Blackwater Troubles Put Lobbyists on High Alert
When the Iraqi government earlier this week said it wanted to kick out the private security firm Blackwater USA after its employees killed eight civilians on Sept. 16, the incident put the industry’s entire Washington, D.C., lobbying apparatus on guard.
Blackwater is just one of many firms that have swelled in recent years by fulfilling lucrative contracts to protect State Department officials, engineers and even Members of Congress in Iraq. But several Members have called for legislation related to this particular business of war, and in recent months companies like Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy and their associations have upped their spending on lobbying or added to their roster of advocates trying to smooth over Capitol Hill.
The job, these lobbyists say, isn’t easy.
“It’s a little bit frustrating because there are 15 different committees that have jurisdiction over what our industry does,” said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, whose members include Blackwater and DynCorp. “We are pulled in all these different directions.”
Brooks estimates the security business is close to a $2 billion-a-year industry, and one advocate for a security firm said more than that bottom line is at stake.
“What is said in Congress can have life-or-death consequences in Iraq,” said an industry consultant for one of the security firms. “When you target a company in your negative remarks then that puts those contractors in danger. Members should really think about that.”
Blackwater long has been represented in Washington by lobbyist Paul Behrends, a former aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). Behrends, who works at C&M Capitolink, met Blackwater’s CEO Erik Prince in 1990 when both worked for Rohrabacher. Prince went on to become a Navy SEAL and then founded the security company. Blackwater’s government contracts have swelled to nearly $600 million a year, according to some estimates. But the firm does not compete for earmarks and cuts a low profile on Capitol Hill — except when it is called in for hearings when scandals like this week’s erupt.
Already, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has announced his intention to hold a hearing on the recent Blackwater matter. Behrends reported earning $160,000 from Blackwell in all of 2006, and so far for just the first half of 2007 alone, he has reported earning $140,000 from the company. Behrends declined comment.
The legislation that has the most widespread industry support is one sponsored by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), whose bill would bring private security contractors under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and subject them to U.S. laws.
“They’re not subject to the military justice standards,” said a retired senior military officer. “So essentially they kill somebody in theatre and the government’s taking a position that they’re not subject to Iraqi law or U.S. law.”
Price spokesman Paul Cox said a lack of accountability is his boss’s biggest concern. “We haven’t seen much evidence that the administration has been lifting a finger,” he said. “The legal confusion that exists is not good for anybody.”
The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on Aug. 2 and is awaiting consideration by the House.
Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council, which counts firms like Blackwater as a member, said his group supports Price’s bill. But, he said, many other Members don’t understand the nature of contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, so he’s on a mission to explain the situation.
“There is a lot of mythology around both security contractors and their work overseas, and that’s created some challenges,” he said. “There are certainly issues and concerns to be addressed.”
Chvotkin added that his group also has been working with the offices of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who have both pushed legislation dealing with the industry and for whom many lobbyists for the sector regard as opponents. Chvotkin and other lobbyists working for the security companies said they have concerns with Schakowsky’s and Obama’s proposals.
“Our disagreements with Mrs. Schakowsky are over the amount of detail that she would like to see reported, versus our view of what’s useful information to policy makers,” Chvotkin said. “She wants compensation levels and hours worked, those kinds of things will change with every shift, every day, and in our view it doesn’t help a policy maker to know that.”
Schakowsky sponsored an amendment in the House-passed Defense authorization bill that would require more transparency in the contracts, and she is now working with Senators to get her amendment included in their version of the bill, said a spokesman with her office.
While Members or the public might not have a clear view of the industry, it hasn’t curtailed its exponential growth.
“It’s clearly gotten bigger,” Chvotkin said. “There has always been the need for private security, but it is the security situation in Iraq that drives the security costs. That’s why it has grown.” Chvotkin said membership in his trade group, now at 225, is growing rapidly.
The Professional Services Council has a small political action committee that, in the 2006 cycle, gave under $30,000, according to FEC records. It had about $6,000 cash on hand in its 2007 mid-year report.
When it comes to his lobbying strategy, Chvotkin said he and his colleagues are meeting with Members and staff daily. “We try and take a very practical approach to all this, not an ideological one,” he said.
Jeff Green, who runs his own consulting firm, represents the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, but stresses that the group is not registered to lobby Congress. Green, a former staffer on the House Armed Services Committee, runs J.A. Green & Co. and does lobby for other clients.
“The trade association is essentially an interface between those companies and the government of Iraq and coalition forces,” he said. And his group relies on Brooks’ outfit for Hill advocacy.
“The problem is the knee-jerk reactions,” Green said. “First, let’s gather the facts, and then come up with a responsible game plan to address these … . But legislation to throw all contractors out of Iraq is not the answer.”
To keep in touch with Members and other government officials, several of the security firms have tapped new lobbyists this year. DynCorp added a team from the Cohen Group, the firm of former Defense Secretary William Cohen, paying it $20,000 for the first half of 2007.
Few of these companies have federally registered in-house lobbyists, but Triple Canopy has employed Mark DeWitt for two years. DeWitt leads a team that includes Brian Finch of Dickstein Shapiro and earlier this year brought on lobbyists from the firm Venable. Venable reported earning $80,000 for the first half of this year from Triple Canopy.
In an e-mail, DeWitt, who is Triple Canopy’s senior director for legal and government affairs, said his company supports Price’s bill and “consistently advocates for regulation that will result in clarity and accountability regarding the use of private security contractors by the US government.”
Mila Rosenthal with Amnesty International has been pushing for the Price bill and said she hopes the attention of the Blackwater matter will give the legislation an added push over the finish line. Her group has been involved in a grass-roots effort to get supporters to write to Members.
She said she also has worked with industry lobbyists. “Generally our discussions about the solutions, our approaches are quite different,” she said. But if the industry groups are indeed pushing for the Price bill, she said, “I would like to see them put more muscle into supporting it. I’m hoping they don’t think they can change it into something they want.”