Top McCain defender's firm prepped Blackwater for congressional probe
As John McCain's reputation as a family man and a politician with a clean ethical record came under attack on Thursday, one man's voice was heard most loudly: top political adviser Charles R. Black, Jr..
"We’re going to go to war with them now,” Black bluntly told the Politico on Thursday, referring to the New York Times.
Black was front and center in several media accounts about the Times' allegations regarding McCain's relationship with lobbyist Vicky Iseman, assailing the paper for lowering its standards and "smearing" the senator.
For Black, it must have seemed like just another day at the office. The lobbying firm he leads, BKSH & Associates, is a specialist in helping its corporate clients put out fires in Washington. And for the second time in this election season, Black was connected to a major campaign-related controversy. The last time, his firm helped prepare private military contractor giant Blackwater Worldwide for a congressional probe of the killing of 17 civilians by its guards in Baghdad.
In the process of coaching Blackwater, BKSH inadvertently drew Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign into a lengthy controversy over the private career of its top political strategist, Mark Penn. In addition to guiding Clinton's campaign, Penn heads up Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations company with many clients whose interests often seem to clash with a variety of Democratic political goals. BKSH is a subsidiary of Penn's firm.
A former BKSH employee, Robert Tappan, had brought Blackwater to BKSH as a client. The ex-State Department official has since left Black's firm, and Blackwater is no longer a client. Still, the Times' revelations on Thursday are likely to focus more attention on the clients and company that McCain supporters like Black have been known to keep.
It's not clear whether Black's firm's work for Blackwater has had any effect on Senator McCain's policy positions relating to the use of private military contractors. Black would insist it has not.
"I not only do not lobby him [McCain], but if an issue comes up that I have a client on, I will tell him that and stay out of the discussion," he told the Washington Post on Friday.
Still, although McCain is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has not been particularly vocal on the use of rented security personnel in Iraq and other locations around the world.
When Blackwater has come up, McCain has not addressed the issue directly. In an October appearance on CNN when the company's role in Iraq was being most deeply probed, McCain would only say that the failure of President Bush and ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to deploy enough troops in Iraq had made the use of contractors necessary.
Independent of Black, it's possible that McCain has developed some grudging respect for the private security contractors the US employs in Iraq. The senator has made many visits to the war-torn country, and congressional delegations are often guarded by contractors like Blackwater.
During the fall 2007 House hearings, Republican congress members praised the company for having a perfect protection record in the country.
"Blackwater has protected dozens if not hundreds of members of Congress, including myself and members of this committee, when they travel to Afghanistan and Iraq," said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) in an October hearing of the House Oversight Committee. "I for one am grateful for their services. Not one single member of Congress has been injured nor killed under Blackwater protection, and for that I am grateful."