Man Bush chose to lead Pentagon contracting probes left under fire to become Blackwater COO
The private security firm Blackwater USA, which has faced mounting criticism following an incident earlier this month in which armed guards from the group purportedly killed 11 unarmed Iraqi civilians, has numerous links to the White House as well as many current and former Republicans.
The connections include the firm's chief operating officer Joseph Schmitz, who was tapped by President Bush in 2002 to "oversee and police the Pentagon's military contracts as the Defense Department's Inspector General."
The relevation was first reported by Ben Van Heuvelen in Salon.
Serving until 2005, Schmitz went on to preside over "the largest increase of military-contracting spending in history" and joined Blackwater just a month after his departure from the Pentagon, according to Van Heuvelen.
"The resignation comes after Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) sent Schmitz several letters this summer informing him that he was the focus of a congressional inquiry into whether he had blocked two criminal investigations last year," according to a 2005 article in the LA Times.
Then-Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Grassley "accused Schmitz of fabricating an official Pentagon news release, planning an expensive junket to Germany and hiding information from Congress. Schmitz is the senior Pentagon official charged with investigating waste, fraud and abuse."
CEO testifies in Congress today
Blackwater CEO Erik Prince will testify today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a hearing centered on the use of private contractors in Iraq -- but the appearance was at first contested by the State Department, who Van Heuvelen said "directed Blackwater not to give any information or testimony without its sign-off." Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice later agreed that Prince could testify.
"The ties between State and Blackwater are only part of a web of relationships that Blackwater has maintained with the Bush administration and with prominent Republicans," the story continues.
"From 2001 to 2007," says Salon, "the firm has increased its annual federal contracts from less than $1 million to more than $1 billion, all while employees passed through a turnstile between Blackwater and the administration, several leaving important posts in the Pentagon and the CIA to take jobs at the security company."
Von Heuvelen goes on to detail additional links between the firm's "luminaries" and the Bush administration and Republican party, including:
Erik Prince, Blackwater's founder, who has donated "roughly $300,000 to Republican candidates and political action committees. Through his Freiheit Foundation, he also gave $500,000 to Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by former Nixon official Charles Colson, in 2000."
J. Cofer Black, Blackwater Vice Chairman, a 28-year veteran of the CIA Van Heuvelen describes as "one of the more prominent faces associated with the Bush administration's interrogation and extraordinary rendition policies." Black is also a senior adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Rob Richer, Vice President for Intelligence, who is the former head of the CIA Near East Division. "In 2003," according to Salon "he briefed President Bush on the nascent Iraqi insurgency. In late 2004, he became the associate deputy director in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, making him the second-ranking official for clandestine operations."
Fred Fielding, a former outside counsel for the firm, who "has had a long career as a lawyer to prominent Republicans. From 1970 to 1972, he was an associate White House counsel in the Nixon administration; from 1972 to 1974, he was present for the denouement of that administration as deputy White House counsel." Fielding is a former counsel to President Reagan and current White House counsel to President Bush.
Ken Starr, another counsel to Blackwater, who was hired by the firm in 2006, is best known "as the Independent Counsel who investigated Bill Clinton. He revealed the intimate details of Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky in the infamous Starr Report and set in motion Clinton's impeachment by Congress."
Hired guards were involved in more than one shooting per week
Private guns-for-hire from Blackwater USA fired their weapons nearly 200 times while working in Iraq, and in four-of-five incidents the security contractors fired the first shots, according to a new Democratic-sponsored congressional report.
Blackwater is facing increased scrutiny since a Sept. 16 incident in which the company's security personnel killed between 11 and 20 Iraqi citizens during an incident in which Iraqi investigators say the private contractors were unprovoked before opening fire on the crowd.
The Democratic staff of the House Oversight Committee released a 15-page report Monday that examined Blackwater's actions in Iraq based on incident reports compiled by the company and other government documents.
The report found that since 2005 Blackwater guards were involved in 195 "escalation of force" incidents in Iraq during which they fired their weapons, an average of 1.4 per week. In more than 80 percent of those cases Blackwater guards fired first, according to the report, in an apparent violation of the company's mandate allowing only defensive fire to prevent "imminent and grave danger."
"In practice, however, the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are preemptive, with Blackwater forces firing first at a vehicle or suspicious individual prior to receiving any fire," the report notes.
Blackwater has received more than $832 million in contracts from the State Department to guard diplomats and embassy officials in Baghdad, but the new report reveals that State has done little to reign in or punish rogue contractors.
"There is no evidence in the documents that the committee has reviewed that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater's actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater or the company's high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation," the Democratic staffers write.
At a hearing Tuesday, Blackwater owner Erick Prince will testify along with several State Department officials at an Oversight Committee hearing investigating the Sept. 16 shooting along with other incidents unearthed by the committee. Several Republicans requested a delay in the hearings until internal State Department investigations conclude. The FBI says it is beginning its own investigation into the shooting as well.
The controversy apparently has not eliminated Blackwater's ability to secure government contracts. On Friday, the Pentagon announced that a Blackwater subsidiary, Presidential Airways Inc., would receive a $92 million contract for air transportation services in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
Monday's report shows that the State Department not only didn't seek criminal repercussions against rogue guards, in at least one instance the US government acted in concert with Blackwater to help an employee return stateside after he had killed an Iraqi guard.
"Even in cases involving the death of Iraqis, it appears that the State Department's primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to 'put the matter behind us,'" the report says. "The most serious consequence faced by Blackwater personnel for misconduct appears to be termination of their employment."
During the company's time in Iraq, it has fired 122 contractors for problems ranging from violent behavior, to alcohol abuse, to inappropriate use of weapons, according to the report.
The Oversight report pointed to a shooting on Christmas Eve last year in which an apparently drunk Blackwater contractor shot and killed a security guard to Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's top aide called the incident "murder," and last month's shooting rekindled Iraqis' anger over the Dec. 24, 2006 event.
Blackwater fired the contractor and arranged to have him evacuated from the country; two days later he flew from Baghdad to Jordan, where he returned to the US with the "authority of the DOS [Department of State] Regional Security Officer," according to the report. US Embassy officials worked with Blackwater in arranging a $15,000 payment to the family of the slain guard.
"According to the State Department, the incident is still under investigation by the Justice Department," the report notes. "However, given the passage of nine months with no charges filed, it is unclear whether there is any serious effort to pursue a prosecution in this matter."