Senate Dems Promise Action on Contractor Abuse

Following last Sunday's shooting involving Iraqi civilians and guards employed by a Blackwater USA private security team, Senate Democrats today heard startling testimony from a group of contractor whistleblowers.

At a Democratic Committee policy hearing on Capitol Hill, Donald Vance, Navy veteran and former private security contractor, told lawmakers about his three-month incarceration in April 2006 at Camp Cropper in Baghdad, where he was kept in solitary confinement, denied an attorney and subjected to psychological torture, all for blowing the whistle on his former employer, private security contractor Shield Guard Services.

After witnessing weapons-dealing, bribery and contract fraud at SGS the previous year, Vance had contacted the FBI on a trip back to Chicago, but upon his return to Baghdad in the spring of 2006 he believed he had been targeted by SGS and started to fear for his safety.

"What started as a rescue ended up a nightmare," Vance said. Instead of verifying his information with the FBI, Vance said "these government officials blindfolded and handcuffed me and took me into detention. I was placed in isolation. I was denied food and water. I was denied sleep. I was also denied requested, and much needed, medication. I was interrogated constantly."

Vance continued: "Before each session, I would ask for an attorney. This request was invariably denied."

At the end of his detention, the Navy veteran said the U.S. military "gave me a $20 bill and dumped me at Baghdad airport." Vance has since filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Senate Dems Promise Action

Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, called it "an unbelievable story," saying "it's frightening anytime we hear of an American citizen detained by American hands and not given constitutional rights given to all Americans."

Dorgan promised that, in light of what he called "the most staggering amount of contractor abuse in the history of the country," Congress would take action.

"This is about people dying, about money being stolen from U.S. taxpayers, and it's time for the U.S. government to get it right."

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., admitted Congress had been too slow to react.

"This particular problem has kind of flown by us, but it cries out for accountability. This system is in total chaos," Webb said.

"It is long past time to confront and constrain these contracting abuses," agreed Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Contractor Whistleblowers Put Their Jobs on the Line

Lawmakers also heard testimony about the plights of other whistleblowers.

Former Chief Contracting Officer of the Army Corps of Engineers Bunnatine Greenhouse was removed from her post after she raised concerns about the awarding of a $7 billion contract to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root.

"Contracting officers now know that speaking up against contracting abuses will not bring them praise but can cost them their jobs", she said.

Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, whose son was killed while working for Blackwater in Iraq three years ago, said her son was so disturbed by the treatment he received from his supervisors that after just 11 days he e-mailed the company's president and owner. Upon arriving in Iraq, Helvenston did not feel well enough to go on a mission the following morning, but his manager forced him to despite another employee saying that the crew "did not have the body armor, hard cars, weapons, and ammo that they needed".

On the mission, he and three others were killed when their trucks were ambushed. Since then, his mother has been unable to get any documents about the incident from Blackwater, which told her she would have to sue to get them; she did, but Blackwater countersued for $10 million.

Lost Between Legal Systems

"Iraqi law does not apply to these contractors, U.S. law does not apply, nor does military law apply." said Helvenston-Wettengel. "Consequently, these contractors continue to get away with murder. In Blackwater's case, time and time again they shoot first and ask questions later.

"Please, I implore you. Do not allow these people to continue to get away with murder," she pleaded. "You have the power to hold these people accountable. I beg that you do."

Two senators present at the hearing wasted little time in reacting.

Webb, along with Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, announced legislation to strengthen congressional oversight on contractors in Iraq, as well as an amendment to the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, which would direct the Department of Defense "to promulgate regulations regarding private security contractors."