Chief Clinton Strategist Is CEO of Firm that Represented Blackwater

As I've posted before, back in February, before Blackwater was even on the media radar, Barack Obama was at the forefront of the issue, introducing legislation calling for more accountability from military contractors.

His official statement from the campaign:

Barack Obama, who opposed the war in Iraq in 2002, has consistently said that America cannot defeat 21st century threats on a conventional battlefield. And America cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors. Barack Obama has been the leader on this issue in the U.S. Senate, having introduced legislation to address this problem in February. Obama’s plan will make these operations more transparent and accountable.

...An estimated 48,000 private security contractors are operating in Iraq, and more than 1,000 contractors have died in Iraq since 2003. The recent shooting on September 16 involving Blackwater that killed 17 Iraqis and wounded several others has increased attention to U.S. reliance on private security contractors in Iraq. But that incident was just the latest in a series of incidents in which that company’s employees have engaged Iraqi government personnel or killed Iraqi civilians.

Yesterday, the Chairman of Blackwater testified before Congress that nearly 30 Blackwater employees have been killed in Iraq. On Monday, the House Oversight Committee released a report that found Blackwater guards had engaged in 195 shooting incidents since early 2005. Despite several instances of excessive use of force, including one drunken Blackwater employee killing a bodyguard of one of the Iraqi vice presidents, there is no evidence the State Department sought to hold anyone with Blackwater accountable.

Lack of Transparency and Accountability: Americans have the right to know about the role of and
accountability for private security contractors. There are an estimated 180,000 or more contractors working in Iraq under contracts awarded by the Department of Defense, the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other federal agencies. Little is known about what functions these security contractors are actually performing, at what cost, the rules of engagement under which they are operating, and how many have been killed or wounded. Moreover, there is no clear legal framework under which contractors can be held accountable for criminal behavior. Accountability is essential in America’s larger effort to bring a responsible end to the war in Iraq.

Security Contractor Accountability Plan: Unaccountable security contractors can act as if the law doesn’t apply to them – because it doesn’t. Obama’s plan would require contractors to coordinate with the U.S. military to stop contractors from acting in ways that undermine our mission. Contractors would also have to follow rules of engagement when they use force and comply with U.S. laws. When contractors break the law, they will be prosecuted. Obama’s plan would also establish F.B.I. in-theater units to investigate every incident for which there is reasonable suspicion of criminal felony misconduct. This should not just be a temporary job for the F.B.I. – it should be one of their permanent responsibilities.

...In February Obama introduced the Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting Act. The act would clarify the legal status of contractors, subjecting them to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) to ensure that all contractors working in war zones – regardless of contracting agency – would be held accountable under U.S. law. Passed in 2000, MEJA says that contractors for the armed forces can be prosecuted under US law for crimes committed overseas.

However, because companies like Blackwater have contracts with the State Department rather than the Defense Department, the company is not technically subject to that law. Obama’s bill would also require federal agencies employing private security contractors to report to Congress on the details of those arrangements, such as the total number and cost of contractors, the number of contractors killed or wounded, information about the military and safety equipment provided to contractors, and details of disciplinary action taken against contractors.

Obama has sent letters to President Bush, Secretary Gates, and Secretary Rice requesting answers on the Blackwater incident and on the role and accountability of contractors in general.

Obama has also stood firm in his opposition in using all methods of torture as a means of interrogation. This is his statement in response to the New York Times report on the Bush administration's secret authorization "to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures."

The secret authorization of brutal interrogations is an outrageous betrayal of our core values, and a grave danger to our security. We must do whatever it takes to track down and capture or kill terrorists, but torture is not a part of the answer - it is a fundamental part of the problem with this administration's approach. Torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them. Torture is how you get bad information, not good intelligence. Torture is how you set back America's standing in the world, not how you strengthen it. It's time to tell the world that America rejects torture without exception or equivocation. It's time to stop telling the American people one thing in public while doing something else in the shadows. No more secret authorization of methods like simulated drowning. When I am president America will once again be the country that stands up to these deplorable tactics. When I am president we won't work in secret to avoid honoring our laws and Constitution, we will be straight with the American people and true to our values," said Obama.

In the last presidential debate, Hillary tried to play both sides of the fence and agreed with Barack, giving her own blanket denunciation of torture, even though this is a contradiction of a previous position she has taken.

Blackwater is in the midst of a lot of media and governmental scrutiny right now, and are in need of a major public-relations overhaul. What firm do they call when they want to clean up their media image? Well, no other than PR Giant Burson-Marsteller. Blackwater is one of their latest clients and they will be in charge of selling a cleaned-up Blackwater to the American people. From Associated Press:

Public relations giant Burson-Marsteller has vast experience steering companies through tough times. But there's a limit to how much it can help Blackwater USA, a new client that's been battered by negative publicity.

The State Department, which pays Blackwater hundreds of millions of dollars to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has stringent rules barring the private security contractor from discussing with the media the details of its work, according to those familiar with the arrangement.

Under those limitations, it's difficult to repair a corporate image, said one official close to Blackwater.

The department allows little room for error. On Sept. 16, Blackwater guards were involved in a shoot-out in Baghdad that left 13 Iraqis dead. Blackwater issued a statement to reporters saying its personnel acted lawfully and appropriately to a "hostile attack" from "armed enemies."

As it turns out the president and CEO of the firm is Mark Penn, who is also the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Think of him as Hillary's Karl Rove. From The Nation:

[P]erhaps the most important figure in the [Clinton] campaign is her pollster and chief strategist, Mark Penn, a combative workaholic. Penn is not yet a household name, but perhaps he should be. Inside Hillaryland, he has elaborately managed the centrist image Hillary has cultivated in the Senate. The campaign is polling constantly, and Penn's interpretation of the numbers will in large part decide her political direction.

Yet Penn is no ordinary pollster. Beyond his connections to the Clintons, he not only polls for America's biggest companies but also runs one of the world's premier PR agencies [Burson-Marsteller]. This creates a dilemma for Hillary: Penn represents many of the interests whose influence candidate Clinton--in an attempt to appeal to an increasingly populist Democratic electorate--has vowed to curtail. Is what's good for Penn and his business good for Hillary's political career? And furthermore, can she convincingly claim to fight for the average American with Penn guiding strategy in her corner?

...Burson-Marsteller is hardly a natural fit for a prominent Democrat. The firm has represented everyone from the Argentine military junta to Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which thousands were killed when toxic fumes were released by one of its plants, to Royal Dutch Shell, which has been accused of massive human rights violations in Nigeria. B-M pioneered the use of pseudo-grassroots front groups, known as "astroturfing," to wage stealth corporate attacks against environmental and consumer organizations. It set up the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris to fight tobacco regulation in the early 1990s. Its current clients include major players in the finance, pharmaceutical and energy industries. In 2006, with Penn at the helm, the company gave 57 percent of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates.

Private security firms like Blackwater have been implicated in human-rights violations like Abu Ghraib. From Amnesty International:

...credible allegations of contractor involvement in serious human rights violations – including participation by contractors in the Abu Ghraib tragedy – have emerged, yet Bush administration officials apparently have made virtually no effort to hold contractors accountable or compensate victims. Even though reporting of crimes is basically voluntary by the companies, serious allegations of human rights violations have surfaced.

Civilians working for private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan are alleged to have committed serious incidents of abuse including assault, torture and sexual abuse, some of which occurred at Abu Ghraib prison. While reports of alleged incidents of abuse by civilians have been forwarded to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Eastern Virginia, there have been no convictions and only one indictment, though at least 20 cases were forwarded by the Department of Defense and the CIA to the Department of Justice since the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan. In addition, according to press reports, there have been hundreds of incidents of private security contractors firing at Iraqi civilians and even U.S. military personnel.

The question I have for you is this: How can we ask our elected officials to demand accountability in such important ethical issues like torture, which goes against the grain of everything America is supposed to stand for, when their most trusted advisors are profiting from it?

UPDATE: Since the Associated Press story broke, Penn explains: "It was a temporary
assignment based on a relationship that has concluded."

I would place money on the bet that part of the relationship ending is because of an increasing amount of media attention.

I called the Clinton campaign's press office to get some clarification on Mark Penn and his firm's relation to Blackwater. I left a message with my name and question with the receptionist. I never got a response back.

Let's just call this one, "From Whitewater to Blackwater."