Blackwater deal puts officials on hot seat
State Department officials struggled to explain Monday why they have awarded a new $120 million contract to a private security firm that was kicked out of Iraq four months ago amid charges that its personnel gunned down unarmed civilians.
Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide, was awarded an 18-month contract to provide security at two new consulates the State Department is building in Afghanistan, it was reported Friday night.
On Monday members of the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting hammered a State Department official about the contract, but failed to elicit information about how the firm's conduct in Iraq figured into the decision to give it new work in Afghanistan.
Commissioners repeatedly asked Charlene Lamb, assistant director of the State Department’s International Programs, how much weight would be given to federal charges that Blackwater's guards killed unarmed civilians in Iraq.
Lamb repeatedly tried to avoid answering the question, at first saying, “It’s an ongoing court case so I don’t want to comment, please.”
Later, pressed further on the criteria for evaluating contractors, Lamb contradicted herself.
She said the three factors the State Department used to evaluate a firm’s bid -- “their technical plan to move forward, their past performance and price” -- were “weighted equally.”
But after conferring with an unidentified official sitting behind her, Lamb retracted the statement.
“I apologize…They are not weighted equally….” she said.
Panel member Clark Kent Ervin, a former acting inspector general at the Homeland Security Department, then asked Lamb for an informal, “best answer” on “the relative weight” of Xe’s Iraq record.
Lamb again conferred with her colleague and demurred.
“Let us get back to you,” she finally said. “We were not prepared to answer that today, and this is out of my ballpark.”
“So you don’t have an answer?” asked Ervin.
“I don’t want to guess,” Lamb said.
Frustrated panel members also expressed a mixture of astonishment and disgust with officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development who admitted under questioning that they had left the policing of private security subcontractors in Iraq and Afghanistan in the hands of the primary contractors.
“You’d rather wash hands of it?” asked Robert J. Henke.
“It ain’t our job?” asked commissioner Grant Green.
“That would be correct...” the head of USAID’s Overseas Security Division, David Blackshaw, conceded under pressure.
But panel members repeatedly returned to the Xe contract, awarded to the Moyock, N.C.-based firm’s U.S. Training Center unit.
Lamb said competitors for the contract, DynCorp and Triple Canopy, weren’t as qualified, prompting the commissioners to refer to the deal as a “sole-source contract.”
Panel member Charles Tiefer, in particular, expressed his distress at the award.
Tiefer read from a 2009 Defense Department report saying that concerns over private security contractors “arose from earlier incidents. Most controversial incidents concerned Blackwater.”
“The spillover on DoD has been significant,” Tiefer continued, reading from the report.
“Would you agree?” he asked a Defense Department witness, Gary Motsek, assistant deputy undersecretary for program support.
“Yes, sir,” Motsek said.
“Would you have considered these incidents” in awarding Xe Services a new contract, Tiefer asked.
“It would have been taken into consideration, yes sir,” Motsek replied.
| June 21, 2010; 6:40 PM ET
Categories: Financial/business, Foreign policy, Military
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