No Comment — April 19, 2010, 1:39 pm

Blackwater’s Legal Woes Mount

It billed itself as the nation’s premier private security contractor, but now Blackwater Worldwide (redubbed Xe Services) faces cascading legal worries that reach into its executive offices. James Risen and Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times report:

Federal prosecutors charged the former president of Blackwater Worldwide and four other former senior company officials on Friday with weapons violations and making false statements in the first criminal inquiry to reach into the top management ranks of the private security company. The executives were some of the closest advisers to Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, and helped him steer the company during its swift rise to become the leading contractor providing security for American diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan, working for the State Department, the C.I.A. and the Pentagon…

While the indictment is somewhat limited in scope, it could be the government’s opening salvo in a broader offensive to bring criminal charges against the company. They could include charges for bribery and export violations, according to officials familiar with the case, perhaps under a strategy of turning former and current executives of the company against one another. A federal grand jury in Raleigh, N.C., issued the 15-count indictment against Gary Jackson, Blackwater’s former president; William Matthews, the former executive vice president; Andrew Howell, the former general counsel; Ana Bundy, a former vice president; and Ronald Slezak, a former weapons manager, charging that they conspired to skirt federal weapons laws and then tried to hide their actions.

The North Carolina federal grand jury investigation is just one of a substantial number of criminal probes affecting the company. The one with the highest profile relates to the death of seventeen Iraqis at Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in September 2007. And today the Associated Press is reporting that prosecutors are close to a final decision about charges arising from another incident, in which Blackwater employees killed civilians in Afghanistan:

Two former Blackwater contractors charged in the shooting deaths of two Afghans may soon learn whether they will face the death penalty. The federal government is expected to disclose its decision at a hearing Monday in Norfolk. Life in prison is another possibility if Chris Drotleff of Virginia Beach and Justin Cannon of Corpus Christi, Texas, are convicted. The men are charged with second-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges.

Meanwhile, senior military figures are becoming increasingly outspoken in their criticism of the Defense Department’s heavy reliance on contractors. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, offered a critique in a recent interview in France:

“I think we’ve gone too far,” McChrystal said at France’s IHEDN military institute. “I actually think we would be better to reduce the number of contractors involved.” Alternatives could include increasing the number of troops “if necessary,” or “using a greater number of Afghan contractors, or Afghans to help with the mission,” he said. McChrystal said the use of contractors was founded upon “good intentions,” such as to limit military commitments or to save money for governments. “I think it doesn’t save money,” he said. “We have created in ourselves a dependency on contractors that I think is greater than it ought to be.” He didn’t specify where any cuts might come.

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