Blackwater Plan Roils Capitol Hill
Wall Street Journal (2008-07-02) August Cole
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By AUGUST COLE
July 2, 2008; Page A3
Blackwater Worldwide's bid to expand its military-training business in the San Diego area has already sparked controversy in California and is now posing problems in Washington.
Virginia Democratic Sen. James Webb is holding up the approval of four civilian defense officials until he gets more information from Defense Secretary Robert Gates about a Blackwater training facility in Otay Mesa, Calif. One of the nominees is set to be undersecretary of the Army.
Although the Defense Department has attempted to answer Sen. Webb's questions, the senator said he isn't satisfied. "We really don't have any other alternative," Sen. Webb said in an interview. "In this case, I asked very specific questions, which in my experience are easily answerable, so I think as a matter of courtesy they should be answered properly."
Sen. Webb, a former Navy secretary, is potentially a formidable foe for companies like Blackwater. He has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Sen. Barack Obama, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, and has helped establish a commission that will be investigating wartime contracting.
The holdup also creates a potential friction point between Democratic lawmakers and Mr. Gates, who has sought to smooth relations with Congress. A Defense Department spokesman said the secretary's office plans to provide more information in the near future. "As far as we're concerned, we have and continue to address some of the questions raised by Sen. Webb and feel as though we have provided him thus far with what he's asked for," the spokesman said.
In May, San Diego city officials tried to halt Blackwater from opening a training facility because of permit issues and concerns about an indoor shooting range in an industrial area near the U.S.-Mexico border. Blackwater filed suit and opened the center anyway. Blackwater said it needs a West Coast foothold so it can teach U.S. sailors how to defend ships against terrorist attacks, as well as providing other training for law enforcement and the military.
After a May 20 report in The Wall Street Journal on Blackwater's plans, Sen. Webb wrote a letter to Mr. Gates asking for information about the facility and Blackwater's military-training business.
"This article raises several important questions that relate not only to the controversial role of Blackwater vis-à-vis our national-defense policies but also as to how certain decisions are reached within the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government," Sen. Webb wrote.
Before he received a written response from the Pentagon, Sen. Webb said, he received an unsolicited response from Blackwater addressing the questions he had directed to Mr. Gates.
"Blackwater supports accountability and transparency for our industry and we welcome the opportunity to inform elected officials and others about what we do and why we do it," wrote Blackwater President Gary Jackson in a letter faxed to Sen. Webb. (Mr. Jackson also invited the senator to tour the facility.) A copy was also sent to Mr. Gates. A Blackwater spokeswoman said the company received a copy of the senator's letter from industry sources and "thought it appropriate to reach out to both the senator and the Department of Defense to provide the information that was requested."
Mr. Gates spoke with Sen. Webb and later sent him a written response, according to both parties. Mr. Gates promised to have the Navy brief Sen. Webb on the subject, as well as to provide more information on the policies dealing with security contractors.
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