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Blackwater Ties Fodder for Political Attacks

Blackwater head Erik Prince testifying before Congress this week. (Getty).

The controversy about Blackwater USA's role in a September 16 shooting, and broader questions about the role and oversight of private security firms operating in Iraq, are becoming fodder for political attacks among 2008 presidential candidates.

Former Sen. John Edwards jumped first at the connection -- loose though it may be -- between the Blackwater firm and a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Edwards said in Iowa this morning that "Senator Clinton's primary advisor, Mark Penn who is like her Karl Rove - his firm is representing Blackwater. I think it is important for Iowa caucus goers to understand the choices they have in this election. And it is the reason I continue to say we don't want to replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats. I think it is important for caucus goers to see this choice."

Penn's connection to Blackwater is through the public relations firm he heads, Burson-Marsteller. The firm released a statement this afternoon saying, "Through a personal relationship, BKSH, a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller, helped Blackwater prepare for their recent hearing before Congress. With the hearing over, BKSH's temporary engagement has ended."

The episode points to the pitfalls of hiring consultants who conduct work for corporate clients and campaigns at the same time. Edwards's own pollster, Harrison Hickman, is a principle at Global Strategy Group, which represents a range of corporate clients -- including oil and pharmaceutical firms -- that don't always mesh with the candidate's message.

Still, the Clinton camp did not welcome the Blackwater remarks.

"Mark Penn did no work on the Blackwater account. Burson has cut its ties to Blackwater and that was the right thing to do. Mark is and remains a valuable member of our team," said Phil Singer, a Clinton campaign spokesman. "Sen. Clinton believes Blackwater must be held accountable for its actions and has laid out a detailed proposal to sharply reduce the number of contractors employed by the federal government by 500,000. She has repeatedly stated her concern that such contractors are not as accountable as federal employees."

Clinton is not the only candidate contending with the security firm. In April, Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign put out a press release announcing that the former Massachusetts governor had brought on Cofer Black, a senior executive at Blackwater, and a former Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U. S. State Department, and former Director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, to be Romney's senior adviser for counterterrorism and national security issues.

At the time Black joined the Romney team, the campaign released a statement that said "Black's experience at the forefront of our nation's counterterrorism efforts will be a tremendous asset." Romney has been relatively quiet about the Blackwater shootings in Iraq.

He responded to questions about the subject during a swing through California, ten days after the shootings. "I think the allegations are very serious indeed and that there is an investigation which is under way," Romney told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "I don't want to prejudge what will happen from the investigation, but if the investigations go through in a legitimate and appropriate way, then I would expect an appropriate response... Clearly, the allegations are troubling."

--Matthew Mosk

By Washington Post editors  |  October 5, 2007; 5:05 PM ET
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