Congressional Oversight of Blackwater Hampered by Lack of Documents


Nine months before Blackwater USA employees took part in a shootout in which eight Iraqi civilians were killed, a few members of Congress raised concerns about the performance of the private military company that provides security services for the Departments of State and Defense in Iraq. In 2007, five members of Congress sent at least six letters to the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom raising questions about the company, raising questions about the controversial firm.

One member who requested information to bring some oversight and accountability to the Blackwater found that neither the State Department nor the Defense Department complied with his request for documents.

On Jan. 29, 2007, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., wrote to the Secretary of Defense asking for all documents relating to Blackwater contracts. The Congressman read news articles about Blackwater’s various missions for U.S. government agencies overseas which prompted him to contact the Defense Department,” Brian Alberts, a spokesman for Cohen, wrote via e-mail. We also sent an identical letter to the State Department on the same day, but they never responded.”

In the weeks preceding Cohen’s inquiry, Blackwater was involved in a number of incidents that received press coverage; the most widely reported involved a Christmas Eve shooting by a Blackwater employee of an Iraqi security officer and a mid-January crash of a Blackwater helicopter. Blackwater was also in the news for other issues, including getting a contract to train military personnel in Sudan.

Alberts was uncertain which story prompted Cohen’s inquiry.

Other members of Congress appear to have been prompted to seek information on Blackwater on behalf of constituents concerned about the company, logs of correspondence between members of Congress and the Defense Department show.

Our Freedom of Information Act requests for the letters themselves are still pending; Cohen’s office emailed us a Word document containing the text of his letter.

Three Months Later

The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) replied to Cohen’s letter on April 24 — long after the Feb. 5 deadline Cohen set in his letter — and provided a list of Blackwater contracts, but none of the actual contract documents that Cohen had requested. That list was not comprehensive, but included only contracts administered by the OSD.

In its reply, OSD also informed Cohen that his letter was being treated as a FOIA request, which seems to be the accepted procedure for all requests even from Members of Congress. According to these Department of Justice guidelines, if a congressional request for oversight information from does not come from a committee or subcommittee chairman, it is to be treated as a regular FOIA request. As journalists can well attest, that means that very often members’ offices need to wait months before receiving any documents.

OSD’s response to Cohen further suggested that for the actual contract documents, the representative’s office would have to send out FOIA requests to agencies within Defense — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Logistics Agency and the U.S. Special Operations Command, for example — directly. Alberts told us that Cohen’s office is planning on sending out FOIA requests to these departments for further information but has yet to do so.

As for the State Department, Cohen’s office has taken no action since sending out its initial request for information on Blackwater.

The limited information that Cohen’s office received shows that Blackwater does far more than provide bodyguards in Iraq. The list of contracts includes ones for education services in Hawaii for the Navy, leases of airplanes from Blackwater-subsidiary Presidential Airways, and contracts for Training/curriculum development” given to Blackwater Target Systems LLC, another subsidiary, by the Navy.

Since 2000, Blackwater USA has received more than $1 billion in contracts and more than $800 million of this comes from the State department. Only $47 million of their contracts have been awarded with full and open competitive bidding, according to data from

Constituent Claims about Blackwater

The other five letters were directed to the assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs; letters directed to this office are generally inquiries from constituents forwarded by members of Congress, according to Dave Martinez, a DoD Freedom of Information official. The subject of one such letter, sent in January to DoD from the office of Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was About Blackwater USA Contracts,” according the correspondence log.

Two other letters from constituents, forwarded to DoD by the office of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in April have intriguing, if harsh, subject lines reading, Blackwater is running around with military weapons doing military things they should be held accountable just like the agency” and Stop Erik Price the founder of Blackwater”

The subject of a May letter sent by the office of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., was Concern regarding the actions of Lieutenant General Gary North in response to an attack by Blackwater USA,” most likely a reference to court martial proceedings held for two Air Force personnel who had an altercation with a Blackwater employee. All charges against the men were ultimately dropped; Lieutenant General Gary North was head of Central Command of the Air Force during the case.

The office of Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., sent a letter in May from a constituent Concerned about tax dollars paying to fund private militia Blackwater,” according to the DoD correspondence log. Although Kohl’s office did not release the letter, they confirmed that it was from a constituent asking DoD to release information on what services the federal government has paid Blackwater for and the amounts of the contracts,” Joe Bonfiglio, Kohl’s press secretary said.