Key lawmaker seeks to block $1 billion Blackwater deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon should consider blocking a potential $1 billion contract with the company formerly known as Blackwater to train Afghan police because of questions about its conduct in Afghanistan, a top U.S. senator said.

Barack Obama

In letters to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Attorney General Eric Holder, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said there was evidence of misconduct in a previous subcontract awarded to a Blackwater affiliate to conduct weapons training for the Afghan National Army.

There was evidence, the Democratic senator wrote, that Blackwater may have used a front company for the contract, made false official statements and misled Department of Defense officials in its proposal documents.

There was also evidence Blackwater may have misappropriated government weapons, carried weapons without authorization and hired unqualified personnel with backgrounds that included assault and battery, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, Levin said in the letter dated February 25.

Blackwater Worldwide has since changed its name to Xe.

Levin said the Pentagon should consider Blackwater’s past “deficiencies” in deciding whether to award the new contract worth as much as $1 billion to the company to provide Afghan national police training.

Training the country’s police force as well as the military is seen as key for U.S. forces to begin leaving Afghanistan from a target date of mid-2011.

The Pentagon had no immediate comment on the contracts involved.

“The department is required to follow the law with a certain degree of transparency with respect to awarding contracts,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

But he said: “I don’t know of any prohibitions with respect that particular company (being) banned from being able to compete for U.S. government contracts.”

U.S. government contracts with Blackwater and its replacement firms have come under increasing scrutiny, especially following a 2007 shooting in Iraq by Blackwater security guards in which 14 civilians were killed.

A U.S. court last December threw out manslaughter charges against the Blackwater guards involved in that incident, a decision which outraged Iraq’s government.

“As you know, a series of incidents in Iraq … led many to conclude that Blackwater was not a suitable contracting partner for the U.S. government and contributed to the company’s decision to change its name,” Levin wrote to Gates.

“The inadequacies of Blackwater’s performance appear to have contributed to a shooting incident that has undermined our mission in Afghanistan,” he added.

In January, two U.S. security contractors working for Paravant LLC, a unit of Xe, which was previously known as Blackwater Worldwide, were arrested in Afghanistan on charges they murdered two Afghans in Kabul and wounded a third.

North Carolina-based Xe could not immediately be reached for comment on Levin’s letters or allegations.

(Reporting by Adam Entous and Sue Pleming; editing by Stacey Joyce)

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