Members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday were strongly critical of private contractors working for the company formerly known as Blackwater in Afghanistan, accusing them of ignoring regulations and threatening the American mission there.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee lambasted the contractors who worked for a company called Paravant, a subsidiary of Blackwater being paid to train members of the Afghan National Army.
Two former employees, Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff, have been charged with killing two Afghans and injuring a third last year, an incident which fueled anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan.
In a separate occurrence, a contractor for the same company was riding on the back of a moving car when his AK-47 assault rifle discharged, seriously injuring one of the other trainers on his team.
A committee investigation of the company revealed that contracting personnel acquired hundreds of weapons, including more than 500 AK-47s, from a facility in Kabul that stores arms for use by the Afghan police. The contractors were not authorized to be armed.
Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill says if members of the U.S. military were involved in such actions they would face immediate and serious consequences.
"If one of the Army had gone out there with an AK-47 they were not supposed to have on top of a moving vehicle and shot a guy in the head and paralyzed him something would have happened in that chain of command," said Claire McCaskill. "And if they had kept somebody on the force that had been using cocaine, that had been drunk, that had been charged with larceny that had done all these things these guys had done, they went out and killed Afghan people in the spring of 2009, something would have happened to them if they were in the military."
Senator McCaskill says most Afghans do not distinguish between private American contractors and members of the U.S. military.
She says reckless behavior by contractors is jeopardizing the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
"And what is killing me about this problem with Blackwater is we have two sets of rules and one image," she said. "And as long as we have two sets of rules and one image we are in trouble on this mission."
The chairman of the committee, Democratic Senator Carl Levin, says Blackwater operated in Afghanistan without sufficient oversight or supervision and little consideration of the rules it was legally obligated to follow.
Levin says the alleged killing of Afghans by the contractors has hurt America's image and could make the military's mission more dangerous.
"We know what the ramifications are and they are still reverberating of that shooting in terms of the Afghan public distrust of so many of our activities there," said Carl Levin. "Still, we have to overcome that. We gradually are. Our whole strategy is to protect the public, to show them that we are not there to dominate, we are not there to control, we are there to help them control their own country against the menace that they face."
Blackwater has changed its name to Xe (pronounced Zee) Services and overhauled its management.
Fred Roitz, a vice president for Xe Services who had a similar position with Blackwater, appeared at the hearing and offered his condolences to the Afghan families affected by the shooting.
"The independent contractor's actions that night clearly violated company policies against the use of alcohol, unauthorized use of vehicles and taking weapons outside the training area," said Fred Roitz. "Those contractors are being held accountable by the law, as they should be."
Senator Levin says there are more than 100,000 U.S. Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan and most act responsibly and help execute the U.S. mission, sometimes at great risk to their own safety.
Xe Services continues to employ hundreds of personnel in Afghanistan and many are providing security in the country.