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Drugs, guns and violence dominate Blackwater hearing

Contractor accused of swiping guns belonging to Afghan police; weapons later were used in deadly shooting.

A Blackwater subsidiary commandeered weapons belonging to the Afghan police force and distributed them to workers with a history of violence and drug use; the guns later were used in a pair of shooting incidents which left two people dead and another two injured, according to testimony before a Senate panel on Wednesday.

The revelations from past and present Blackwater employees, now renamed Xe Services LLC, were criticized by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who described the company's actions in Afghanistan as "lawless" and "irresponsible."

The allegations center on a 2008 contract to Raytheon Technical Services Co. LLC to train the Afghan National Army. Raytheon subcontracted much of the work to Paravant, a firm created earlier that year by Blackwater. Current and past Paravant employees testified that the company was little more than a shell used to win government contracts without being burdened by Blackwater's now infamous reputation.

"Failing to follow and enforce the rules relative to carrying weapons puts our military personnel at risk," said committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. "In Paravant's case, company personnel carried weapons without CENTCOM [Central Command] authority. Unfortunately, those in a position to exercise oversight -- and who either knew or should have known that weapons were being carried without authority -- did not act until after two tragic shooting incidents."

In the months after winning the subcontract, Paravant leaders lobbied the Army for the authority to carry firearms, documents showed. Those requests were denied, but Paravant did not wait for approval from the military to arm its employees. In late 2008, Blackwater provided Paravant employees with pistols that were diverted from the parent company's contract with Lockheed Martin, according to e-mails obtained by the committee.

"I got sidearms for everyone … We have not yet received formal permission from the Army to carry weapons but I will take my chances," wrote Brian McCracken, Paravant's former vice president, who now serves as Raytheon's program manager in Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, the weapons procured by McCracken were returned to Blackwater's weapons storage facility because of fears connected to an unrelated investigation in Iraq.

In a separate incident, documents showed, Blackwater removed hundreds of weapons, including more than 500 AK-47 assault rifles, from a U.S. military facility in Kabul known as Bunker 22. The weapons, which were turned over to Blackwater by a Navy officer, were supposed to be used by the Afghan police force. The bulk of those weapons since have been returned.

Military policy states that contractors are not allowed access the weapons inside Bunker 22, but several current and former Blackwater employees said they were not aware of the rule. McCracken said the military was aware that Paravant employees were armed.

It is not clear, however, which Blackwater employee took possession of the weapons. The Defense Department said there was no paperwork documenting the transfer of weapons from the bunker and receipts showed the guns were issued to "Eric Cartman," a likely reference to the character on the animated television program, South Park.

There is more clarity on a pair of shooting incidents involving Paravant personnel. In December 2008, a Paravant trainer was accidentally shot in the head by a team leader, Russell Cannon. Committee documents show Cannon lost control of the weapon after he jumped on the back of a moving car with a loaded AK-47 and the vehicle hit a bump.

Military leaders in charge of the contract received a Raytheon report outlining the incident. But according to committee documents, there is no indication that the Army investigated the shooting further.

Five months later, in May 2009, two other Paravant employees Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff allegedly opened fire on a car, killing two Afghan civilians and injuring another. Military officials investigating the incident said the employees were not authorized to possess weapons, violated the rule of force and had been drinking. Both men were indicted on homicide charges in January.

"The independent contractors' actions that night were in clear violation of many company policies, such as alcohol use, unofficial vehicle use and weapons policies," said Fred Roitz, executive vice president and chief sales officer for Xe. "Those independent contractors are being held accountable by the law, as they should be."

But according to committee staffers, McCracken told them Blackwater was not "as forthcoming as we wished they had been after the incident … I think it is obvious that they were trying to get their people out of the country without telling anybody about it." At the hearing Wednesday, McCracken denied ever making that statement.

Raytheon did not renew Paravant's subcontract, which expired in September 2009.

The employees involved in the May shooting have checkered pasts. The Army discharged Cannon after he was absent for 22 days and tested positive for cocaine; Drotleff has a record of assaults, resisting arrest and larceny, committee documents show.

Paravant also might have misrepresented itself to the government after Raytheon selected the firm as a subcontractor. Paravant submitted documents indicating it had years of experience operating in wartime theater and had thousands of employees deployed overseas, according to committee documents.

Steven Ograyensek, the contracting officer in charge of the training contract for the Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, acknowledged he did not check Paravant's references. "I had no indication they were part of Blackwater," he said.

But the Afghan subcontract was Paravant's first government project, and lawmakers suggested that Blackwater actually performed previous work attributed to the company.

"They made representations that were patently false," Levin said. "It was a sham."

Roitz testified that Raytheon specifically requested that the contract bear "a name other than Blackwater," leading to the creation of the Paravant. He said Blackwater has replaced much of its previous management and is now a "reformed" company. "We would have acted differently today," Roitz said.

But lawmakers remain skeptical. "There seems to be two sets of rules and one image," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "Until contractors are held to the same standard as the men and women in uniform, we are going to be back here.