed in a court filing last week that the NSA approached his company six months before September 11th about participating in the government's secretive warrantless wiretapping program. Nacchio says the government withdrew hundreds of millions in contracts after Quest refused to cooperate. And, as Threat Level points out, Quest wasn't the only telecom targeted by the new Bush administration; AT&T had budgeted for an NSA room with full access to customer records also before 9/11. (Washington Post, Wired)
This should make you nervous. An unidentified CIA legal official, despite his reputation for being a hardliner, quit in protest over the administration's use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques against detainees. (Harper's)
It must be fun trying to skirt new lobbying reform regulation. This week The Washington Post has an article on the convolutions necessary to ensure that lobbyists can still give favors to their favorite lawmakers. Case in point: lobbyists are buying tickets to charity balls, having the charity invite a lawmaker for them, as well as guarantee the company and the lawmaker are seated together. Subtle. (Washington Post)
Blackwater's once-reclusive Erik Prince has launched a PR offensive, bringing the press to the private-security firm's Moyock, N.C. compound and showing up on TV chat shows. (More on that in a moment.) The strategy is clear enough: Prince wants to debunk Blackwater's image as out-of-control mercenaries in the wake of the Nisour Square shootings. And that's because Prince is prepping his company for even more lucrative contracts than the billion dollars Blackwater has received from the U.S. government since 9/11. As The Wall Street Journalreports today, Prince is looking to take on the biggest defense contractors in the country.
According to the Blackwater founder and CEO, private security -- guarding U.S. personnel in war-torn countries, as Blackwater does in Iraq -- shouldn't be what defines the company. "We see the security market diminishing," he told the paper. Instead, Blackwater wants to grow its training and logistics work, placing Blackwater in the center of what the WSJ terms "missions to which the [U.S. military] won't commit American forces." For example, Blackwater recently outbid Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Raytheon for a five-year, $15 billion contract to "fight terrorists with drug ties." Get ready to see a lot of Blackwater in Colombia.
Signs of Blackwater's expansion -- even amidst the Nisour Square controversy -- are evident, the paper reports:
The company has a fleet of 40 aircraft, including small turboprop cargo planes that can land on runways too small or rough for the Air Force. The company's aviation unit has done repeat business with the Defense Department in Central Asia, flying small loads of cargo between bases.
Also in the North Carolina compound: an armored-car production line that Mr. Prince says will be able to build 1,000 of the brutish-looking Grizzly vehicles a year. The project arose out of a need for Blackwater to protect its security convoys in Iraq. Drawing on Mr. Prince's family history in the automotive industry, Blackwater made sure that the vehicles are legal to drive on U.S. highways.
Mr. Prince bought a 183-foot civilian vessel that Blackwater has modified for potential paramilitary use. Mr. Prince sees the ship as a possible step into worlds such as search-and-rescue, peacekeeping and maritime training.
It's not clear whether Blackwater would seek, or get, private-security roles in its Defense Department contracts akin to those it has from the State Department in Iraq. Nor is it clear how exactly Blackwater managed to beat such established defense giants for the narco-terrorism contract.
But it is looking more like Blackwater might actually be kicked out of Iraq. For the first time since the shootings on September 16, U.S. and Iraqi officials are seriously negotiating the company's expulsion. Evidently, Prince is preparing for such a loss by fighting Blackwater's reputation in the court of public opinion -- and then laying the ground for much, much bigger things.
One person with a unique vantage into the Hayden-Helgerson dispute is L. Britt Snider. Snider served as CIA inspector general from 1998 to 2001, when Helgerson was his chief deputy, and he retains a lot of admiration for his successor. "He's just first rate," Snider tells me. "He is extremely fair, balanced, competent, knowledgeable. He's not someone you'd regard as wild, extreme, or a loose cannon."
That contrasts sharply with Hayden's apparent belief that Helgerson has shaded into advocacy while investigating CIA interrogations, detentions and renditions. But Snider says he never considered Helgerson particularly opinionated while working with him on investigations: "He was always someone who would look at the facts to make some kind of judgment."
Snider cautions that he only knows about the friction between Hayden and Helgerson from what he read in the papers, and that friction is inevitable between the director and the inspector general. "Your job as IG is to render your opinion to management in order to improve the performance of the agency. It's an inherently tense situation set up by the law, but that's the plight of the IG," he says. But he's never encountered a situation where the director "would appoint a committee to quote-help-unquote the IG" -- he laughs. "That I've never heard of before."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers has issued a statement in in response to Paul Kiel's reporting earlier today on the unprecedented written public assurance that DOJ voting rights chief John Tanner gave to election officials in Ohio that the Justice Department had found no evidence of intentional African-American voter disenfranchisement in the 2004 election.
As Paul reported, Tanner wrote a June 2005 letter to election officials in Columbus, Ohio, offering a lengthy explanation for why the Department had not discovered sufficient evidence of discrimination, the effect of which was to "poison the well" for future litigation or investigation of the alleged election improprieties.
In his statement, Conyers says:
"I am concerned about the extreme lengths Mr. Tanner went to in order to justify the reasons African-Americans were not treated equally in the 2004 Ohio election. The committee needs to consider this matter. I am aware of no precedent for the Department acting in this capacity in the past.
Tanner has been asked to testify before Conyers' committee, though no date for his testimony has been set.
The full text of Conyers' statement appears below the fold:
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Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) beats Senate intelligence committee chairman John Rockefeller in the race to comment first on CIA Director Michael Hayden's investigation of Inspector General John Helgerson!
"I am troubled by the New York Times story indicating that the CIA's leadership may be interfering with the oversight work of its own inspector general. The story raises alarming new questions about this administrationâs willingness to submit to critical oversight. During this administration, weâve seen an illegal warrantless wiretapping program, demands for dangerous new surveillance powers, and a CIA detention and interrogation program that is legally dubious and morally indefensible. Independent oversight of the intelligence community has never been more important, and inspectors general must be able to conduct their important work without interference or politicization."
If CIA Director Michael Hayden wants to get rid of meddlesome Inspector General John Helgerson, he can't do it directly, since Helgerson is a presidential appointee. That's a first for Hayden: as POGO's Nick Schwellenbach and Beverly Lumpkin observe, when he was head of NSA from 1999 to 2005, the agency IG was under the general's thumb. But that's not to say that Hayden doesn't have options. The New York Timesexplains:
Under federal procedures, agency heads who are unhappy with the conduct of their inspectors general have at least two places to file complaints. One is the Integrity Committee of the Presidentâs Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which oversees all the inspectors general. The aggrieved agency head can also go directly to the White House.
If serious accusations against an inspector general are sustained by evidence, the president can dismiss him.
Now, let's say that going directly to the White House isn't subtle enough for someone as savvy as Hayden. Not to worry! Going to the Council on Integrity and Efficiency is likely to provide the same outcome. The Integrity Committee is chaired by an FBI official named Kenneth Kaiser, who appears to be a perfectly competent individual. But his boss, the chairman of the Presidentâs Council on Integrity and Efficiency, is George W. Bush's prep school buddy Clay Johnson III, a man whose name is practically synonymous with Bush administration cronyism.
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House intelligence committee chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) just released the following statement on CIA Director Mike Hayden's investigation of CIA Inspector General John Helgerson:
"The initiation of this investigation, if accurately reported, is troubling. By law, the CIA Inspector General is required 'to plan, conduct, supervise, and coordinate independentlyâ¦ relating to the programs and operations of the Agency to ensure they are conducted efficiently and in accordance with applicable law and regulations...'
"It is this independence that Congress established, and will very aggressively preserve.
"I have always supported General Hayden and the outstanding men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency, and I look forward to discussing this issue with them as soon as possible."
Notice no promise to investigate the investigation of the investigator.
Update: Reyes's spokeswoman, Kira Maas, says that the CIA has agreed to brief the House intelligence committee next week on the Helgerson investigation.