The Cable

House appropriators threaten to intervene on Blackwater contract

Top House appropriators are promising to resist the award of a huge Afghanistan training contract to the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

In an interview before leaving on his trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rep. James Moran, D-VA, now the third ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said he will lead a charge to deny the company Xe, Blackwater's new moniker, from an estimated $1 billion funds if they are somehow awarded the contract.

"There is substantial sentiment among the Democratic subcommittee members to resist if the Defense Department were to award this contract to Blackwater," Moran told The Cable. He is traveling now with new subcommittee chairman Norm Dicks, D-WA, who took over for the recently deceased John Murtha.

If Secretary Robert Gates were to allow the contract to go Blackwater, "I think the issue would just escalate," Moran said, adding, "He'd have to be political brain dead to award them this."

Moran raised the issue with Gates last week, as did Senate Armed Service Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, who spent 90 minutes with Gates only days before sending him this scathing letter about the company and its prospects.

In the letter, Levin wrote that Blackwater was already performing some of the duties under a contract vehicle issued by the Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Office, part of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command. The use of that contract for training Afghan's police is already a violation, according to a company protesting the contract, Levin wrote.

Regardless, when the State Department transitions the mission fully over to Pentagon responsibility with the new $1 billion award, Blackwater is said to be a competitive bidder, raising concerns due to their seemingly constant string of scandals involving the use of lethal force in Iraq and Afganistan.

"It would really be a travesty if any federal agency contracted with Blackwater again," explained Moran, "They'll be seen as representing America. They don't. They're not what the American people are about."

Moran said there are several defense firms that are in competition for the contract, including Lockheed and Northrop Grumman. "The Defense Department has some fine choices available. Blackwater is not one of them."

As part of his criticism of Blackwater, Levin also wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether Blackwater created a shell company called Paravant, at the request of Raytheon Corporation, in order to secure government contracts without having to use Blackwater's tarnished name.

From Levin's letter to Holder:

Fred Roitz, Blackwater's Vice President for Contracts and Compliance, testified at the Committee's hearing that Blackwater had changed its name to Paravant at the request of Raytheon, the Defense Department's prime contractor.  In his interview with Committee staff, then-Paravant Vice President Brian McCracken said that Paravant was created to be a "company that didn't have any Blackwater on it ... so they could go after some [government] business that Raytheon was getting ready to hand out."

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Biden to Israel, Holbrooke, Indonesia, Armenia, Cuba

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of Friday's briefing by spokesman P.J. Crowley:

  • As Vice President Joseph Biden and Special Envoy George Mitchell meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials Monday, the State Department wants to emphasize that the U.S. has provided no "written" assurances to either side, despite reports in the Israeli press to the contrary. "To the extent that during these discussions, you know, things were written down by the parties, you know, that is possible," Crowley parsed, "But have we provided our written guarantees and assurances, you know, regarding, you know, preconceived outcomes going into this? The answer is no."
  • Special Representative Richard Holbrooke has walked backed comments that angered many Indians, where he seemed to imply Indians were not the target of a recent attack in Kabul. "''I did not say Indians were not the target, but that initially it looked like the target was not an official Indian facility,'' he said in a statement, adding, ''Early reports on events like this are often unreliable, and I try not to jump to conclusions... We all know that Indian citizens have and continue to be targeted by terrorists, including inside Afghanistan. My heart goes out to the families of all of the victims."
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finished up her Latin American trip in Guatemala, where she met with several regional leaders including Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes and Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom.
  • The State Department is concerned about Iran's decision to uphold a death sentence for 20-year-old university student Mohammad Amin Valian, who was charged with warring against god for throwing stones during a December street protest. Valain had also worked in a local election office of Mirhossein Mousavi. "We find this disproportionate punishment deplorable and urge his immediate release," Crowley said.
  • Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell departed Sunday for an extensive trip to Asia, including stops in Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan. He'll no doubt be prepping President Obama's trip to the region this month. Deputy Secretary James Steinberg just came back from a visit to China and Japan with NSC Asia Senior Director Jeffrey Bader.
  • Crowley reiterated Clinton's statement on the Congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, which passed a House committee last week. "As the secretary made clear, any further congressional action will impede the normalization process between Turkey and Armenia," he said. Clinton talked about it with House committee chairman Howard Berman, hoping there will be no floor vote (it probably wouldn't pass anyway). "This is an issue that we've gone through a number of times in the past," Crowley rightly pointed out.
  • The Cubans are not providing the U.S. consular access to Alan Gross, the USAID contractor arrested there for espionage after passing out satellite phones and laptops to dissidents. "I think the last time we've seen Mr. Gross was early-February. We continue to call for Cuba to release him." As for the program Gross was part of, that's still ongoing, Crowley said. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Craig Kelly did raise the issue during recent migration talks.