WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates will review allegations of misconduct in Afghanistan by the company formerly known as Blackwater and shares concerns raised by a top senator, the Pentagon said on Friday.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin had made a personal appeal to Gates last week for the Pentagon to consider blocking a potential $1 billion contract with Blackwater, which has changed its name to Xe, to train Afghan police.
Levin cited what he called evidence of misconduct in a previous subcontract awarded to a Blackwater affiliate to conduct weapons training for the Afghan National Army.
“He is looking into it and he takes it seriously,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said of Gates. “He shares (Levin’s) concerns,” Morrell told reporters.
But Morrell played down the chances of any swift action to bar Blackwater from contracts, citing Pentagon rules and the company’s unique capabilities.
“You can’t willy-nilly choose not to do business with a company. ... There are strict criteria for pursuing debarment. They are afforded due process. They are afforded legal standards,” Morrell said.
“Like it or not, Blackwater has technical expertise that very few companies do have. And they have a willingness to work in places that very few companies are willing to work. So they provide a much-needed service and the ability to do it well.”
In a letter to Gates dated February 25 and released publicly on Thursday, Levin, a Democrat, said Blackwater may have used a front company for the contract, made false official statements and misled Defense Department officials in its proposal documents.
There was also evidence Blackwater may have misappropriated government weapons, carried weapons without authorization and hired unqualified personnel with backgrounds that included assault and battery, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, Levin said.
Xe was not immediately available for comment on Friday.
Levin said the Pentagon should consider Blackwater’s past “deficiencies” in deciding whether to award the new contract worth as much as $1 billion to the company to provide Afghan national police training.
Training the country’s police force as well as the military is seen as key for U.S. forces to begin leaving Afghanistan from a target date of mid-2011.
U.S. government contracts with Blackwater and its replacement firms have come under increasing scrutiny, especially following a 2007 shooting in Iraq by Blackwater security guards in which 14 civilians were killed.
A U.S. court last December threw out manslaughter charges against the Blackwater guards involved in that incident, a decision that outraged Iraq’s government.
In January, two U.S. security contractors working for Paravant LLC, a unit of Xe, which was previously known as Blackwater Worldwide, were arrested in Afghanistan on charges they murdered two Afghans in Kabul and wounded a third.
Editing by Vicki Allen