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Subsidiary of Former Blackwater Awarded US Security Contract in Afghanistan

The State Department has awarded a $120 million contract for security at the new U.S. consulates in the Afghan cities of Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif to the firm, the U.S. Training Center. The company is a subsidiary of Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide. The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan discussed the controversial contract at a hearing on Monday.

Charlene Lamb, the U.S. State Department's deputy assistant director for international programs, testified before the commission.

She said three U.S. security companies were considered to provide security to the new consulates, under the Second Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract. She said Xe Services is the only one of the three that is already operating in the country. "Their infrastructure is there already. They have their licenses. And this was not awarded as a one-base-year, four-option-year contract. This was awarded as a bridge contract," she said.

Before its name was changed and the company was overhauled, Xe Services was called Blackwater, and it was expelled from Iraq.

U.S. prosecutors charged Blackwater guards with opening fire on unarmed civilians in a crowded Baghdad intersection in September 2007, killing 17 people. A U.S. judge dropped charges against five of the security guards, a move that angered Iraqi officials. A sixth guard had already plead guilty to manslaughter charges.

Other guards affiliated with the security firm have been investigated for civilian deaths in Afghanistan.

Monday's hearing on Capitol Hill was supposed to address the general issue of private security contractors' roles in conflict zones. But after Friday's news that the State Department had awarded the security contract to a Xe subsidiary, Commission member Clark Kent Ervin asked the State Department's Charlene Lamb another question that is on many people's minds.

ERVIN: "Was Xe's past performance in Iraq considered in the decision to award this contract to this Xe subsidiary?"
LAMB: "Yes."
ERVIN: "And how was that past performance factored in? It must not have been weighted very highly."
LAMB: "I would prefer to send this question to the technical, to the contracting personnel."

Lamb explained that three criteria were considered when evaluating security firms - the technical plan, past performance and price. She stressed that although technical capability carries the most weight, past performance is also considered to be of great importance.

Concern about private security contractors in Afghanistan linked to Blackwater was raised earlier this year on Capitol Hill. In February, members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee accused such private contractors of ignoring regulations and threatening America's mission in Afghanistan.

According to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, there were nearly 24,000 private security contractors working for the United States in Afghanistan earlier this year and another 18,800 operating in Iraq.