Obama Just Can’t Quit Blackwater

June 28, 2010 8:02 a.m.

In fairness, Barack Obama never said he wanted to quit Blackwater. But it’s still notable that the troubled firm made famous by helping to fight George W. Bush’s wars has become a permanent part of the U.S. foreign policy tableau, with news of two big contracts issued to the firm by the Obama Administration in recent weeks.

CIA chief Leon Panetta, whose agency’s $100 million contract with Blackwater for security in Afghanistan was recently revealed, explained on ABC Sunday (emphasis ours):

“[Blackwater] provided a bid that was underbid everyone else by about $26 million. And a panel that we had said that they can do the job, that they have shaped up their act. So there really was not much choice but to accept that contract.

(More in a bit on whether Blackwater, now known as Xe, has really shaped up its act.)

The CIA contract follows the news this month that the State Department awarded the company an 18-month, $120 million contract to protect consulates in Afghanistan. And even that’s not all. In December, a Blackwater official told a contracting commission appointed by Congress that the company has training and security contracts as well as a “drug interdiction unit” working for the Defense Department in Afghanistan.

And in a must-read story published Sunday, McClatchy reported that the Obama Administration has opted not to pursue criminal charges against Blackwater for possible violations of sanctions in the company’s long campaign to sell services to the government of Southern Sudan.

As noted above, Obama never took a particularly hard line on the government’s increasing reliance on military contractors like Blackwater during the 2008 campaign. He promised only to “establish the legal status of contractor personnel, making possible prosecution of any abuses committed by private military contract.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for her part, blasted “private mercenary firms” and sponsored legislation to actually ban them from Iraq.

It’s possible that the government has concluded internally that Blackwater has turned over a new leaf — Panetta referred Sunday to a CIA panel that determined the company “shaped up their act.”

But publicly, the allegations of criminal activity and malfeasance continue to flow apace. The best-known example was the killing of 17 civilians by Blackwater contractors in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. Much more recently, two men working for Blackwater in Afghanistan were charged with murder in the killing two Afghan civilians in Kabul in May 2009. A civil lawsuit filed by two former Blackwater employees in February alleged the company put a Filipino prostitute on its taxpayer-funded tab in Afghanistan under the category of “Morale Welfare Recreation.” Finally, this past April, several former top company officials were indicted on weapons and obstruction of justice charges.

We’ve put in a request with the CIA for more information on that panel Panetta mentioned, and we’ll let you know if we hear back.

Late Update: CIA spokesman George Little writes:

“The contract was awarded after a team of CIA professionals, acting in strict accord with federal procurement guidelines, evaluated bidder proposals under criteria such as cost and the ability the meet the agency’s requirements.”

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